Mother Theresa spent five decades ministering to the poor of Calcutta. For her life of selfless service you would think she would have felt fulfilled, but you would be wrong. In letters she wrote and asked to be burned after her death (but were not), she admitted to her advisors and priests that she felt empty, lost and even tortured. Those were her words. Her advisors said that just showed her closeness to Jesus—that she suffered as he did. That’s one interpretation, but here’s another: She wasn’t filling her own needs, and so she didn’t feel fulfilled.
We’ve been conditioned to hold up the selfless life, the life of sacrificing one’s own needs to help others, as admirable. But what are we really doing when we do this? We are denying ourselves the compassion and love we think it is so admirable to give others.
We’re supposed to be living selfish (in the meaning of self-care) lives; lives of compassionate self-care, not lives of willful self-neglect. If we truly take care of our own needs out of self-love and self-respect, we will have learned compassion for ourselves, which naturally awakens compassion for others, since we will have understood the connection of all things.
So when Mother Theresa admitted that she felt empty and that she continued each day through self-will, she was actually ignoring self-compassion and its fulfilling, connecting aspect. She was left feeling empty, because she was empty.
Like the oxygen mask in the airplane—the one you’re told to put on first before you help someone else—it’s your job to take care of yourself first, because how much are you helping, really, if you’re passed out from lack of oxygen?