Please put on your own mask…

…before assisting others in putting on their masks.

I just got off the phone with Nina. Nina Hartley feels like my big sister who I happen to have hot incestuous interactions with from time to time. She’s walked parts of my road for far more years than I have, and yet sometimes her pervy kid brother surprises her with a bit of insight or a mirror to her own journey that it’s pretty darn cool.

She was putting me in my place. I called her stressed out about my inability to help all of the world. That there are some people I just can’t seem to help, that it’s black holes (or in her words, bottomless sewer pipes) of pain, need, anger or frustration. I’ve been brewing with this for the last month or so.

Nina was pretty straight and to the point. Stop it. Set boundaries and limits. Safeword and then get the hell out if your safeword is not respected.

Okay, that last part was my language, not hers.

And then it hit me. I have to put on my own mask before assisting others in putting on their masks.

On airplanes they tell you that you can not put on the masks of others first because you need to be breathing oxygen first before you can help others breathe. In the world of being a lifegaurd, you can’t let someone who is drowning pull you down, becuase then two people are pulled under.

I feel like I am being pulled under. Not in some grandeous please save me sort of way. In that awareness sort of way. There are individuals who I just… well… can’t help. They may think I can, want me to, and splash around in the water screaming “save me.” I swim out, and they grab on to some fault or fear or truth or joy of mine with full force. They begin to grab tighter, as I start to slip under the waves.

I am realizing how hard I am splashing, trying to stay afloat.

The metaphors are getting mixed, and you know what, it’s okay.

What is hard is that I feel a lot of shame about not being able to (a) fix them (b) have the capacity to help everyone who asks me for it (c) needing my own energy to help myself. I feel shame about not knowing how to draw firm limits and boundaries for myself and my capacity. I have shame.

And dear friendly readers, please know that “you shouldn’t be ashamed” does not help. I do feel shame, and should/should not feels like an invalidation of my emotional experience.

So here I am with my shame, trying to put on my own mask.

I am trying to figure out how to discern what I can give. I know this past weekend I overdid it. 4 classes, 1 panel, 1 reading, and demo bottoming for the fantastic Danielle Dv8, and forgetting to eat until Jerry dragged me away to eat pizza. Saturday was the most work I think I have ever done in one day (except maybe when on staff at a Dark Odyssey event) during my career (all the above except 1 class was in one day), and this was only my second conference back on the circuit. I overdid it, and yet I survived. So there is this part of me that screams “but LOOK, you SURVIVED, so you CAN DO IT!”

I hear you desperate screaming self who wants to be a super-hero. I hear you. I hear this part of me and its need to do more, reach more, help more, touch more lives, live more. Voice of the more inside me, I hear you.

I speak back now as the voice of eagle medicine, view over the big picture voice, the one who gets to be in this body for the long run voice. This voice says that if I don’t set boundaries and limits now, I will be drained dry and be a shell of my full SELF. I say now “I deserve to give greatness over the long run, the world deserves me to give greatness over the long run.”

So here I sit, shame self, screaming self, big picture self. We are having a conversation.

Being my own husband is making me stop and pause. Would I push an external husband into the world to be drained in the ways I have been being drained, work as hard as I have been working amidst my health recovery, would I… no. No I would not. I would ask him when he will be slowing down, bringing him a cup of soup on the days it is hard. So why am I so hard on this husband called I AM?

I deserve more than double standards and being latched onto by those that do not mean to drain me so. I can tell they are unaware. I find myself thinking again the questions of “Are You Hungry?” That the way a handful of individuals function operates in my energetic and etheric body as a pump that empties me out so much faster than others do. And this is not their fault. It is how we happen to be compatible with each other. Their fangs drain deeper than others do, based on the density of this thing called ME. They are not bad people…

and neither am I.

I am not a bad person for acknowledging that some individuals, or types of encounters, or specific events, drain me faster than others. And unlike the proposal from another sexuality educator years ago that I should ask for “hazard pay,” I have to instead say no.

So how does someone sitting with shame say no?

I reach for the mask. I stare at it. I try to lift it up to my face.

I try, starting today, to love me and all my needs. Because I deserve to have needs. Beyond my NEEDS.

One of my habits in the world is to put others whom I value on any level before my own needs, wants and desires. NEEDS (such as air, food, water, a place to stay) are often put first, but not always. I have often believed that the NEEDS of others outweigh my lower-level needs. And when someone says to me that they NEED something, my brain has historically made the assumption that that NEED fits in the same category as air, food, water, and a roof over their head. It has only been very recently that I have finally started to break down need and NEED when hearing it from others, as well as discerning my needs compared to my wants/desires.

In my own lexicon:

NEEDS are things we need for core survival.
needs are things we need to be able to function fully.
wants are things that would help me move fully as an individual in the world.
desires are the things that would make me very happy.

When NEEDS, needs, wants and desires come together, I thrive.

I have had times when I thrive, connected fully to myself, deity, and the world. Present in the place of love and being LOVE, embracing my dharma in a huge hug, working in the world as I am called to do, and soaring as I do so. I thrive.

But to thrive I need to discern that I in fact have needs. I know I have NEEDS, but sometimes knowing the needs level has been hard for me. And if it hard for me to see it in myself, it makes sense that I have had challenges discerning between the four in others.Instead, I morph, ever the shapeshifter, into what they need to fulfill all four, because I heard them say they “need me” and what I heard was “what you have I NEED.” They need it for survival. And I can help them survive. And if I can help them survive without killing me, of course I will, I think to myself.

But shapeshifting is hard work. It pushes me into a thousand forms that are me and more, and can leave me disconnected from the core that is I AM. And without I AM fully present, I do not thrive. And if I do not thrive, I do not deliver the best of myself into my own life or the world.

I have joked that I have become an avatar. There is Lee. And then there is Lee Harrington, the avatar, the many-faced mask of teacher/guru/spirit worker/performer. Lee Harrington is projected onto, has dream-walked, has become something that can exist in the world and beyond me. It has become Kermit the Frog that can stand alone without Jim Henson.

This avatar is mistaken for me, for those who project their fears, truths, hopes, desires and processing onto Lee Harrington. I am grateful that Lee Harrington exists for them to examine their fears, truths, hopes, desires and processing with and through. It is important, and I am glad it exists. But when folks want to latch onto Lee and drink when they are craving Lee Harrington… it has left me shameful that Lee Harrington is not all I am.

But I am not on stage. I am human. I am a person who NEEDS to eat, shit, and love.

Nina said I need to work through this shame. She did about twenty years ago, or thought she did at least, until an unintentional vampire came into her world. She bled, bled, and then realized she was bleeding.

I am bleeding. I am thrashing in the waves.

Historically I would have said that I have gills, so I will swim underwater. And I do, and I can, swim in the stress.

But I will not thrive there. I am more than my merman self, though I value my gills so profoundly. It is an amazing skill to have amidst days like Saturday, where I swam, and for moments did in fact thrive in the water.

And yet, the shore calls.

The shore calls.

So I lift up my arms above the waves, and see the eyes, see the eyes.
I sit with the shame.
I cry and acknowledge my capacity.
I breathe deeply.
and I work on it… one day at a time.

Today I start by saying:

I can’t answer every personal email (gods, that SUCKS to say).
I can’t do every event that wants me (I am limiting myself to one big event a month, and one smaller thing, here forward).

There, I said it out loud. And the shame. Oh, my shame self, it’s screaming. The screaming self says “but you COULD if only you tried HARDER.” And the Eagle medicine self… nods, and whispers to himself that some day I will have the courage to narrow it down further.

But not today, and that is okay, and he feels no need to forgive me because he sees how hard I am working.

I kiss my husband on the lips, and curl up for a while.

I go to bed early. Paperwork and emails can wait until tomorrow. I need it.


Lee Harrington

Lee Harrington is an internationally known sexuality, relationships, and personal authenticity educator. Having taught in all 50 states and in 6 countries, he brings a combination of playful engagement and thoughtful academic dialogue to a broad audience. An award-winning author and editor on gender, sexual, and sacred experience, his books include “Traversing Gender: Understanding Transgender Journeys,” and "Sacred Kink: The Eightfold Paths of BDSM and Beyond," among many other titles. He has been blogging online since 1998, and been teaching worldwide since 2001. Welcome to his world, and your chance to expand your mind and heart alike.


  1. I am glad you’ve said these things. I have a couple of thoughts to add.

    1. There are people who exist in a state of needing help and, unconciously or not, are actually content in that place. They don’t genuinely want help, what they need, what their narrative needs, is for their lives to suck. Attempting to help them isn’t even assuaging a need for drama/energy, it is entirely counterproductive.
    2. I have spent time with many versions of you and, as someone who knows you a little bit, I can tell when I am spending time with *trumpet sound* LEE HARRINGTON, TEH AWESOMENESS. Don’t get me wrong, SUPERLEE is nice enough, but I hope you remember that the Lee who just wants me to go away because he is tired or angry, is equally or more fascinating. Personally I prefer a thriving, fullfilled, occasionally grouchy Lee (who doesn’t answer my emails) over Lee-the-cardboard-cutout.

    Remember that the flame burns in all of us and every single time you walk towards thriving you strengthen your connection to it. Remember that the way to live life in the hands of the gods is as a fullfilled being, not a cardboard cut-out.

  2. A dear friend once warned me: “If you give something to everybody who NEEEEEEEEDS you, when the people who matter the most, or the people that you can help the best come to you, and you really WANT to, you will have nothing left to give them.”

    Asrik said it beautifully…and I would add that some people really NEED to be told “no”…regardless of what they want, or imagine that you ought to give them. The Universe can be efficient that way. A well placed “no” serves you both.

    The hardest lesson I ever learned was that those people who swear they will perish without whatever you have to give…always manage to thrive without you, long after they’ve sucked you dry. And some of them, when left with no other choice, actually learn to manage for themselves. Imagine my surprise.

    And I absolutely adore the Lee who will say to me: I cannot handle that many words from you right now. 🙂

  3. I’d hug you but you need your needs fulfilled first. Starting with that bed?
    Sweet dreams.

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