Taking care of ourselves: Is going to therapy self-indulgent?
The last year is likely to have been one of the most mentally, physically and emotionally demanding years of our lives. However, it’s also provided something that we often wish we had more of: time. We have had more time to reflect on our personal and professional lives, considering how we can improve our mental and physical health without the usual demands of a daily commute or social life.
However, with the pandemic came increased feelings of isolation and a rise in people suffering from anxiety and depression. We have needed mental health support more than ever but, despite the increased need and a collective desire to self-improve, when we think of seeking therapy, terms such as “navel-gazing” or “worried well” often come up.
We take care of our physical health by exercising or eating well but taking care of our mental health is often seen as self-indulgent or self-absorbed.
There is no hierarchy of suffering
There is a belief that other people suffer more than we do. A common theme with my clients is guilt and a minimisation or disregard of difficult feelings. I often hear, “I feel bad taking a slot that someone else could really need” or “I feel like other people have worse problems than I do.”
The author Zadie Smith reflects on these ideas in her book, Intimations, reflecting on the Internet meme of Mel Gibson talking to Jesus as a way of grappling with how we talk about our own suffering during a time of global anxiety. “Suffering is not relative, it’s absolute,” she writes. “Suffering has an absolute relation to the suffering individual - it cannot be easily mediated by a third term like ‘privilege’.”
Everyone’s suffering is real, absolute and valid. There is no hierarchy of suffering, we all suffer differently, whether we are single or married, have children or not or live in the city or the countryside.
It is important we give ourselves permission to express our thoughts, feelings, happiness and pain without agenda, guilt or misunderstanding. We are all allowed to suffer.
The guilt I hear from my clients is often rooted in a set of core beliefs that we have about ourselves, other people and the world. When we were younger did we learn it was OK to be sad and that our parents would look after us? Did we perceive judgement from others when we shared our feelings and we started feeling like we’re being dramatic or too much?
We are all worthy of asking for and receiving help. This can be difficult when we believe other people are worse off than us and, so, we don’t make the appointment on the assumption that we’d be wasting the therapist's time.
The stigma around mental health
The language that is used around mental health is powerful. The often unintentional but unhelpful comments like “aren’t people with depression just sad?” or “stop being dramatic” minimises people’s experiences and contributes to the stigma that then becomes a barrier to people seeking help.
The reasons why we may find it difficult to ask for help are complex and multi-layered; from how we were brought up to the social and cultural constructs that we exist in. The messages embedded in British culture of “keep calm and carry on” or those we may have received from our families of “just get on with it” could contribute to the idea of talking to someone about our problems being seen as indulgent or even selfish.
But humans are hard-wired for connection and, often, what we need the most is to be listened to and understood by another human being. As soon as we are able to give mental health the same attention, importance and value as physical health, and asking for help is seen as a sign of strength instead of weakness, we will all be able to benefit from the powerful and long-lasting changes that therapy can bring.
What is the difference between self-care and self-indulgence?
It can be hard to tell the difference between self-care and self-indulgence. Self-indulgence is something we do to escape our lives, e.g. binge-watching a series to distract ourselves from difficult feelings, shopping to cheer ourselves up or seeking praise from others to define our self-worth.
On the other hand, self-care creates a space where we don’t feel the need to escape. Self-care brings a sustained feeling of contentment, whereas self-indulgence brings a fleeting feeling of happiness.
Self-care is a habit that takes time to develop and involves activities that internally nourish us and make us feel content and present in our minds and bodies. It can be anything from getting enough sleep or reducing alcohol and caffeine consumption to unfollowing triggering people on Instagram.
It can also mean setting appropriate boundaries with others. If we have an inability to say no, for example, it can often lead to feelings of resentment or outbursts of anger as well as losing sight of our own needs. Over time, as we learn to tolerate the anxiety that comes with saying no we will feel more connected to our needs, bringing a greater sense of inner trust. Furthermore, looking after ourselves first means we have a greater capacity to look after others.
How to improve your self-care
There are two useful techniques I use in my practice that are aimed at developing self-care. The first is helping people to develop a self-compassionate voice. Often, we speak to ourselves in a highly critical way or judge ourselves for making mistakes. A useful tool is naming our inner critic. Once we are able to identify the critical voice and realise they are not us, we can begin to develop a more self-compassionate voice. By giving our inner critic a name, they are now separate to us and we can say, “Emily, I don’t want a negative thought, I’d like a kinder, more useful thought.”
The second technique is simple but very powerful. Ask yourself if you’d speak to a friend in the same way. The more we are able to catch ourselves speaking with “I should have” or “if only”, the more we will be able to develop an inner voice that is more supportive.
How can therapy help?
Being in therapy gives us the chance to be seen and heard by another human being who feels real and authentic to us. You won’t be given advice or answers but you will have a space to explore your feelings, to understand relationship issues and to learn how to set boundaries with yourself and others.
Therapy can enable us to find a compassionate voice for ourselves, one that is far from the voice telling us that other people have more serious issues than us, or that talking about ourselves is self-indulgent. Working through feelings, whether it’s a deep-rooted issue or a curiosity about ourselves is a lot easier with someone else than on our own.
Let’s break the cycle of figuring things out by ourselves and work together to end the stigma around going to therapy and talking about our mental health.
Smith, Z. (2020). Intimations: Six Essays. Suffolk: Penguin Random House.