Barely a day goes by without self care and specifically mental health being talked about in the media. And with this the long-standing taboo around men’s mental health is finally dissipating and more and more men are both willing to talk about their struggles and to admit the benefits they have got from accessing psychotherapy. But is there such a thing as over-indulging in therapy?
Is psychotherapy self care?
In a word ‘no’. If someone were truly capable of self care they would not need to be in therapy.
So what is it then?
Psychotherapy is generally a lengthy process of meeting on a regular basis with a skilled clinician where the focus is on building up a specific type of relationship through which unconscious processes and relational patterns of the patient can be worked through. Many of these stem back to childhood and can end up repeating in the present in maladaptive relationship patterns, however, this does not mean that the purpose or goal of psychotherapy is to treat the patient as a victim and simply blame their parents.
Ultimately, depth psychotherapy is a process of coming to terms with reality, mourning what has been lost and finding a way to build a life of meaning and purpose in that reality – it is about growing up psychologically.
There are plenty of other self-help approaches, some of which may work well alongside traditional psychotherapy, such as developing a mindfulness practice for example, whilst others have no bearing on psychotherapy or may be obstructive to the process. It is through psychotherapy that patients learn to have
a different relationship with themselves and thus learn to self care.
One of the realities of psychotherapy, which in my view mirror the realities of the world, is that there is no one single answer on how to live a life. This is something an individual must discover for themselves and arguably, this is only possible through a suitable childhood environment or failing that, a subsequent therapeutic relationship.
TikTok knows best!
There is a trend which is being amplified by social media to take complex psychological concepts and distil them down into binary positions, which is at best unhelpful and at worst extremely misleading. One of these is the concept of ‘trauma’. Trauma as a term has become ubiquitous in popular culture and has become a substitute for a more nuanced narrative around complex emotions and feelings, as well as being used by some as a ‘trump card’ to play in order to justify a position of entitlement or shut down another’s argument.
Trauma is very real and has both physiological and psychological markers that any clinician worth their salt and training is able to understand, evaluate the degree of trauma and their clinical ability to work with it.
However, what most people in popular culture seem to define as trauma is better described as something evoking a strong feeling – distress, rage, grief etc. These are not trauma responses – they are ordinary human emotions. If someone is regularly having a trauma response – like dissociation – this is a serious mental health
condition and I would strongly suggest they seek psychotherapy.
Human beings are able to become obsessive about almost anything and therefore as a clinician I would focus less on what they are obsessing about and more on whether something is an expression of desire, an interest or an obsession. Self-care practices that are no exception and some people can become obsessive about rather than simply focusing on living a full and meaningful life.
Can self care become obsessive?
Obsessions tend to develop as a defence against underlying anxiety. It is a way and a means to try and gain a sense of control when feeling out of control.
Therefore, if someone is obsessing about some self care ritual at the expense of other healthy elements of their life such as socialising or relaxing, I would suggest that it has ceased to be a healthy focus and is instead being used in the service of trying to manage uncomfortable feelings.
And obsessing about your therapist?
When people first come onto psychotherapy it is not uncommon for them to idealise their psychotherapist somewhat. They may finally feel that they have someone alongside them who really understands them – this is a very powerful feeling and it is therefore understandable that they may ‘wax lyrical’ about their therapist.
The role of a psychotherapist is not to tell someone how to live their life and nor is it to be perfect for the patient. Therefore, if this process of idealisation persists, I would suggest that they are either not in good psychotherapy (the therapist in question is promoting this idealisation and positioning themselves as some sort of ‘guru’) or being in therapy is being weaponised to shut others down on the part of the patient.
Psychotherapy focuses on relationships and those who engage in depth psychotherapy tend to become interested not only in why they do what they do but also in those around them. In other words, it helps people to develop empathy. And when we are able to feel and express empathy we are cognisant and mindful of the experience of others who are in our company.
Can self care become self obsession?
I would suggest that someone who focuses all their time on ‘self care’ and negates the experiences of others in favour of talking about themselves and through weaponising either psychological terms or their actual therapy, is behaving in a narcissistic way.
Narcissistic people are self obsessed and self absorbed and are unable to imagine the mind of another – nor do they care to. Now, paradoxically, the treatment for narcissism is depth psychotherapy, but it takes time and empathy is not developed overnight. And truth be told, relatively few narcissistically structured people present for psychotherapy, though they do often engage in all sorts of pseudo-therapies where their fragile egos will not be exposed.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer –