Therapy is a form of self-care

My oldest has been going to therapy for a few months and has had a great experience with it so far and says everybody needs therapy. He’s paying out of his own pocket to see an out-of-network provider and I can see that it’s already helping him, especially with anxiety.

I haven’t previously had great experiences with therapists, but considering that it’s one of my top two possible future career paths, I still believe in the value of the field.

So now I have to put my money where my mouth is, except not really. We’ve met our maximum out-of-pocket already for the year and everything in-network is covered at 100 percent now. My insurance actually covers therapy; our previous insurances for more than a decade had not. The specific psychologist I want to see is actually in network, which means I have no valid reason not to go.

Since we’ve hit our max out of pocket for the year, I’m also doing something that scares me a lot: going to see a cardiologist again. My mom had her heart attack at just eight years older than I am now and I’m afraid of finding out how much I’m at risk. I’m afraid of having to make changes. But I’m more afraid of having a heart attack, so I’m not running away from it anymore.

The thing that’s weird about seeking therapy now, though, is that this is the first time I will have ever seen a therapist when I wasn’t depressed or in a crisis.

My depression is well-managed by medication. I’ve trained my brain enough that I don’t often feel anxiety or have panic attacks like I once did. I’m already working so much on trying to become a better person and establish boundaries and keep my emotions under control.

In fact, before I called my insurance to find out if the out-of-pocket maximum applied to mental health providers, I had decided maybe I’d be fine without it if it wasn’t covered.

But it is, so I literally have no good reason to avoid it. And I want to keep working on myself. Going to therapy is strictly an act of self-care.

And really, even though I’m not depressed or in crisis and all my relationships are good, I can still come up with things to talk about.

Like the fact that my husband has cancer.

Like the fact that I’m officially disabled and that means I may have to put some of my dreams permanently on the shelf.

Like the fact that my kids are all adults or nearly so and I don’t know how I’ll adjust to the fact that my primary role of the past 21 years is slowing down.

Like the fact that I still miss my friend even though I was right to walk away.

Like the fact that I have a career that keeps me isolated but my health leaves me few alternatives.

Like some issues from my upbringing that are still affecting me even if I’ve acknowledged them.

I’m sure I’ll find things to discuss and I’m sure I’ll benefit from it. Even therapists go to therapy themselves and they know a lot more about how to fix themselves than I do.

Just because I’m not in crisis doesn’t mean I have an excuse to avoid it. In fact, I’m actually looking at it as something I’m doing for self-care. I’ve also been invited by a friend to go to yoga and I think I’m going to do that, too. Self-care isn’t bubble baths and pedicures; it’s doing things that are good for you even if they’re not necessarily easy.

It’s about believing that you have a right to pursue things that better yourself, even if it inconveniences others. Especially as mothers, we’re taught to put ourselves last. Putting myself first feels so selfish, even though I know my family will benefit from me being my best. The fact is that I’m not as needed as much as I think I am, and that’s ultimately a good thing. Surely they can spare me a few hours a week.

It’s all about wanting to be the best version of myself that I can be. Even if it challenges me, even if it pushes me outside my comfort zone, I have to do stuff that’s healthy for me.

Now I just have to keep telling myself I believe that and not look for excuses to opt out. It’s sometimes hard to believe I have a right to do things just for myself. I think that’s another topic for therapy, too.

Embracing your shadow

I’ve mentioned a time or fifty that I’ve been doing a lot of work on improving myself over the past couple of years. I discovered that there’s actually a name for what I was already intuitively doing: shadow work.

The concept of shadow work is based on the teachings of Carl Jung and says that essentially, we all have a shadow side. That represents all of our demons, the things that cause us shame. You have to embrace the dark side of yourself and own up to everything bad within you in order to deal with it.

Most people don’t want to do this. It’s painful and ugly at times to confront the fact that you are not, in fact, always a good person. We don’t want to admit that sometimes we just do shitty things, often completely unconsciously, operating out of our shadow selves.

It’s also at the root of many addictions, the failure to acknowledge our bad traits because we fear they’re too bad to be confronted. It’s easier to numb them to try to avoid feeling them, which ironically often causes more shame and repeats the cycle.

When you start working on recognizing your dark side, you become more vulnerable. You understand that everybody else has a dark side too, so you are neither no better nor no worse than anyone else. Their shame may have different roots or be about different things than yours. But they are all essentially our “shadow selves,” the parts of ourselves that we hope no one else will notice because we think that they’re just so horrible and unlovable.

The truth is that once you start to confront your dark side, people don’t always know how to deal with it. It’s sort of the same premise of the movie 8 Mile (for which I broke my general rule of not recommending R-rated movies for my seventh grader and still think it was a smart decision.) The premise is that if you admit your flaws, no one can use them against you. It’s sort of like taking the viewpoint, “I know I am; so what?” It disarms and defuses a lot of what people throw at you.

Some of my particular flaws are that I can be kinda judgmental, have too much unearned pride in my intellect, have issues with rich people that are based less on envy than on shame about how I grew up. The way I grew up, I came to believe that wealth always equaled selfishness and I’m still working on overcoming that.

Call me on these things and I won’t get mad. Hell, I’ll probably beat you to the punch by admitting them myself. It’s pretty shitty to use them against me if I’ve already admitted them and I might be hurt if it’s said with the intent to hurt me. But you’re also not telling me anything I don’t already know.

Shame and self-loathing are at the root of most of our shadow selves. We incorrectly think that everybody else has it more together than we do, that we’re the only ones who secretly believe that our deepest self is unworthy and unlovable. But a lot of people–maybe even most people, unless they had exceptionally enlightened parents or have been through a lot of therapy—are battling the monsters inside themselves, convinced they’re the only ones.

Worse yet, most of us learned a lot of them from our upbringing, meaning that we’re still trying to work through issues our parents didn’t heal in themselves. And we unconsciously often pass them down to our own children as well until we face the issues and work on them. Often this cycle is several generations deep.

Some people who aren’t working on confronting their own issues will even try to project theirs onto you, accusing you of the same things they don’t like in themselves. It can seem irrational until you realize they’re trying to make you carry what they’re too uncomfortable with in themselves.

You can’t truly love yourself until you confront your demons and your worst traits head-on. It’s not something that’s a one-time process, either: you may think you’re finally getting your shit together, only to have something crop up again that reminds you that you still have more work to do.

Otherwise, if you refuse to confront your dark side and just try to be positivity and light, you’re essentially slapping a coat of paint over the ugliness. When it starts to show through again, you either feel shame that you failed to be positive enough or else you just add an extra coat of paint.

None of this work feels particularly good, which is why most people avoid it. They try to tell themselves they’re good people overall but deep down, they don’t really believe it. That’s because confronting your shadow side takes an enormous amount of bravery and self-awareness.

But once you start to do the work, those feelings of shame and self-pity and jealousy and judgment gradually start to become less prominent. When you notice those feelings pop up, you can recognize them for what they are and give compassion to yourself and others.

Yes, you’re almost certainly broken. It’s the natural way of things. But whether or not you remain stuck there is a choice. When you’re brave enough to look at your dark side and realize that everyone has one, you start relating to other people in a healthier way. That doesn’t mean they’re always ready for it, especially if they’re not doing the same work on themselves. Wish them peace and try to detach.

Your happiness and self-worth come from facing and accepting every part of yourself. When you begin to have that, everything changes. You can break generational cycles of unhealthy habits, secrets, and shame. You start to understand that most of the negative ways other people behave are not about you but about their shadow side running the show.

But first, you have to admit that you have a dark side and be willing to confront it. Only then can you truly begin to heal both yourself and your relationships.