Is therapy a bit…selfish?
On several occasions clients have said to me that they felt psychotherapy was a ‘bit self indulgent’. It’s an interesting term, as I associated self-indulgence perhaps with a shopping spree, cream cakes or watching an extra episode of Netflix but not really with psychotherapy. Yet when I asked my clients to elaborate I have received quite similar responses; that they sometimes felt in comparison to other people, their problems weren’t really that grave to warrant psychotherapy, especially when you look at things objectively. So this led me to think about what they meant by this. I then came to wonder how these thoughts about objectivity and self-indulgence might relate to one another.
malign and benign objectivity
I then thought about two opposing elements of objectivity. Objectivity can be benign if it helps us to make important critical decisions about what we do and allow us to reflect critically and make judgements. However, the obverse, more malign aspect of objectivity can easily become a stick to beat oneself with. Especially when it comes to emotional/ psychic suffering. It often goes along these lines: 'OK, I have a problem and I'm suffering, but my suffering isn't valid because objectively it's nothing really to worry about. After all I'm not going to die because of it am I?' This is the malign objective part of the self speaking, that feels they have taken up a course of 'indulgent' therapy or ‘navel gazing’. This kind of dismissive attitude also really destroys our capacity to create: painting a picture or singing a song also becomes an ‘indulgence’ as it does not pay the mortgage or bring in business.
the tyranny of ‘objectivity’
The ‘indulgent therapy’ phenomena can become so extreme that our subjective experience itself can start to feel like 'self indulgence' and is very much the loser in the process: The subjective self then gives up and says: ‘My thoughts don't really matter unless they can be verified/ signed off’ by the ‘objective’ boss.
In a psychotherapy session a client might speak from this part of themselves by stating that a friend had said that therapy is a ‘lot of hot air isn’t it?’ and it made them think we have been making a big deal out of what he/she experienced in therapy sessions. Here the colleague takes on the projected role of the malign objective self and the subjective self again is hurt and minimises his/her experience to defend against further attack. The subjective self then recoils and retreats to his/her shell. This example sadly speaks to the human capacity to minimise psychic pain to protect the subjective self. After all, when we twist an ankle and are in agony we do not think 'oh, objectively this pain is really nothing as it's not serious.' We also wouldn't think about how 'indulgent' we were when we visited the GP about it. The twisted ankle may not have been as serious as a broken leg but it really hurts all the same when we walk on it. Yet with our emotions this does not apply.
The tyranny of objectivity can sabotage our ability to flourish as we begin to mistrust our subjective experience and start to second guess everything we do. Culturally too this message is reinforced by a capitalist-realist society that is ‘evidence based’, wants ‘key performance indicators’ and ‘benchmarks of success’ which are all weapons of the scrutinising, malign aspect of the objective self.
the ‘indulgence’ of the subjective self
Working through the ‘indulgent therapy’ phenomena in psychotherapy sessions can be challenging, yet rewarding as it is an opportunity to give some space to subjective relating again. From my experience of working with clients who experience this painful and self punishing dynamic, I have found that when they tell me that they think therapy is indulgent, it becomes a way of warding off feeling this vulnerability again by turning the malign objective self against the subjective self. Any expression of the authentic, subjective self cannot be authentic unless it has the stamp of approval of objectivity. The subjective self as a standalone part of a person is considered an indulgence in this scenario.Psychotherapy then becomes the 'enemy' and is painted as ‘indulgent’ as its aim is conversely to give voice and compassion to the subjective self to allow it to speak again without fear of dismissal or reprisal.
psychotherapy and the ‘alliance’ of the selves
In its guise as the one who 'verifies', this element of the 'objective' self becomes highly persecutory and superior. It is the judge; the one that 'knows.' This is a replay of relational micro-traumas where the subjective self felt dismissed, invalidated or abused but could not bear to think about it and now the person is unconsciously using the objective against the subjective self so that it remains right where it always was.
In psychotherapy sessions first of all it is important to explore with gentle curiosity the parts of the self which feel 'indulgent' or not 'objectively verifiable' and to create a space where the subjective self feels safe enough to express his/her feelings and the thoughtful, supportive side of the objective self is nurtured. As relational trauma of this nature is often embedded over many years, it is therefore a process which takes time, but can really help to restore balance and alliance between the subjective and the objective selves. It is important then that each ‘part’ of the self is given space to express what they feel. This nurturing of reflection and non-judgement consequently enables the benign part of the objective self to become more prevalent and its thinking, evaluative and reflective aspects act as an antidote to its sabotaging and criticising counterparts. The malignant objective self then can take a walk and look for someone else to bully. Most importantly, this allows the subjective self to express itself again without having to nervously pass the checkpoints of the inner world. A new relationship with ‘self-indulgence’ is then established as just like ‘selfishness’ psychotherapy allows us to reframe our relationship to these concepts and see the positive and negative aspects of them. Psychotherapy provides the ‘wrong’ kind of self-indulgence for a capitalist society as it aims to provide care and kindness to the wounded narcissistic self. This is not conducive to maintaining such a society which contrasts with the ‘right’ kind of self indulgences which itself provides and perpetuates (through advertising social media etc) and which needs to keep the wounded narcissistic self where it is and to remain a consumer of.