NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Is Self Care Selfish?

As a psychotherapist in New York City, I see many psychotherapy clients who were raised to believe that taking care of themselves makes them selfish people.  They were raised to believe that they should always put other people first.  Often, this was part of the family's religious or spiritual beliefs.  

Being raised to feel that taking care of yourself makes you a selfish person can create a lot of problems later on in life, and this can be challenging to overcome.

Is Self Care Selfish?

Let's look at a fictionalized scenario, which is a composite of many cases with all identifying information changed:

When Beth began therapy, she was in an emotional crisis.  She felt that her life was meaningless and lacked direction.

She was in a long-term relationship with Dan, a man who had a high profile career in the entertainment industry.  Their life together revolved around his work, which involved many social engagements, travel and being in the spotlight much of the time.

When they first met, Beth was a freelance writer who was having a degree of success.  During the first several years, she didn't mind that their lives revolved around his career.  Since she wasn't tied down to a work location and she could work from anywhere, she enjoyed the travel and social activities involved in his work.

As Dan's career took off, Beth discovered that the social aspects were taking over more and more of her  free time, so she had little time to write.  Gradually, she let go of her writing career, with Dan's encouragement.  He told her that he needed her help and support to focus on his success.  He was making a lot of money, and he told her that she didn't need to write any more.  They didn't need her income.

Beth went along with this for while.  But, over time, Beth got tired of "being on" at social engagements to advance Dan's career.  When she tried to tell Dan that, at times, she would prefer to stay home than to go to, yet again, another party where she began to feel that the people boring and the conversations banal, Dan became furious with her.

Dan told Beth that she was being selfish.  After all, he said, she knew all too well that people would wonder why he was showing up by himself.   Why would she want to do anything that would ruin his image?   As far as he was concerned, Beth staying at home wasn't an option.

Beth knew that Dan could be the most kind, generous, charming and warm person when he was happy and got his way.  She also knew that he would become angry and say hurtful, spiteful things when she or anyone else got in the way of what he wanted and felt he deserved. 

So, rather than get into an argument, Beth acceded to Dan's wishes.  She took his arm, smiled and made small talk at the party, as Dan expected her to do, while Dan used his charm to further his career at the party.

All the while, Beth felt she was there in body only.  She felt miserable and her mind was a million miles away.  But, over time, she had attended enough of these social events so that she could fake her way through it.

But this was the start of Beth, who was in her early 30s, feeling that she was just going through the motions and watching her life slip away.  Life felt like a series of meaningless social events where she felt more and more disconnected from her inner world.

If he noticed what was happening to Beth, Dan didn't say anything.  It wasn't until Beth became so depressed that she could barely get out of bed that Dan got angry with Beth again.  He criticized her for being lazy and gaining weight.  He told her to "get a grip" and "get over" feeling sorry for herself.  After all, wasn't he providing her with the kind of life that many people only dream about?

After Dan's tirade, Beth wondered if she was being ungrateful, but she couldn't muster the kind of enthusiasm that Dan felt.  She just wanted to stay home for a change instead of being out all the time with people she didn't know well, didn't care about and who didn't care about her beyond her role as Dan's girlfriend.

It was around that time Beth suspected that Dan was having an affair.  He was staying out unusually late and he was barely paying attention to her when they were at home together.  When they went out to parties, he was attentive to her around other people, but Beth knew it was only an act to impress others.

After a while, Dan stopped insisting that Beth come with him to social events.  She knew that he was probably taking another woman.  She wasn't sure how she felt that her relationship was falling apart or how she felt in general.  

She had been pretending for so long to be happy that she wasn't sure anymore what her feelings were.  This is when she decided to start therapy rather than continuing to slip down into depression.

Beth's family history didn't include any major emotional trauma.  The family was close knit with loving parents.  But one thing stood out:  Her family emphasized taking care of others' needs as being much more important than taking care of one's own needs.  They were involved in local charity work and social causes.  

Beth's parents encouraged her to get a good education.  They also encouraged her to write.  But it was always understood that Beth's educational and writing pursuits should be geared towards social causes and helping others.  There was no emphasis on pursuits for the sake of enjoyment or one's own well-being  To them, this would have been selfish.

So, when Dan told Beth that he needed her to focus on his success, this didn't seem unusual to her.  It was in keeping with how she was raised.

The problem was that, over time, it wasn't meaningful enough for Beth, and she felt alienated from her own inner world.  When she tried to explain this to Dan, she knew he had a hard time understanding it.  He was very extroverted, seemingly without a need to nurture his inner world.  He couldn't understand what Beth meant when she tried to explain that she felt like she was losing herself.  

Dan's attitude was that their life together should be enough for her.  And if Beth was unhappy, as far as he was concerned, it was because she was selfish and unappreciative of all his hard work and what he had given to her.

By the time Beth started therapy, she and Dan were coexisting together.  There was no intimacy of any kind.  

Beth worked hard in therapy to reconnect to her inner emotional world.  We used Somatic Experiencing, a mind-body psychotherapy, to help her gain access to her inner world again.  She also resumed writing and submitting her work for publication. 

Over time, Beth began to realize that she lost her sense of self in order to appease Dan.  She had stopped doing the things which made life meaningful to her.  She realized that these were the things that were part of her taking care of herself and when she let them go, she stopped doing what was essential for her well-being.

When Dan told her that he was leaving her for another woman, Beth felt a mixture of relief and sadness.  She was sad for the love that she and Dan experienced at the beginning of their relationship, but she was relieved to leave behind the life that made her feel so unhappy and detached from herself.

Gradually, as we continued to work together, Beth learned to approach self care with balance.   She also realized that, even though Dan told her that she was selfish, he was actually the one who was being selfish and self centered, and he lacked enough empathy to understand her.

Eventually, she fell in love with a man who was emotionally supportive in a genuine way and who cared about her needs as well as his own.

Getting Help in Therapy
It's easy to slip into a state where you lose sight of the fact that you're not taking care of your own emotional needs--until life seems to lack meaning.

But it's also possible to recover and learn to take care of yourself in meaningful ways with the help of a licensed therapist who specializes in helping clients to live a balanced life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many therapy clients to learn to live meaningful lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.