Thoughts From The Couch – True to your Self or selfish

For some, part of therapy is learning who they are – re-connecting to lost parts – gaining a greater understanding of their values, wants and needs and taking care of themselves, perhaps for the first time. Some of my clients have little or no understanding of what it actually means to know or take care of themselves, physically, intellectually, emotionally or spiritually and therapy is an opportunity to explore what that looks like and what was lacking in their childhood that prevented them from learning this fundamental skill. On the other side, I work with clients for whom care for themselves has entailed having no consideration for anyone else, no matter the impact, leaning on quotes such as “to thine own self be true” as an efficacious way of living.

Throughout modern and ancient history, being true to oneself has been promoted as a favourable virtue by philosophers, authors and artists alike. I wonder about the potential downside of aspiring to live only true to ourselves as surely, in that there is the assumption that everyone is aspiring to live or is living a life that is a good one. We only need to read the papers, listen to the news and look around us to see that this is not always the case.

So much of my work is supporting, nurturing and embracing the concept of a strong sense of self and healthy self-esteem. Along with that I champion my clients to become clear on their values as well as their wants and needs but am at the same time conscious that there is a very fine line between self-care, self-knowledge and empowerment and selfishness. Too much self-care has the tendency to make us selfish, whereas too much self-sacrifice and focus on others can turn us into a martyr or victim.

Many times I hear clients talk about feeling invisible in the world as their focus, ways of living and thinking – their sense of self and validation is based on someone other than themselves. On the other side, I have worked with clients who have lived what they have considered a life being true to themselves and who, on reflection, are filled with shame and remorse seeing that the life that they have lived has not only caused themselves great harm but often those around them as well. 

In a world where there is good and evil, self-destructive and destructive behaviours and moral codes – or not – perhaps for all of us it comes down to being aware in any given moments of the choices we are making. How do we find the balance between being authentic and true to ourselves whilst accepting that we live in community which entails living in relationship to others and as such it is not all about us all of the time. One aspect of becoming self-aware is being able to keep in our mind’s eye our own wants and needs and treat them with as much consideration as the wants and needs of others. There will always be times when what we want or need takes precedent over another just as it works the other way round. As there is nothing set in stone, each of us has to find our own way but what we do know is that if we lean too far either way problems will arise.

When we seek to be true to ourselves, we need to pay careful attention to our inner voices as at any moment there are usually several at play. Do we listen to the voice that takes us on the downward spiral of the misguided idea that we need to put ourselves before all others or do we listen to the one that reminds us that being part of this world entails inclusivity –  us developing respect and tolerance for others and their wants and needs as well as our own? Do we get led to our true self or our selfishness, and how do we decide what is in balance along with being the person we aspire to be?

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