Since becoming a therapist in 2012, I have consistently struggled to replicate in my personal life what I preach in my professional life. While we go through lots of training on how to help others and how to recognize our own limitations as therapists, the lessons of self-care preached in graduate school are often trite, vague, and incomplete. I think the main reason for this is not a lack of importance but rather an acknowledgement that the care needs of each and every one of us is so individualized and unique to personal context that global statements about what is “good self-care” can rarely be made.
This piece is not meant to focus on the fact that your therapists are falling apart. Instead, I want to elucidate the fact that we are complex people who both struggle through our own personal work and help you through your own emotional work which we may see in a different, more nuanced fashion. I have struggled with mental health from a young age, with my first depressive symptoms emerging in middle school and my ADHD (diagnosed much later in college) already raging strong. I think I was a difficult child and even if I wasn’t, I very much envisioned myself as such. That perspective of the gifted and talented individual who could produce phenomenal work at times and who internally was plagued with doubt, low self-esteem, and frustration at a lack of consistency, has never really left my thoughts. Instead, it has emerged as a variable self-perception, of a crumbling person in one breath and a towering example of personal and professional achievement in the next. The contrast batters my sense of self like waves, robbing me of a safe self-image to proceed from.
In the absence of a stable self-image, my teenage and early twenties self never imagined personal, financial, and emotional stability. I viewed myself as chronically ill, functional on the outside but rotting from within with the knowledge that eventually the façade would give way. Recently, I have begun to consider a different perspective, that the crumbling and the façade are equally valid. When I am functional and in the moment, being present and celebrating myself is as important as engaging in the automatic negativity that plagues me when my symptoms become too much and overwhelm me for weeks or months on end. It is important to note that these changes and realizations have not emerged within epiphanies but rather behavioral changes that I struggle chronically to maintain. Sleep difficulties, motivation to start tasks, and keeping up with administrative tasks are concerns that continue to crop up and are only managed with great difficulty. However, for the first time in my life, they are being consistently managed. My depressive episodes last days or a few weeks rather than months at a time. My anxieties can be challenged internally, and I am able to force myself to start the grind of putting the pieces of myself back together.
“Eli give us advice! Tell us how to accomplish this!” you may be thinking. The truth is, I don’t have any, not in the way you’re asking for. I do not recommend some magic formula of eating this much, sleeping this many hours, working in this way, or exercising so many times per week. Because honestly, the numbers don’t matter as much as the willingness to engage in your livelihood and moving towards change. Instead, I offer a different perspective. Maybe the rotting is necessary to create the dark fertile soil that provides opportunities for growth. Maybe the struggle is constantly a struggle and never becomes easier. But maybe if you sit in these realities, parts of you change and become more resilient. And this change comes not in the form of a therapeutic flash of insight but a slow insidious growth, as silent and as powerful as the rot was before.
Being human is difficult. All of us struggle with things, both internal and external. But the struggling is part of what being human is. The struggle along with moments of joy, sorrow, rage, fear, contentment, and surprise. Do not rob yourself of the experience in the movement towards perfection. Best is an empty, unachievable concept that only serves to tear apart any sense of self-satisfaction that you have built for yourself. Rather than best, maybe it is ok to step away from perfect and move towards an incremental, almost imperceptible amount of growth and stability, particularly if all you’ve ever known is a sense of falling apart.
My final words will be brief. It is okay if you think you do not have progress, change, or growth within you. You can stay in the muck and be where you are as long as you need. Revel in your grief or trauma or illness if it subsumes your entire perspective. But if you look for it, I imagine you just might see a little bit of positive change, a bit of resilience or strength, existing within the miasma of daily life. Because in being alive, there is always some part of us that is growing and not rotting as that is the very nature of life itself.