Recently a few people have been asking me about my opinion on self-therapy. Self-therapy is when a person decides to attempt to fix their problems on their own without any assistance from a mental health professional (defined as a person who provides therapy as their profession). When it comes to the intentions behind self-therapy, I can find nothing to object to, as it is a desire for self-improvement and self-improvement is virtuous activity. However, self-therapy is still a path fraught with obstacles and potential dangers. While I could compile a longer list of potential pitfalls for those attempting self-therapy, I have decided to focus on three in particular here. I have chosen these three because, when considering what skills one needs to have in order to succeed at self-therapy, these three are probably the most valuable:
2. A willingness to experience emotional pain/discomfort
Unfortunately, these are not common traits to have by chance alone. If you are missing just one of these traits, then self-therapy is going to be a pointless or even counter-productive exercise no matter how hard you try.
Consider the first point of self-honesty. Self-honesty is the capacity to be truthful to yourself about your beliefs and feelings. For example, many people like to tell themselves they are doing better than they actually are: the alcoholic who tells himself he can quit at any time and the controlling manipulator who tells herself she’s just trying to help people out. These lies that people tell themselves are common and detrimental to any progress in self-improvement. How can one improve oneself if one doesn’t acknowledge the problems they actually have?
Most dangerous of all is that a person who lies to themselves might be telling themselves they don’t need help from anyone else and therefore they don’t need to see a therapist. If you are self-honest, you will say to yourself that you have this trait. However, if you are not self-honest, then you will also say that you have this trait. So it becomes a problem: do you really have self-honesty or are you just lying to yourself? How do you know?
Furthermore, if you don’t believe you have self-honesty, well, then you’re admitting you need help in learning this skill, which is the kind of help a therapist can provide by cross examining your beliefs and pointing out contradictions- especially contractions between what one says and what one does. It is often uncomfortable and frustrating having to constantly question yourself and so it is more efficient time-wise to hire a therapist to help you with this task, kind of like having a spotter at the gym looking out for you to check that you have the right technique.
A willingness to experience emotional pain/discomfort
This brings us to the second point: Therapy is uncomfortable and sometimes painful work. The most difficult part is often getting in touch with the feelings one avoids. Feelings like pain, disappointment, terror, sadness, guilt, shame, loneliness, despair, grief, and regret. Experiencing these difficult emotions is often necessary at some point during the healing process. Voluntarily pushing oneself to experience discomfort goes against the natural instinct to avoid painful experiences, so having a therapist to encourage you, and sometimes even nudge you into these uncomfortable feelings helps to push one’s self-improvement along faster than it would have been otherwise. A therapist can also help you to cope with these unpleasant feelings, which might be overwhelming and difficult to get through on your own.
Another issue with this is that sometimes the opposite is true: sometimes people are too willing to inflict pain and torment onto themselves. They want to hurt themselves and see self-punishment as a means of “self-improvement” when self-punishment is unnecessary and counterproductive at best and self-destructive at worst. There are literally thousands of ways one can hurt oneself but only a handful of these methods are actually therapeutic.
Consider the surgeon: The surgeon can open up a broken joint and repair the damage inside. The surgeon will hurt you in the process of fixing your problem, but at the same time, the surgeon cannot be reckless in their procedure. They must only cut certain areas and they must be very careful. Could you perform surgery on yourself? In your state of self-ignorance, would you know which pains are helpful and which are a hindrance? Having someone experienced and knowledgeable in self-work like a therapist would help save a lot of time and unnecessary pain.
Finally, self-consciousness is probably one of the most difficult personality traits to have if you are suffering from an emotional trauma. It makes spending time around other people uncomfortable. Not everyone has this trait in sufficient intensity for it to help them along towards self-improvement, but who would want such a uncomfortable trait?
It’s very hard to see the value in being self-conscious until you have actually gone some way through self-knowledge and can see just how valuable it is to be able to imagine how you come across to others and to monitor your own thoughts and feelings. Once you have correctly identified your own emotions, accepted them, and know where the boundaries lie, self-consciousness changes from a crippling condition of social awkwardness into a powerful capacity for intimacy and self-expression.
If you don’t have self-consciousness, then you need someone to reflect back at you how you come across to others. If you do have it, but suffer from being overwhelmed easily by emotions, then you will need some emotional support before you can be stable enough to reap its benefits on your own because self-consciousness is overwhelming and confusing until you can at least exercise some self-regulation of your emotions. It’s hard to pay close attention to yourself and your behaviours when you’re in psychological distress. Often the biggest obstacle for the person trying to overcome a past of abuse and/or neglect is over-stimulated emotions. A therapist is like having a friend who knows when you’ve had too much to drink and takes you back home and helps you to sober up when you’ve gone too far. You may be in for a rough landing either way, but that friend/therapist will help soften that landing for you.
If you are missing just one of these traits, you are unlikely to make much progress in self-therapy. The lack of self-honesty will prevent you from seeing your real problems and what your priorities should be. The lack of willingness to experience uncomfortable feelings will make processing trauma impossible. Feelings of grief and pain are essential elements of the healing process. If you lack self-consciousness, it is almost impossible to know how you come across to other people and what behaviours and attitudes you might need to modify in order to improve yourself.
So after considering what traits that are needed for self-therapy, the take-home message from this is that, by all means, attempt self-therapy if you want to, but keep in mind the limitations and inefficiencies of this process, especially if you are one of those people who is missing one or more of those three traits. A good therapist can save you a lot of time by providing guidance towards reaching the key milestones. Be aware that there are some risks to doing self-therapy, if only because you might spend a lot of time going nowhere fast and wasting the precious time you have for your life. You might make progress in self-therapy, but it is unlikely to be as rapid as it would be in guided therapy.