In Pursuit of the Gentle Self

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Therapy does so many things that to try to sum it up in one sentence seems obtuse and myopic. And as often as we complexify (DEFINITELY a word) a discipline, perhaps all discrete pieces of truth circulate around a unified core axiom. I believe in psychology, we do not have that veracity pegged, so our systems so far seem to reflect¬† an expansion rather than a contraction of ideas. Yet, there is serenity to be found through the pursuit of parsimony, clarity is found in simplicity, and this is never more marked than in the formation of a new counseling relationship. In these early sessions, I must briefly, concisely convey how I treat mental illness and eating disorders so a shared vision of progress can be achieved. In the past I have struggled to fit ¬†concepts that I could spend 10 hours explaining into a manageable, user-friendly brevity. In fact, often I feel like the ideas of Thermodynamic Psychology (ThP) are like the Death Star–I don’t need the whole thing at once, I need the Lego version!

But therapy is a deeply spiritual process, and what is spiritual is always infused with feeling. So instead of asking myself to lecture about my system in a linear logical way, I focus not on what Thermodynamic Psychology IS, but rather on what it FEELS LIKE. This approach not only cuts to the core of the system, but invites a more authentic and holistic unfolding of the counseling bond. To sum up the essence of ThP, my heart turns to the Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, and it is with these words I encapsulate my design.

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

For this article, I will take only the first sentence and describe what it means to me.

Beyond a wholesome discipline…

Sometimes we need to do things that are for the maintenance of our achievement goals, things that are hard or boring, things that are somewhat aversive but in the long run create a value-rich life. For instance, I force myself to eat kale and salmon, go to bed at a reasonable time even though I want to stay up reading Jean-Paul Sartre (Stephen King), drink water even though I might want beer, exercise regularly and take my vitamins (even though the fish oil I take occasionally bursts in my mouth and I spend the next 6 hours gagging). Do healthy stuff. Also, I do things that get me closer to my goals. I have to finish my papers even when I am tired, go to work even though I would rather stay home and play Legos (I have 2 boys so that’s not weird), pay my taxes, take care of my business. I have to clean the house and the cat box, do laundry, cook (bleh) and keep my home homey, etc. even when I might not always feel like it. So a wholesome discipline means conscientiously endeavoring toward one’s achievements while tending to the needs of those around you. In other words, eat your broccoli and be NICE to your sister!

be gentle with yourself.

Amidst all the accomplishments and duties, the hustle-bustle and “to-do lists” of our day is the experiential self, and if we neglect this core element of existence, we suffer. Living gently means showing empathy inward and taking time/energy to engage in process-based experiences that are fun, relaxing, restful, peaceful, spiritual, and enjoyable. Giving yourself permission to nurture priorities that are “just for you” and not outcome-driven, not other-driven, while inviting others to see and respond to your needs in kind…this is being gentle with yourself.

I pride myself on having a firm grasp of the obvious, and in my view, people with eating disorders are not gentle enough with themselves. They drive toward an internalized “self-expendable” goal that toxically eclipses self-nurturing. Kind and empathic self-sustenance is lost, such that a person starts to resent himself for what he needs. Concern for the needs of the self are displaced by self-directed admonishment, beratement, and guilt, and eventually the requirements for rest and restoration start to be seen as a liability and weakness. Eating disorders are about self-deprivation and self-punishment, where monitoring and accountability that may in measured doses be healthy for one’s life runs rampant and overtake the ability to be inwardly gentle. A good therapist will need to hold this hopeful and gentle care for the client until she is ready to claim it as her own. Good therapy is always a journey of love.

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