Are You Getting Sucked Into The Self-Care Jargon Whirlpool?
Illustration by Mr Michal Bednarski
When Prince Harry poured his guts out to sell Spare earlier this year, there was, broadly, a feeling in The Culture that he was doing something positive. Talking and honesty are good, after all. Yet, there was also a suggestion he was oversharing. And it reminded one newspaper of the “softboi” trope – the be-cardiganed guy you meet on a date who appears sensitive and emotionally mature, but ends up outstaying his welcome in your home highlighting your “trauma responses” and criticising the material your furniture is made from.
Historically, men have, on the whole, found it difficult to identify unresolved trauma and stop being problematic. So, we should celebrate the fact that in 2023 you can access therapy in minutes and meditate on the bus via three different apps. But is there another side of this coin? Is the current self-work culture making some of us a bit… insufferable? Can “too much” therapy and mental-health-themed TedTalks actually legitimise toxic behaviour?
Ironically, we sought professional help to find out. Align your chakras, make yourself a matcha tea and read on to find out if your wellness routine is turning you into Mr Timothée Chalamet in Lady Bird – and what you can do about it if it is.
You win arguments by saying, “That’s just a trauma response, babe”
You follow TherapyJeff on TikTok, you’re going to see Dr Gabor Maté (it’s pronounced “Dr Gaborh Martay”, actually) live next week and you have a subscription to Dr Sam Harris’ Waking Up app. You are a mental-health master. But you misuse your powers. You talk using an infuriating mix of non-violent communication (“So, I’m hearing that you think I haven’t done the washing up this morning. What feelings does that bring up for you?”) and pseudo-psychotherapy jargon (you judge everyone for being a narcissist, an avoidant or enacting some kind of trauma response).
“You [shouldn’t] analyse, unless you’re invited to have a close intimate conversation,” says psychotherapist Ms Susanna Abse. “Don’t prescribe [labels]. They distort what the other person is feeling.”
And, by the way, your judgmental stance has more to do with your own “stuff”. “These distortions come from your own childhood,” Abse says. “A partner might be mistaken for a mother or father – and you repeat these patterns in the here and now. Instead, talk about what you feel, be curious and listen.”
“What most people seem to define as trauma is better described as something evoking a strong feeling. These are ordinary human emotions”
What’s more, you may be misusing the word trauma. “Trauma as a term has become a substitute for a more nuanced narrative around complex emotions and feelings,” says psychotherapist Mr Mark Vahrmeyer. “What most people in popular culture seem to define as trauma is better described as something evoking a strong feeling – distress, rage, grief, etc. These are ordinary human emotions.”
Trauma is the emotional response that one has to a disturbing event. A trauma response is when a coping mechanism that helped you survive your trauma manifests, whether a threat is present or not. Hypervigilance – constantly anticipating danger – is a common trauma response.
You missed your mate’s birthday so you could meditate
So, you’ve figured out a mental health routine that makes you feel safe and happy. Great. It’s a shame that this consists of staying indoors for 20 hours a day listening to spiritual podcasts, sitting cross-legged and tapping yourself.
“Some people can become obsessive about [self-care practices] in lieu of living a full life,” Vahrmeyer says. “If someone is obsessing about some self-care ritual at the expense of socialising or relaxing, I would suggest that it has ceased to be a healthy focus and is instead being used in the service of trying to manage uncomfortable feelings.”
You should always look to introduce healthy practices into your life and discard toxic ones. Meditate, do yoga, start monastic chanting if it gets you through the day. But life is about being exposed to experiences – good and bad – and, above all, having fulfilling relationships (not just with yourself).
“There has been a shift in culture where everyone is taking care of their mental health,” Abse says. “But if it becomes a notion, like perfecting your abs, that’s not the purpose of therapy. [Good therapy] helps you become less self-centred and better able to connect in relationship with others.”
You blame poor behaviour on your parents
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.” We’ve all read the poem. But you use Mr Philip Larkin’s sentiment as a get-out jail-free card for all your missteps. You can’t stop ghosting people because your dad never replies to your texts. You forgot your partner’s birthday because your mum didn’t buy you balloons when you were five.
“No one – especially men, if we go by the stats – should be dissuaded from speaking up about how they feel,” says Mr Luke Todd, who is the former editor of MindJournal, and trained in mental health first aid. “However, whether it’s the black dog or just a bad day, it’s not a free pass for problematic behaviour. In fact, accountability is a fundamental part of good self-care. It’s about taking ownership of your words, actions and behaviours, and [trying] to do a little better every day.”
Indeed, how our parents treated us has a seismic impact on who we are. If you had an abusive experience at home, you should work it through for as long as you need to. But a bit of perspective goes a long way.
“Accountability is a fundamental part of good self-care”
“You have to come to terms with what your parents let you down about,” Abse says. “Sometimes, that may mean reconfiguring one’s life. But quite often it means acceptance. [People] seek justice. But there isn’t justice. You can’t heal everything. [It] belongs to the past, and the limitations one’s friends and family have.”
And remember: it’s not all about them. “The purpose or goal of psychotherapy is [not] to ‘blame the parents’ or in more Freudian terms: make it ‘all about the mother’,” Vahrmeyer says. “It’s a process of coming to terms with reality, mourning what has been lost and finding a way to build a life of meaning and purpose in that reality. It is about growing up.”
You often say, “Well, my therapist said that…”
You’ve had 17 sessions with your therapist and you’re in a deep recovery groove. You look forward to your 50 minutes every week. But you’ve started to view your shrink as some kind of mentor-cum-best friend and they pop up randomly in conversation like the erstwhile Microsoft Paperclip.
“Sometimes people say, ‘My therapist said I should do this or I should tell you that,’ or, ‘My therapist thinks this,’” Abse says. “You [shouldn’t] need a therapist to legitimise your feelings. You create a sense of power – the therapist agrees with you. But what you say is important in itself. On the whole, therapists shouldn’t be telling you to do x, y or z. Therapy is about trying to create a space where you can find out what you think and what you want.”
It’s good, nay, essential, to have a positive relationship with your therapist. But beware of placing them on a pedestal.
“When people first come onto psychotherapy, it is not uncommon for them to idealise their psychotherapist,” Vahrmeyer says. “They may finally feel that they have someone who really understands them. But if this process of idealisation persists, they are either not in good psychotherapy (the therapist is positioning themselves as some sort of ‘guru’) or therapy is being weaponised to shut others down.”
If you recognise yourself here, fear not. There’s a softboi lurking somewhere in all of us. Once more for the guy at the back reading the Mr Jean-Paul Sartre play: all it takes is a healthy dose of self-awareness to continue with your mental health journey in good faith. And if you haven’t yet started, here are some tried and tested resources to get you going: