24. Tools for Change #II: Therapy and SelfCare

“Go to therapy!” I tell my classes. Just like that: flat out.

The reaction I get is interesting. Most of the time, the students giggle in an embarrassed way. Sometimes, the class goes dead quiet, as if people are too embarrassed even to giggle.

Therapy remains very much a taboo subject. Many people are ashamed to admit that they are or have been in therapy.

Not me. I have been in therapy, on and off, for two decades, and I consider my therapy to be among the very best investments of time and money I ever made. They helped me get past the problems in my life much faster than I ever could have on my own.

Not surprisingly, I think therapy is wonderful. I think everyone should be in therapy. Seriously—everyone. We all carry around emotional baggage from our childhood, and we all live in difficult, stressful times. Also, as I’ve mentioned numerous times throughout this book, I think activists have it tougher than many other people because of the innate difficulty of our Mission, and the lack of societal and (often) familial support for it. These are all good reasons to see a therapist.

Some people think that seeing a therapist is a sign of weakness, but nothing could be further from the truth. Seeing a therapist is a sign that you have the strength to admit to, and work on, your problems. That’s why so many successful people see a therapist and are quite unashamed of the fact. They see therapy as simply one more tool they are using to build their success.

Some people might prefer to consult a spiritual advisor or some other kind of professional. I have no problem with that, but would urge you to see a therapist in addition to whomever else you see, at least for a while.

The Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Richard Rhodes draws a direct line between his therapy (for post-traumatic stress syndrome resulting from an abusive childhood) and his professional success:

I started therapy for myself, not for writing, but it was through that process that the breakthrough came. . . . Seven years of therapy was no more expensive than graduate school would have been, and I’ve come to think of therapy as graduate school for the emotions (or was it remedial?). When I groaned at the expense, my therapist, a good man trained at the Menninger Clinic, expressed the hope that therapy would pay for itself. Since I’ve made a good living writing now for more than twenty years, it did. (How to Write: Advice and Reflections; Quill, 1995)

I don’t know about Rhodes, but one reason therapy worked for me was that I made it one of my top priorities. Nothing but a real emergency would cause me to miss a therapy session, and I always took my therapist’s recommendations very seriously. That’s because I saw that the insights and lessons I was learning in therapy could help me in all of the important areas of my life.

So I urge you to try therapy. This is particularly true if you have been thinking about therapy, but dithering. Stop dithering, and go out and find a therapist. Here are two tips to help:

1. Shop carefully.

Therapists vary tremendously in training, background, approach, competence and cost. A therapist is one of the most important professionals you will ever hire, so try to find a great one. Don’t settle for someone who is merely OK—and certainly not someone who is mediocre.

The best way to find a therapist is to ask friends and family, or perhaps your doctor, if they can recommend someone.

When you contact a therapist, ask what kind of clients she or he likes to work with. The answer should be people like you, facing problems or challenges similar to the ones you yourself are facing. Some therapists specialize in helping creative people, while others specialize in helping people who themselves work in helping professions. Still others specialize in working with trauma victims, including people suffering from Compassion Fatigue. And still others position themselves as “career coaches” or “success coaches.” Any of these could be a perfect fit for you.

2. Give the relationship time to develop.

In many therapeutic relationships, you spend the first two or three sessions detailing your history and current situation for the therapist. These sessions can be kind of boring because the therapist doesn’t have much to work with until she or he has all this information. So be patient while the relationship is developing.

If, however, you’ve seen a therapist for a few sessions and you two do not seem to be “clicking,” or if the sessions themselves do not seem productive, then tell the therapist your concerns and hear what she or he has to say. You can decide to stay for a few more sessions, or look for someone else. Don’t hesitate to do the latter, if the little voice in your gut is saying “this isn’t working.” Many people try two, three or even four therapists before striking gold.

Self-Care

Therapy, along with good nutritional, sleeping and exercise habits, is an important aspect of self-care, a topic I discussed in Part I, Chapter 10.

As my excellent therapists have taught me, self-care should come before everything except emergencies. If your physical or emotional being is not healthy, then you can’t hope to be productive at activism or anything else. It is also hard to take care of others, or advocate for them, when your own needs are going unmet.

Activists need to keep hearing this message, as it is very easy for us to buy into the myth that we are supposed to sacrifice our all for our movement. While there may be isolated examples of activists who did just that, achieving great things thereby, most of us are incapable of making such a monumental sacrifice and still remaining productive.

So, take care of yourself, and don’t deny your physical, emotional or material needs. The act of discovering and meeting those needs forms the foundation for a happy and productive life. Schedule regular appointments with your doctor, dentist and ophthalmologist. Eat nutritious meals, get plenty of exercise and get a full night’s sleep. Don’t waste your time on perfectionist housekeeping, but also don’t let your living space deteriorate into a disorganized pit. (A wise student of mine once put it this way: “Depression is disorganizing, and disorganization is depressing.”) If a polished personal appearance is important to you, make sure to build haircuts, clothes shopping, etc. into your Mission and Schedule.

On a related topic: deal with your issues. Studies7 have shown that creative people (a group that surely includes many activists) suffer from above-average rates of attention-deficit disorder (ADD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, addiction, bipolar disorder (formerly called manic depression) and other cognitive and emotional problems. Failure to deal decisively with these issues is one of the most fundamental forms of self-sabotage. So, if you even suspect that you suffer from one or more of the conditions mentioned, or another similar one, see a doctor. If the doctor suggests therapy, get some. If a doctor you trust prescribes drugs, and you agree with that approach for solving the problem, take them.

Self-care doesn’t have to be a major effort: it can be as simple as taking time out for a movie, a meal with friends, a walk in the park or a stroll through a department store. It can also mean buying a colorful new sweater that pleases you, or taking a taxi instead of a bus once in a while. The key is to generally treat yourself well, and also to give yourself little “treats” as often as possible—once a day or more is great—without experiencing even the slightest twinge of guilt. Treat yourself well whenever you’ve had a “success,” no matter how minor, and treat yourself especially well whenever you’ve had a “failure” or disappointment. And treat yourself well whenever you feel like it, just for the heck of it.

Just treat yourself well, OK?