counselling self-indulgent?

I’ve heard this question quite a lot over the years from clients. They wonder aloud if what they’re doing – talking to someone about their problems – is self-indulgent. “Shouldn’t I just be getting on with it,” they ask. “I feel like I’m moaning,” they say.

Now, of course I’m biased but I don’t see counselling or psychotherapy that way.

Being self-indulgent implies selfishness, and people are sometimes worried that when they come in for counselling they are being excessively or exclusively concerned about themselves in doing so. Personally, I see a world of difference between being selfish, which is seeking out one’s own advantage, pleasure or wellbeing without regard for others, and being self-interested, which is a desire to look after and care for your own wellbeing, health, and interests. The key here is regard for others. Self-interest doesn’t mean selfish – you can still have a high regard for other people’s wellbeing and concerns while taking care of your own. In fact, coming to counselling may mean that you develop more strength and resiliency and are better able to be in relationship with others. By looking after yourself, you can actually look after others and be there for them in a far more enhanced and healthier way.

I think counselling and psychotherapy are ways of helping yourself out. It’s taking care of yourself, looking after your mind and your life. Sometimes we get a feeling that the old ways of responding to life just aren’t working anymore. It’s at that time that seeking out some additional help and support can be most beneficial.

However, that’s also the time when the ‘old ways’ rear up even harder. The thoughts about whether or not counselling really helps, or is indulgent, or is ridiculous, can become a lot stronger.

I often wonder where people get the message that talking with someone else about themselves is indulgent or selfish. Some of this seems embedded within the British culture itself, and can be traced in part to the WWII Blitz spirit of ‘keep calm and carry on.’ The attitudes of schools and the educational system can also reinforce the idea that you don’t complain and that you stay humble – to speak up and voice your own opinions and needs is often considered taboo and forbidden. Other ideas about indulgence may be derived from the family of origin, where the messages were ‘you just have to get on with things,’ or ‘don’t make a fuss over yourself.’ No doubt, ‘getting on with life’ can be a very effective coping mechanism when dealing with challenges. However, it doesn’t work for each and every life circumstance.

I think we all need help from time to time. We all need support from others. Counselling and psychotherapy represent a way of getting that.

For me, the bottom line is this. Talking about yourself doesn’t mean you’re complaining, or moaning, or whingeing. It doesn’t make you self-indulgent, it simply means you’re taking an interest in yourself. Perhaps for the first time, as this may not have been allowed before. It’s new, so it’s uncertain at first. Ultimately though, people go to counselling and psychotherapy because they want to change. One thing I do believe about the business I’m in: talking can help, especially if talking leads to change.  It’s not indulgent if it’s helpful along these lines.

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