I once thought that getting mental health help was a self-centered endeavor. Go see a psychologist, and you’ll be sitting on a couch, talking about yourself all day, about your childhood, and blaming others in your life for everything bad that happened to you. That’s not for me, I thought. I prefer to forgive all the things of the past and get back up again. And rather than think about myself so much, I thought, it’s better to focus on serving others.
As someone who first made the call for psychotherapy because of someone else—that is, because I wanted to figure out how to improve a relationship with someone else in my life—I have come to see mental health as something to do not just for ourselves but for others in our lives. In fact, I have since developed a theory that getting mental health support is perhaps one of the best ways to show love for others in your life. Conversely, I believe that to neglect our mental health needs is a grave neglect of showing love toward those in our life.
When getting mental health help for yourself helps others
I grew up thinking mental health support was only for people in insane asylums. I passed up many chances to get help for difficult relationships, or even to discuss a sexual assault I experienced. I always thought it was just going to start me down a path of thinking about me, me, me, and I felt better instead when looking outward to others—responding to others’ needs, and showing kindness to others.
By the time I actually made it into a psychologist’s office, I had to be somewhat convinced to acknowledge myself as an important person in the equation of any relationship at all. I had come to therapy for the purpose of improving a relationship, yes. But I was so hardened in my other-focused habits, I could hardly take time to consider myself as an integral part of the relationship I wanted to improve.
Over the course of therapy, I began to see how my intense focus on others affected my ability to see my own needs clearly, which, when left unaddressed, hurt my ability to be my best self and serve others.
For starters, I downplayed my own emotions and treated them as less important than those of others. One day I showed up to a therapy appointment after having a horrible weekend. I described the incidents that happened as factual statements alongside chipper commentary of “how annoying is that!” with a smile on my face.
My therapist gently prodded me to acknowledge my real emotions on the matters.
“That sounds like a horrible course of events. But you don’t look like you’ve been put out—even though, clearly, these events have put you out.”
At the time she said that, I thought she just didn’t get my positive, can-do personality. Yes, things roll off my back, I thought, and I get back up again. But I later realized what my Mr. Miyagi of therapists was getting at—she was slowly equipping me to notice that I was downplaying how I really felt about things, brushing things off in an effort to avoid thinking about and addressing them.
Improving my relationship would require being in touch with what I think about things so I could communicate them to my partner—otherwise, he couldn’t change his end of the relationship to be more considerate of me.
It turns out when my husband wanted something, he just went and got it—like taking a break on the couch to read a book, or running an errand outside of the house. I, on the other hand, felt guilty giving myself even those small breaks. Then when he had his cup full, he’d ask how he could better serve me, but somehow I couldn’t make up my mind as to what I wanted or needed. I wasn’t sharing my authentic self with my partner, because I hadn’t given her the time of day. And I was forgetting that my husband wanted to be in a relationship with me, not with a mirror of himself.
Taking care of ourselves assists us to better take care of others
“I’m not trying to convince you to stop filling others’ cups,” my therapist said in one session. “I’m just trying to help you to see that it doesn’t hurt others to pour a little into your cup as well.”
I learned that if I don’t be honest with those around me about what will help me keep my cup full, I’ll have less in reserves to serve others with.
Ultimately, my bad habit of not addressing my cup was keeping me in a sort of fantasy world. I wanted to imagine that I had limitless reserves in my cup, supernaturally. But, in reality, we live in a world with limits; I have a human body and natural limitations that need to be addressed. And the longer I go ignoring these facts, the more my energy will be drained, and my mental health will suffer, and my ability to serve others well will be diminished.
Making this progress in therapy also helped me to improve healthy boundary-setting in my relationships across personal and professional plains. My one action of deciding to see a therapist ultimately helped improve my ability to serve everyone in my life—from my husband, to my kids, to friends, even to my work colleagues and bosses. If I will get burnt out working on weekends, I can clearly communicate that to my coworkers: If I get an email over the weekend, I’ll respond to it Monday. I’m not serving anyone less by saying that; in fact, I’m serving them better, by bringing my best self to the task.
Contrary to my prior view of therapy sessions being appointments with Yes Men who affirm every statement I utter and encourage me to be self-centered, I found therapy pushed me to be a better person in all my relationships, to be fair to those other people.
Put your mask on first
Everyone knows that putting your oxygen mask on first in an airplane is for the health and wellbeing of any dependents you need to assist. Cliché or not, it couldn’t be more true about our mental health needs.
Too often, we see the caricature of the frazzled woman, stretched too thin, prioritizing everything and everyone in her life over herself. The longer we stay in that gear, the longer we’re avoiding the call to serve everyone at our best. Everyone has a limit to the stress they can endure, and no person is a robot.
If you’ve been feeling pushed to your limits more often than not, or if you’re on auto-pilot, not really able to feel emotions, perhaps it might be time to reach out for mental health support. Take it from someone who’s been there—you’re not going to let your loved ones down by taking time to work on you. In fact, the sooner we recognize we need help and get it, the sooner we are treating our loved ones like they’re worth having our best selves.