Back when I was in counseling (which feels like yesterday, but was about four years ago), I would go to my counselor each week with something to talk about. Generally the theme revolved around the dialogue in my own head and the self-talk I had that was overwhelmingly negative. This went on for several weeks and then one day, my therapist very bluntly said to me, “Jen, do you ever volunteer?”
I was so taken aback, I couldn’t understand the purpose of her question.
“Um, no. I don’t really. I’m involved in a few service organizations, but nothing really substantial,” I replied.
“Well, I was just wondering about how important some of these issues might seem to you if you had something to compare them to. Don’t get me wrong, the stuff your dealing with is crap, but I wonder how it would look if you had to feed people who couldn’t afford to feed themselves.”
It felt like a slap in the face. I wasn’t really angry, but I also wasn’t happy with the comment either. Was she implying that I was selfish or self-involved? Did she think I was just a whiny brat from the suburbs?
I don’t think she thought any of those things. In fact, I know she was fond of me. I was fortunate to have a therapist that would say what needed to be said and over the next week, when I caught myself being upset about something going on in my head, some slight I perceived from a friend or stranger, or something else that caused some emotional turmoil for me, I thought about what she said.
I wondered how bad my life really was. I had become so good at romanticizing how pathetically depressing my life was from my point of view, I had almost blotted out all the other things that could make my life worse. I had forgotten that I had a job, I was enrolled in a good school, I could afford to eat, I had health insurance, and I had friends. How bad was my life, really?
Becoming a counselor has allowed me to do many things that fulfill who I am and the needs I have. Some of those needs are the desire to help others, the desire to make a difference in someone’s life, and the desire to further my education. Those are all the rosy, do-gooder reasons I became a counselor. Another one, I realize in retrospect, is that I need to be reminded that I have a wonderful life. I have spent the majority of my life looking through a lens of grim reality, instead of understanding it’s positivity and optimism that are really how we stay happy. No amount of complaining about our lives or preparing for catastrophe makes us happy. Catastrophes can and do happen to the best and the worst of us. We can sit and worry all day about it, or we can be happy in the meantime and understand that life is pretty good.
I can be self-involved. I don’t wake up and look in the mirror and go, “Darn, I’m the most beautiful person in the world,” because it’s not narcissism. It’s just me, sitting all up in my head, thinking about my life, my problems, my future, my relationship, my career, and my ambitions. I exhaust myself over-analyzing every interaction I have and think I will have. I think about the motives of others all the time. I am constantly questioning reality. It’s exhausting and I find it doesn’t solve anything! It makes me an awesome counselor when I put that energy toward assisting others in their lives, but when I do it, it’s just a bad case of not knowing when good is enough.
While I wouldn’t classify myself or any of my clients who are working on their mental health as “selfish,” I would almost across the board say that we’re all a little too self-absorbed. We have to get out of our skulls and into the moment. We have to join with our communities and our friends and help them work on their lives. It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s a common thread I have found in my work on myself and with my clients. We’re all just too self-involved.