Therapeutic Self-Centeredness

Perhaps this one will be a true "musing"...

If you've read my most recent posts (though not terribly recent, I'm sorry to observe), then you're likely aware of my position as a psychology intern and therapist extraordinaire at a local hospital. I've enjoyed my unique (read: lonely) perspective as a Christian psychologist, poised to catch those moments in which psychology and faith intersect. Usually, the crossroads are sublime. Sometimes they are not. This is a musing about the latter.

Therapy is sort of an individual thing. Even in group therapy, the focus is on improving yourself, building your coping and interpersonal skills, learning how to overcome your depression/anxiety/self-pity/mass media-induced neurosis. Accordingly, self-esteem is paramount. Therapists exhort clients ad nauseum to use positive self-talk, make a list of positive qualities about themselves, identify strengths and successes, disregard the opinions and past abuses of others. And there is merit to this, in the sense that no person was intended to be a doormat, nor deeply and permanently depressed.

But the opposite of, and cure for, self-loathing is not self-worship. I don't believe the answer to low self-esteem is to build a shrine to self and lie there prostrate. How I want to scream this to my clients, even as I listen to my co-therapist encourage a group of used, abused, weepy-eyed, self-flagellating women (we had a gender-homogeneous group today) to put themselves first. These women roll out their laundry lists of thankless tasks: cleaning, cooking, caring for the kids, putting up with a sour (at best) relationship, enduring emotional havoc from aging parents. They pour themselves out daily for others and are realizing that this is draining, impossible to sustain indefinitely.

As I listen, I hear much of what is biblical about femininity: nurturing, caring, raising children, having a sensitivity to the emotions and behaviors of others. To an extreme, perhaps, and many of these women do not know how to set boundaries or to say no when it might be appropriate. I also hear much that is biblical concerning the human experience: it stinks sometimes to live in a fallen world among fallen people. And sometimes we feel ugly in our own skin.

I agree with secular psychology on one point: the answer requires a drastic re-aligning of priorities. But it is not a re-aligning that places the self in the top position. Far from it! Fulfillment will never - not EVER - come from selfishness, even well-intentioned selfishness designed to salve a wounded ego.

Rather, the answer is in reorienting ourselves so that our primary and ultimate allegiance is to the One who created us to be women (and men) bearing His image. My spirit resonates with the struggles of these women: I, too, feel the pressures of balancing a home and work, of pushing myself to sort the laundry when I don't feel like it, of cooking meals when I'm tired, of cleaning things that I'll never be thanked for. But I do believe that many of these tasks are at the heart of what it is to be a woman: a suitable help-mate for a man. I do not find the strength to do these things through scheduling regular bubble baths and pedicures (though those are nice when they happen), nor by washing my own clothes and dishes and letting the rest of the house go to pot (that was an actual suggestion today, to show the rest of the family what an important job she does). I find the strength to do these things through worshipping my God and believing His word that He created me to serve and to nurture. I find fulfillment in the thankless because I do all to the glory of God, not to the glory of me or my husband. I feel worthwhile because charm is deceptive and beauty fades, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

I wonder if our therapies are rendered less effective because we emphasize the self so heavily, to the exclusion of considering other, higher priorities. Ironically, our therapeutically self-centered culture is making us all the more neurotic because we can never raise our self-esteem high enough - until it is too high, and then we have a whole different set of pathologies.

Yes, we are to see value in ourselves and in our work. But that value is to flow from the ultimate worth-ship of our Creator, who created us in His image and declared that, behold, we are very good. And we are to always remember that our value is only because He has made it so: apart from His grace, we are in a state of abject wretchedness. The women in my therapy group are only feeling the reality of their condition! When my self-esteem is low, I return to the truths of Scripture and believe, even when my heart doesn't feel like it. I believe that God is God, and I am not. I believe that I ought to esteem myself lowly. And I believe that by His good pleasure and grace, He has placed me a little lower than the angels, nay, has clothed me in the righteousness of His Son and adopted me as a co-heir of heaven.

How could listing my positive qualities, filthy rags such as they are, possibly compare with the inestimable riches and beauty of the crown of life? What positive self-talk could I possibly craft to encourage me more than to say I am a daughter of El-Shaddai? When my spirit groans in this fallen world, may I not yield to therapeutic self-centeredness, but may the Lord help me to cast my eyes heavenward, to cry "Come quickly, Lord Jesus!" and to be faithful by His grace until He does.


Jess R. Monnette said...


Wonderful post. When are you going to write a book about this? I think you should.

You can add an appendix for men entitled "Just grow a pair." Joel and I could ghost write it for you.

Seriously though - most true self loathing turns out to be little more than an individual's realization that he is in fact a sinner. That is a reality that cannot be cured by any amount of verbal self worth sugarcoating. It demands Christ.



Elizabeth said...

Jess, Joel and I simultaneously said "I miss him/them!" when I told him you had left a comment here. Thanks for your thoughts...if I can round up enough material for a book, I'd love to write one. Know anyone who would publish it?

Ken said...

That's funny, when I read this I also thought "Elizabeth needs to keep exercising those writing talents." You are a good writer. And I don't say this to boost your self-esteem!

My other thought is that applying the gospel within your vocation is (probably) simultaneously very straightforward and very difficult. I pray God expands your wisdom and effectiveness.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for visiting, Ken! You are right...there is usually a running commentary in my head about how I would LIKE to incorporate Scriptural truths into therapy, and then there is the brainwashed psychologist part of me that is looking over her shoulder for the APA ethics board. And then I get to wondering whether this split personality thing is diagnosable...

Dad said...

Thank heavens for the Christian placed in the right circumstances by the hand of God... there is a GOOD perspective to be maintained by the discerning and God-fearing psychologist that will do much good in this world, one soul at a time.