“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Audre Lord
We are living in trying, divided times, no doubt about it. World events seem to endlessly rattle through the seismograph of our consciousness, hour after hour slowly churning into an underlying sense of impending doom and anxiety. It’s hard not to feel hopeless and helpless especially in the face book of symptoms: high levels of alienation, nightmares of evil orange oompa loompas pushing buttons, selfie anxiety. It is enough to make one wish it really was 1984. Most of us feel too exhausted at the end of the workday to sign a petition saving the planet from imminent death and destruction let alone take care of all the other stuff going on in our personal lives.
The notion of self care may seem self indulgent in times like these but the kind of self-care I am referring to does not just mean only caring about yourself. I would argue that psychotherapy, as one important practice of self-care, can be seen as politically, socially and ethically responsible.
Socratic View on Truth and Caring for the Soul
As a defender of logical and unrelenting argument and discourse through questioning, examining and thinking as a way to reach the truth, Socrates infused Ancient Greece with the spirit of self-inquiry. Socrates believed that learning was about discovering true knowledge, which he believed was inscribed into the soul of every individual. During the trial in which he was condemned to death he said, “The examined Life is not worth living”. Let those words sink into your veins.
Truth, for Socrates, is something that should not only be discussed but also lived, embodied, and practiced. Socrates understood the care of the soul as the primary task of philosophy and a practice essential to one’s ethical development, for it required a disciplined and spiritual commitment to the truth and the character of one’s thinking.
The philosopher Foucault argued too that there is an ethical dimension to our care of self. If we want to work towards our own moral and spiritual development and by doing so recognize ourselves in our external worlds then we must turn our attention to a practice of self reflection and self care, tending to our thoughts and perceptions in a disciplined way, and learning to see ourselves as not separate from the things we dislike but ultimately one with them.
Foucault and Socrates understood that caring for oneself was to exhibit an attitude not only toward oneself but also toward others and the world. The prescription to know oneself was the means through which one cared for oneself, and Socrates cared for his own soul and the souls of others by using the practice of dialectic to force the examination of the truth of his own thoughts and conduct and that of his students.
Psychotherapy as a Form of Self-Care
Psychotherapeutic enquiry can be looked at in much the same way. It is a intense dialectic collaboration with another soul to discover your own personal truths beyond defenses, false perceptions and conditioning which, although they keep us protected from unbearable psychic pain, they also deny us the true nature of reality. We use the means of discussion, thinking, examining, and committed relationship in a disciplined way to open the psyche and expose the blocks that have prevented us from living a rich and loving life. If we do not understand and tend to our own complexity, our own darkness, our own shadow, we risk relying on early defense mechanisms to keep us “good” and “functioning”. What is painful or dark in ourselves is often split off out of knowledge or projected onto others around us. The large scale damage of this anxious functioning can be seen when whole societies become swept by more primitive and paranoid early functioning such as scapegoating and nationalism, a “we’re good, they’re bad mentality”, that wipes out the many complex shades of life and humanity and ultimately leads to fear, division and war. At no time was this clearer in European history than during the Second World War.
It is argued from Melanie Klein’s work and a psychoanalytic point of view, that complexity and pluralism are a sign of a painful yet necessary development in our growth and development and our ability to tolerate ultimate wisdom, in other words moving away from primitive defenses of splitting and projection such as seeing things in black and white terms, “knowing” certain truths, and deeming people or groups as bad when you are good. But she didn’t call this maturing position the “depressive” position for nothing. Facing the ultimate reality of complexity can lead to many complex emotional dilemmas where there are no easy answers.
Recognizing and examining and challenging these psychological tendencies within us is therefore a necessity if we want to recognize when we ourselves are refusing to see the complex nature of ourselves and the world around us, no matter how unsatisfying or painful it is. At the moment there are many divisions growing between people and if we want to have a stand against truly fascistic or narcissistic psychopathology that is threatening our global balance we need to first start with ourselves. In the every day, there is something political, ethical and social that you can do to change and heal the world, and that something may not be as out of reach as you think. In the spirit of Socrates remember, “The unexamined life is not worth living”.