You will often hear people say things like, “I’ve done a lot of work on myself” or “You have to do the work”. What does it actually mean?
Self exploration is one valid reason to come to therapy. You may feel like you don’t have any “major” mental health issues, but a sense of lack of fulfillment, loneliness, or difficulty finding purpose and direction in your life. You may observe that you are mostly a “thinker” but don’t know what it means to get into your feelings and understand your patterns on a deeper level. It can be intimidating to walk into something vague and ambiguous like exploratory therapy, but with the right therapist match and your own little bit of openness, you might find it becomes one of the most enriching things you do. You may hear it called the Hero’s Journey, the spiritual or conscious journey, or personal growth – all are paths to a richer and deeper daily life experience.
Working on yourself includes increasing your awareness of your mental world (thought patterns, core beliefs), your emotional world (feelings and sensations), your relational world (connection to self and others), and your physical world (your breath, needs).
- your mental world is made up of all the ways you view things, based on your own personal history and context, things that have gone on in your life, and cultural perspectives. Working on ourselves means we do some examining of why we believe what we believe, how those stories impact us in regular life, and working toward changing any unhelpful beliefs that we’d like to not live by anymore. A therapist can guide you in this by exploring along with you to help you get more awareness of the things you tell yourself and the meaning you assign to events in your life.
- our emotional world often goes unexamined and is much easier to “sweep under the rug”. It can be uncomfortable to be present to what we are feeling and needing, and depending on our family and cultural context it might be less acceptable to express those feelings outwardly. We often learn to just ignore it and keep going. The drawback is that then we also have a difficult time feeling the positive things deeply, and sometimes we even get cut off from being able to identify what it is we are feeling or needing! Our life experience becomes dulled and we disconnect from ourselves more, sometimes even finding it difficult to have deep connections. In therapy you can spend time learning about yourself in this world, gaining an understanding of what emotions are even out there, and learning ways to be present to and cope with them.
- the relational aspect of self speaks to how we show up and receive in our relationships with others and with ourselves. If we have difficulty attaching in a healthy way, therapy can help us examine those patterns and work toward more healthy openness and vulnerability in relationship. Our relationship with self is the most important one we’ll ever have, and through this examination you’ll also learn to relate to you with more self compassion, listening, and care.
- physically speaking, we tend to neglect even the basics of self care. Working on the self entails looking at our behavioral patterns and habits and using that awareness to ensure we are caring for our physical “meat suit” that is supporting us in our journey through life. We might also look at our physical boundaries and find ways to support our need for quiet, more connection with others, or expand our awareness of what our body is asking us for (relaxation, exercise, etc.)
In psychodynamic terms (a popular, long-standing psychological theory), doing “the work” would also involve deeper dives into the unconscious aspects of self to bring more awareness to aspects of us that we may not even realize are at play. Therapy often involves some form of this “shadow work”. We are often afraid to dig too deep for fear we might find something we don’t want to know or acknowledge about ourselves. This is a helpful protective mechanism in many respects, and can also cause us to be “stuck” without understanding why. Psychodynamic work, along with these other practical areas of self work, can open us up to living the most authentic and vibrant life possible for us. While it can be difficult and even painful and confusing at times to “work on the self”, you’ll find deeper, more meaningful relationships with yourself and others, a presence to the world around you, and a greater overall sense of well-being as you explore and expand your awareness.
If you’d like to explore with one of our therapists, please reach out through our contact page. We’d love to accompany you on the journey.
Abigail R Hitchen PsyD