Last day of my first Psychiatry attachment today… sitting in a group therapy session on self-esteem, the therapist said this:
“You shouldn’t invest too much of yourself in other people because you can’t guarantee that they’ll always be there for you. You need to invest in yourself. Become your own best friend.”
And I was confused, but all the patients in the group seemed to think that what she said was self-evident…
Now, I totally get that there are ways of investing ourselves in other people that are unhealthy: when we define our identity by that other person, such that if we get divorced/break up/argue/move away then we find our sense of self crashing round our ears. Or when we are so pathologically ‘caring’ and other-focused that we can’t look after ourselves and so end up burnt out. I’ve been good at both of those behaviour patterns over the years, and know first-hand how destructive they can be.
But for that therapist to argue that the solution is to become utterly self-focused, instead, just seemed unloving. It’s a denial of what we are intended for as human beings, and although admittedly it brings a sort of safety, it does so at terrible cost, as CS Lewis described so well in The Four Loves:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
When we make our personal, emotional safety our highest goal we become much less than we were created to be.
It seems to me that a humanist approach to Psychiatry, or even a Buddhist one, (and I’d say that most current, main-stream psychotherapy is rooted in one of these two ideologies) doesn’t have the resources to show people the way out of these problems.
Because the only solution that will not lay people open to the risk of losing themselves with the breakdown of a significant relationship, or conversely trap them in self-absorption, is…God. In order to be what we were made to be – image-bearers of the Self-Giving God – we must find our lives in pouring them out for another, but that other must first of all be the great Other. The LORD is the only One we can trust to be the focus of all of ourselves; to be the object of all of our adoration; to be our whole reason for living; because He is the only One who will never ever leave us. Every other relationship will eventually end, if not due to disagreement, betrayal, illness or stress, then at death. But He has offered us love that has already survived death and will take us safely through it, too.
And not only has He sworn never to leave us, when He becomes the sole desire of our hearts we find that He, for whom our hearts were made, enlarges our hearts. If we swallow the lie that we must become our own ultimate end and source of identity then our hearts quickly become shrunken and dry. We are on an ugly inward-spiral which will make us ‘homo incurvatus in se’ – man curved in upon himself. But when the God of the Bible – the LORD, who is Himself the most beautiful other-centred, self-sacrificial, generous-hearted community – becomes the centre of our whole heart’s affection then we are gradually conformed to His image. He sets our hearts free.
And when He is first in our hearts – the source of all our joy and the one who gives meaning to our identities – lots of other stuff falls into place too:
When we learn that He is looking after us, we can give up the strategies we’ve developed to keep us safe, and which ultimately keep us from truly taking the risk to love others. In the same way, when we learn that He loves us, we can give up that pathological other-centredness that is really self-centred: I will spend myself on your behalf so that you will be forced to love me, or maybe so that I can accept myself… Instead, I can rest in His love for me, and in the fact that He cares for those around me, and so my loving others doesn’t have to mean burnout.
What an amazing blessing our God has given us, that He has given us His very Self to be our soul’s treasure. We are not our own highest treasure – for how narrow, cramped and empty of soul we would be if we were! – but we have such a beautiful, steadfast, loving, self-giving Person to Whom we can entrust ourselves, and in whom our whole, little self is ‘safely kept’, ‘being conformed to His likeness’. Hallelujah!