In recent years, therapy or counselling has seen many takers and the talk around it has percolated slowly into the heavily draped Indian living rooms as well.
When Gauri Shinde came out with her movie Dear Zindagi (2016), it was a fresh change introduced in Bollywood’s mainstream glossy catalogue. In it, we see Kaira (Alia Bhatt) lose her shit completely before she joins therapy under Dr Jehangir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan).
A few sessions into it, we are, however, presented with a peppy montage of Kaira dancing happily around her house and family, and is well onto her way of recovering completely. She is suddenly sleeping better, eating healthier, working on her dream project, jumping into puddles, and while walking with the beautiful Aditya Roy Kapur on the beach, her life seems to be falling into place for her.
Sometimes, it does work that way. But most of the times, the walk home from the therapist’s office, as my friend recounted, or slamming the laptop screen shut after a session is over (in my case), feels like a thousand poisonous pincers penetrated your heart and mind.
As my second session with my brilliant therapist came to an end, my knees were shaking, the micro tremors that I get due to my thyroid (a result of years of untreated depression, anxiety and stress) were more violent than ever.
I had to get up though, my eyes were burning from the crying. I also had to put my laptop on charge, wash my face and get ready for work which was going to start in 15 minutes. I had to do all this without letting my parents see me so broken.
Right about this time, I put out a tweet out of desperation asking if anyone else feels the same after a session is over and received generous responses.
I was inside my blanket cocoon, unfeeling, not crying, numb to the point of no return without seeing an end in sight. My ears were ringing, my stomach was in knots and my hands and feet were cold. My heart was palpitating with a vengeance. My counsellor had just confirmed to me what I knew all along— I had clinical depression and anxiety disorder.
Then, why did my diagnosis cause so much caustic pain to me? I pitied myself and looked at my diagnosis as a weakness and not as an illness or a malady. My parents’ stoic silence added to my worries.
I then remembered the learning resources that my therapist sent me to go through after the session. I had promptly forgotten about it. One of the videos that she sent me was a Ted Talk conducted by Dr Kristen Neff on the topic: The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion. She is a pioneering self-compassion researcher, author, and teacher. The way she explains how self-compassion works and how it can be an epic tool to have in your arsenal really opened my eyes to holistic healing.
The Three Points That She Emphasises On
Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment
Common humanity vs. Isolation
Mindfulness vs. Over-identification
I have been so focused on improving myself according to others’ demands that I lost sight of who I am. Half of our problems arise from this, we try to build ourselves on the basis of others’ perception. This was true in my case at least. I was constantly trying to improve myself, mentally and physically to fit into what other people wanted of me. I still didn’t feel accepted. People will reduce you to a doormat if you keep on giving in. And to what end was I doing all this for? I was still unwelcome, unhappy.
It is, at this time particularly, that I implore you to dig deep and identify whose voice exactly is it that is actually putting you down so much.
We are not born this way, we acquire our thoughts, feelings, perceptions from a very young age from those closely around us.
Most of the times it’s their unresolved bias or trauma that shapes us. That’s where the knowledge of these tools is handy.
My therapist also told me something on similar lines: Include yourself in your circle of compassion.
No. We tell them, it’s okay, take the day off. Eat something nice, take it slow. We try to soothe their nerves and be their friend.
So why cannot we do the same to ourselves? Why can we not cut ourselves some slack, include ourselves in our circle of compassion and be self-kind? As Dr Neff explains, when we attack ourselves, we trigger our body’s threat defence system aka fight or flight response.
Constant exposure to a threatening environment or self-criticism is bound to reduce the serotonin levels (happy hormones) of the body which leads to more room for depressive thoughts as the attacked body's response is to shut down to protect itself in absence of warmth or helpful thoughts.
This imbalance from constant exposure to stressful situations is of course going to take its toll on you then. The minute I realised the gravity of this approach, my entire being shifted. I felt like I made a sort of breakthrough, even though, of course, there is still a long way to go.
The purpose of this blog is to help anyone who has recently started therapy or is thinking of doing so. I found limited literature and conversation around what happens when you’re actually at it. I was caught off-guard by the emotional labour that goes into it and how I felt coming out of it. If you’re into berating yourself as I have been, this time can be especially testing and difficult as you tend to internalise everything and love finding faults in yourself. And this is where self-compassion comes in.
I have had depression and anxiety since I was a kid, though no one around me ever realised what it was because, possibly, theirs went undetected. I was an overachiever by 16, which is what everyone saw first, so that should explain why my illness went unnoticed for so long.
I knew at every point that I needed help, yet stigma, lack of conversation around it, poor knowledge of resources kept me away from it before. And this is saying something since I studied psychology myself.
I don’t feel so alone in my process anymore as I have me to fall back on and a good, sound sense of understanding of how to deal with a rough situation from which resurfacing is unimaginable. What this has done for me is that it has made me feel okay about myself, however I am, and be more accepting of myself as a person. I am not trying to adhere to anyone’s unrealistic standards anymore and am only focusing on doing what suits me the best.
Again, I pause to ask here, who makes us think this way? Who adds the negative connotation to it? If you know the answer, weed them out. They are only going to gaslight you further and hamper your recovery.
But by being compassionate to myself, I have opened up the door to a new world full of possibilities.
Does this sound a bit narcissistic and selfish? No. Think about it, you are only trying to comfort yourself in a situation where external help might be unavailable. Just the way you would pack the bare essentials on a hike, the same way you are equipping yourself with the tools that help sail through a tough situation.
The way Dr Neff puts it is, “Self compassion offers the benefits of self-esteem (strong mental health, stable sense of self-worth), but without its pitfalls (narcissism, social comparison, ego-defensive aggression).”
She adds, “Self-compassion is not self-indulgent or selfish because the more we are able to keep our hearts open to ourselves, the more we have available to give others.”
I honestly felt that was the nicest and most genuine thought to have. If my vessel is empty, how much or what can I give to others?
What we’ve got to realise is that healing is a non-linear graph. Some days are high, some can be insidiously low and my reaction to my diagnosis stemmed out of a lifetime of sadness, grief and loneliness that if even one person other than me could see my illness, I wouldn’t be here. On the edge. Not knowing how to come back from it. But now I do.
Yes, mental health disorders are an illness, not a weakness, like my friend very sternly told me. She said change your perception of it, rest all will follow. She’s quite right. This overall change in outlook really helped me look after myself and become my own friend.
Helping yourself might be the easiest or the hardest thing you do today, it all depends on how you look at it. But, across all aspects of life, no matter who you are, it is a life skill that will come in very handy. I hope that you take the steps towards finding a healthy and mindful way out for yourself, one that makes you confidently take up life again and most importantly, makes you live it compassionately.