man adding dirt to houseplant

"It might sound silly to say that our self is the person we spend the most time with during our lifetime. Yet it is striking to further observe that we also represent the person we most often forget."

ALEX: “It’s strange, I keep waking up in the middle of the night, wanting to do things!”, a few weeks after working through a recent and very painful depressive episode.

THERAPIST: “Really? You’ve always had good sleep, maybe not when you initially started therapy, but certainly before and after that. I noticed sleep got more difficult for you around your break-up with Alice, and also when your father became suddenly very ill. Do you think these events let anxiety and depression take over your nights?”

ALEX: “Yeah, I see what you mean. But it’s not that, it’s different these days.”

THERAPIST: “How so?”

ALEX: “Well, I don’t have the overwhelming anxiety when I wake up at night. You know, I feel ok. For example, last night I spent an hour shopping online for an indoor plant. Not only that, I desperately tried to find an excuse for cancelling a date I have this evening. In the end, I’ve decided I want to go fetch the plant, I’m really excited! I can’t believe I’m cancelling the date to fetch myself an indoor plant! Is this normal?”

THERAPIST: “Sounds like you have a new person in your life…” (with a slight smile).

ALEX:  “Exactly! Me! I’m actually wanting to spend time with myself, that is unusual…”.

To some men, psychotherapy might seem like a waste of time, indulging in one’s own problems instead of finding solutions and having a real impact on relationships or projects that matter. But matter to whom? 

Although not greatly recognized in the media, men spend a lot of their time thinking about how they could be useful to others: in group activities (especially in the professional sphere), with their colleagues, within their community, and of course with their families and loved ones. They often go through adolescence and adulthood without securing a friendly, caring, and compassionate relationship to themselves. 

Men can be their most severe judge, their worst enemy. They can even disqualify time spent to connect with their self. “Why meditate, it’s a total waste of time!” said Alex in his first session. “My problem is that I don’t always figure out what others really expect, and then I get it wrong and I feel worthless. I need to get it right, I need to make it work again like I used to!”. 

In itself, attending a first session of psychotherapy was an important step for Alex. It meant taking at least an hour each week to connect to his own self, outside of the performances involved in things such as meeting demands, being better than others, satisfying his hierarchy at work, or being the ideal partner. Even working out was to designed to look in great shape in the eyes of others

In his first ever psychotherapy session at age 41, Alex anxiously complained about not being to perform at the level he should, and how that was keeping him from falling asleep at night. He wanted to call his GP for medication, but felt he didn’t have time to do it: “Would you like me to call the GP now, during this session?” the therapist asked. “I can do it, no problem”, the therapist continued, “because I see you are struggling to find time to take care of yourself, and I want to help.” It had struck Alex how therapy might be a place where he could learn to devote some care and attention to himself, a thought leaving him feeling as if he was travelling into unknown territory. It might be possible if he could trust the therapist, who appeared non-judgmental and able to deal with overwhelming states of mind. 

It might sound silly to say that our self is the person we spend the most time with during our lifetime. Yet it is striking to further observe that we also represent the person we most often forget. Generally, we do not forget ourselves out of habit or altruism. More often, we simply lose patience with our own self: we can even feel that we can’t stand ourselves, or that we are not worth the hassle. These are times when alcohol, drugs, zoning out a on TV series or video games, gambling or engaging in risky behaviour provide what we feel to be adequate distraction from our painful self. 

For those among us who’ve been told we were useless, not interesting, or ignored in times of need, the relationship to one’s self is often not even something that we have consciously considered. In therapy, Alex discovered “that I actually have spent the last 30 years ignoring myself. I went about life just obsessing over what it was I needed to do right, to get it rightbut also getting into drugs and alcohol just to forget for a while, just to have a break.” Whilst very uncomfortable and even painful, this discovery opened up a myriad of possible new ways of experiencing himself in the world, if only he could get a handle on maintaining contact with himself: “I can go weeks on automatic mode, it works quite well… until it doesn’t anymore.

Alex said what worked for him was to “try something different; I got to a point I could not ignore there was something in the way. I felt that could not go on forever, and that intuitively, I knew I needed help.” He tried out three different therapists, a session each, just to see what he could learn. That led him to decide to do a few more sessions with the one that he felt he trusted the most: “It’s personal, I don’t know why I chose this therapist, but it worked out.”

When asked about the effect of therapy, he says “Other people say I’ve changed quite a bit. I can’t say I enjoyed the process, but what I liked about it gave me a sense that now, most of the time, I sense I’m actually living my life, really; not just jumping from one thing to another. The difficult moments are still difficult, but I experience them more clearly. The benefit is that I see myself learning more from the rough patches. In the end that made therapy worthwhile. By the way, I can’t believe I’m recommending therapy to other men. I never thought I would do that… ” concludes Alex with a slight smile.