When healing turns narcissistic

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A friend just went through a breakdown, brought on by fifteen years in the corporate world. Physically and mentally burnt out, she turned to various different healing therapies to recover. Gestalt therapy, an Ayurvedic diet overhaul, then a coeliac and vegan diet overhaul, traditional psychotherapy, and a series of cleansing practices involving salty water and much time spent in the bathroom.

At first, the ‘healing work’ seemed to pay off. Her fingers stopped shaking from the Diet Coke drip feed she was on 24/7, she stopped anxiously poking at her phone every five minutes, and coffee dates didn’t come with an emailed agenda. But when she threw out her kitchen appliances because her Chinese Medicine Practitioner said she had ‘too much metal’ and refused to eat after 4pm on advice from her Ayurvedic doctor, I began to have doubts. But when ‘going out for coffee’ became ‘driving across town to the only café in Melbourne that stocks her brand of coconut water’, suddenly ‘healing’ became synonymous with ‘giant pain in my ass.’

We all need to heal sometimes, whether it’s physical healing after an illness or prolonged stress, emotionally after relationship breakdown – perhaps even spiritual healing after leaving organised religion.

But so often ‘healing’ seems to turn into a kind of puritanism, bordering on self-obsession. In the yoga world I’ve noticed it surfaces as a tendency toward ‘purification’, through detoxes, ‘cleanses’, and ‘heal your life’ workshops. And while there’s nothing wrong with these things in themselves, it makes me wonder at what point do we say ‘we’re healed’? And when does ‘healing’ – cycling through practitioners and therapies – just become an attempt to avoid legitimate pain?

“I think there is an issue here about the concept of 'perfection',” says Melbourne Psychologist Janet Lowndes. "The concept of healing can be misrepresented when people strive to become something other than they already are. But instead of always gasping to be different or better, if we can learn to meet ourselves as we are in this moment, without trying to change anything, we can heal our relationship with the life that we have.”

The problem with ‘meeting ourselves as we are’ is that we don’t always like who we are. At those times ‘healing’ can feel brutal, like ripping off a 6 foot long band aid. I remember going on a meditation retreat during a difficult period a few years ago. We were encouraged to ‘strip back our outer layers and shed all that didn’t serve us’, but I came home feeling completely raw, like I wanted my outer layers back. “Is the winner the person who is just a pile of raw flesh in a foetal position on the floor? If this is healing, I don’t want it,” I thought. In hindsight, the retreat helped me identify beliefs that weren’t helpful, but at the time it felt counterproductive.

“[Healing work] can lead us into extraordinary transformation, but it must be approached carefully,” says Donna Farhi says in her book Bringing Yoga to Life. “What may appear at first to be a jungle full of weeds may be weeds that stabilise a steep slope.”

We want a quick fix, and going slowly and stabilising isn’t very attractive in our era of the quick fix. But the 16-day detoxes and ‘change your life in a weekend!’ approach seems quite violent. But when we punish ourselves on the route to benefit, what’s often ‘shed’ is our sense of humour, our personality, our humanity.

What if ‘healing’ didn’t mean you had to pulverise innocent kale and call it delicious, or add ‘love and light!’ to your vocabulary? Ultimately no amount of colonic flushing, dry needling, cupping, fasting, or leeching will stop you from feeling whatever is there to be felt. What if, as Lowndes says, we re-interpreted ‘healing’ to mean accepting who you are?

My favourite healing technique is from renowned author Charles Bukowski. “When I get depressed, I just pull down the shades, grab a beer and go to bed. After three or four days I walk outside, the sunlight is brilliant, the sounds are great and I feel powerful, like a recharged battery. One day they’re gonna say ‘that psychotic guy knew – everybody should go to bed when they’re filling low and just give it up for three or four days!’” 

Alice Williams is an author and yoga teacher. She tutors in media writing at the University of Melbourne and blogs at Alice-williams.com @Alicewillalice

18 comments

  • Just don't get me started on the time my (now ex) husband returned from a festival announcing that he was going on a raw food diet.........

    Commenter
    KnightCat
    Date and time
    July 30, 2013, 9:12AM
    • Thank you, this is disturbingly true.

      On the one hand one can claim that it does no harm and is only irritating. Yet there are distressed, anxious people drinking bleach on the advice of so-called Chinese doctors, in order to cleanse and detox their insides. It is called the Miracle Mineral Solution and it is industrial bleach.

      Furthermore there are people claiming to have heavy metal poisoning, diagnosed by a naturopath, given a potion to drink and whoosh, cured in two weeks.

      The money these people are making out of poorly educated, gullible souls is a real concern. It is charlatanism and nothing more.

      However whilst yes, the patient becomes obsessive, I don't agree that it is narcissistic. It is much more about a deep gnawing anxiety and about blatant manipulation by an industry (alternative therapies generally) that needs much much tighter regulation and control by external bodies.

      There also seems to be a real failure in our education system with regard to science and health generally leaving people increasingly vulnerable to anyone who calls themselves some sort of healer. We should be far less tolerant of alternative therapies and stop providing rebates for this stuff which is untested, expensive and often dangerous.

      Commenter
      Yikes
      Date and time
      July 30, 2013, 9:43AM
      • "The money these people are making out of poorly educated, gullible souls is a real concern. It is charlatanism and nothing more."

        Totally agree. I'm amazed that it is actually legal to charge money for homeopathy or Reiki and the like - surely it's commercial fraud to advertise and charge money for treatments that have been proven to be ineffective? Don't even get me started on "psychics" and astrologers... it's disgraceful that we allow them to charge money for their demonstrably fraudulent services, particularly when there's evidence that the people most likely to see a psychic are the vulnerable and recently bereaved.

        Commenter
        Red Pony
        Date and time
        July 30, 2013, 11:18AM
    • There's something of a catch 22 here. Often we perceive there is a need for healing, or at least a shift in terms of lifestyle or attitude. There may be a genuine need to change, especially if there is suffering associated with the way we are. But what tends to happen is that as soon as "the mind" sees a preferable future laid out before it, it hijacks the situation. We develop an agenda to become something different or better in some imagined future - and in doing so we implicitly reject who we are. The message we then send to ourselves is that "I am not OK till I reach this future idealised "me".

      So working in the corporate world to become rich, powerful or special is not much different from "working" on yourself to become something "bigger" psychologically, spiritually, or physically. How can you relax and love yourself - let alone heal - when the mind plays such a game?

      The only answer I am aware of is to spend time every day in relaxed presence, fully in the moment. Only in the present moment does the agenda of the mind release its hold. It's actually very simple.

      BTW, I am a man. Sorry if I am intruding here, but I couldn't find the "men only" room.

      Commenter
      Marcus T Anthony
      Date and time
      July 30, 2013, 9:59AM
      • Yes narcissism is so selfish isnt it.What I find so problematic for so many struggling with liberation of their ego id and superego(yes I am Freudian although have studied all the modern spin offs,or rewrites adaptations whatever)you know those who say things like " I have to respect and honour my self worth" and become totally selfish self absorbed and egocentric in the process-----then wonder why they cant find someone who loves them ,when they are so giving ,so selfless so sharing so caring ,so kind, so generous ,so warm and have so much love to give?Almost a cliche really.

        Commenter
        Jane
        Date and time
        July 30, 2013, 10:20AM
        • Jane, yes, I agree with what you say, but point out that every part of our culture encourages selfishness.
          The competitive workplace, capitalism, advertising, technology, politicians etc are interested in appealing to the individual through incentive, fear, flattery, bribes, fantasy, vanity ie base instincts and emotions.

          Commenter
          Distopia
          Date and time
          July 30, 2013, 12:00PM
      • Some good thoughts in this - a lot of which links to the Reichian notion (correct me if I've got the source wrong) that our psycho-emotional history is embedded in our whole bodies. Therefore when we deliver 'shocks' to our bodies to tone them, tune them, cleanse them or whatever, we can't help but replay the tapes of our lives, which for most of us delivers a high pain quotient we may not be prepared for. One thing bothers me though - this idea of "legitimate pain". Those are words I'd be a bit careful with. One the one hand it connects to another loosely defined notion from Gurdjieff - "conscious suffering" - but on the other it smacks of the sort of 'received wisdom' crap that we get ad nauseum from the organised religions and all their old men with long white beards. It seems to do little more than plant the suggestion that we've all been naughty little girls and boys and we must take our punishment for having the temerity to exist.

        Commenter
        lewsome
        Location
        Stirling
        Date and time
        July 30, 2013, 11:02AM
        • Some good thoughts in this - a lot of which links to the Reichian notion (correct me if I've got the source wrong) that our psycho-emotional history is embedded in our whole bodies. Therefore when we deliver 'shocks' to our bodies to tone them, tune them, cleanse them or whatever, we can't help but replay the tapes of our lives, which for most of us delivers a high pain quotient we may not be prepared for. One thing bothers me though - this idea of "legitimate pain". Those are words I'd be a bit careful with. One the one hand it connects to another loosely defined notion from Gurdjieff - "conscious suffering" - but on the other it smacks of the sort of 'received wisdom' crap that we get ad nauseum from the organised religions and all their old men with long white beards. It seems to do little more than plant the suggestion that we've all been naughty little girls and boys and we must take our punishment for having the temerity to exist.

          Commenter
          lewsome
          Location
          Stirling
          Date and time
          July 30, 2013, 11:08AM
          • Having been seriously ill myself, and also a moderator on many health forums I can safely vouch for the narcissistic eejits of the world. Investigating how to improve my health and having some experience in the detox world and the needling/cupping ideas, I can tell you the only thing which gets healthier is the pocket of the therapist at the time. I have suffered severe depression, cancer, threat of cancer and odd bod illnesses, and after all this time realise the best therapy is rest and being kind to yourself. Whack a candle on in the bath, have a glass of wine, go for a long walk. No colon needs cleansing, nature does that just fine. Educate yourself and then just relax! Those on the forums eventually either learn and rejoice, or they go manically insanely pushy little narcissists who refuse to believe we don't give a toss about their latest fad. Honestly, at the end of the day, they are running from reality; Themselves .Healing is a slow process and one that needs insight to oneself, not chucking money and staying on a restricted diet or having things shoved up your bum!. If someone wants me to empathise with this I will say, 'Try having a colonoscopy while awake due to a bowel cancer scare, you won't want anything else up there ever again!'

            Commenter
            Wise woman
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            July 30, 2013, 12:00PM
            • Clinical psychology is not in the same category as feel good, pop psychology or new age fads. The methods used to treat depression, anxiety and other disorders are practical and based on sound research. Also, meditation and mindfulness are not about escaping our humanity when practiced properly. Quite the opposite.

              Commenter
              Amy
              Date and time
              July 30, 2013, 12:06PM

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