When healing turns narcissistic


Photo: Getty

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