What is self help?

By Sarah Melen


So perhaps you are struggling with life at the moment, but you don’t feel comfortable seeking out professional help? Although we cannot recommend a professional enough, we’d like to help you with where you’re at. This section will give you some ideas and resources for helping yourself. 


How is ‘self help’ different to ‘self care’?

While they both overlap, self care and is a series of behaviours (like showering, exercising, eating properly) while self help is more of a reflective process. Self help can be how you help yourself during a difficult emotional period (such as a bout of depression or death of somebody close) or can be a more generalised “soul searching” or “finding yourself”. Although “finding yourself” may sound a little bit cliche, developing a personal sense of your identity is an important part of your development as a human being!

Self help has become stereotyped as that category in a book shop with titles like “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, “The Secret”, “How to Find Your…”. But it’s more than that! Self help is developing a strong and positive relationship with yourself, understanding your personal values, and reflecting upon your needs and goals – so that you can have healthy relationships and a more meaningful and fulfilling life. 


How can I help myself?

Self help isn’t difficult, but it is an active process that requires practice and commitment. It depends a lot on your current emotional state – for example, it’s difficult to think about things that make you happy in the midst of depression.

In our culture there is a tendency to delay asking for help until things get really tough. So it may be that some professional support could help you get to a place where you can focus on developing your own self help strategies. However we understand how hard it can be to make that step, so here are some initial suggestions:

1. Developing Self Awareness

Self awareness is really the cornerstone of healthy relationships – to others, to ourselves, to work, to food, to exercise, to play…. Self awareness helps us bring attention to our values – what do we want out of this life? Is what we are doing right now in line with those values? How can I take action that aligns with my personal values? 


Mindfulness is a key skill in developing self awareness. Mindfulness helps us disconnect from our trail of thoughts – the running dialogue in our minds. When we recognise our thoughts for what they are (often a meaningless discourse) we have more mental space to connect with our ‘true’ self. Try to integrate mindfulness into your daily life. Think of it as exercise for your mind – just like building muscle bulk takes time, building self awareness takes time. See if you can use a guided meditation to go to sleep each night? Or if you have a spare minute during the day, youtube a 5 minute meditation exercise. 


2. Developing Self Compassion

Part of our culture (and particularly medical culture) involves being hard on ourselves, and not allowing ourselves to experience and express our emotions fully and completely. We can get into the habit of avoiding our emotional experiences, which does not work – after a while our stresses can be overwhelming, and our emotions can become overpowering. 


Self compassion means befriending yourself. Some of the thoughts we have about ourselves are definitely not the kind of things we’d say to a friend… so why do we say them? Our thoughts about ourselves are internalised from our culture and our caregivers, and sometimes reflect the individualistic and competitive intentions of society, rather than the compassionate and nurturing kindness that we are all capable of expressing. 


Next time you feel distressed, fighting your feelings won’t make them go away. Try to let them come without fighting them off (if you have experienced trauma, it would be safer to practice this exercise with a professional). Next, you can repeat Dr Kirsten Neff’s “self compassion break” to yourself: 


This is a moment of suffering


All human beings experience suffering


May I be kind to myself


This may not be useful the first time you do it – in fact it may be mechanical and humorous! However, the more you practice the more you will be able to open up to your emotional experiences without anxiety or hesitation.


Check out Dr Neff’s website for more resources on self compassion

3. Figuring Out What Works For Me

There are so many different avenues for seeking help – and different things will work for different people. Finding something that suits you is a journey that will take time. Be patient with yourself 🙂 

If you do seek professional help, understand that finding the right “fit” with a professional can take time. Maybe the first few psychologists you see don’t really help you? That’s okay! Don’t lose hope! Keep looking until you find one that suits.