You Can’t Pull Yourself by Your Bootstraps When It Comes to Mental Health

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My therapist told me something once that I immediately wrote on a Post-it note I still keep on my desk. I constantly repeat it to people who come to me for help.

“Without spiritual help,” she said, “we lean on tools we learned as children. We have to feel safe enough to let go of the tools.”

When someone is tired of trying to please everyone else, I tell them that people-pleasing is a tool they picked up somewhere along the way, likely when they were young.

When someone wants to communicate better in their relationship, I tell them that avoiding honesty and vulnerability is a tool that probably once protected them.

When someone wants to stop drinking so much, I tell them that numbing out uncomfortable emotions is a tool.

When someone wants to stop dating people who are emotionally unavailable, I tell them that avoiding intimacy is a tool.

When a client is feeling burned out, I tell them that hustling and working too hard is a tool this capitalist society forces them to hold tightly.

We lean on these tools because we learned them at a young age — and they worked.

They protected us from feeling emotions we (very likely correctly) predicted would be excruciating.

People-pleasing, for example, often results from a young person having to earn their parent’s love, or their parent’s emotional availability was inconsistent or nonexistent. It protects them from having to feel the unbearable fear, sadness, and loneliness of being completely ignored on an emotional level by the adults taking care of them.

What’s tragic is that people-pleasing does the opposite when we’re an adult. It still acts as protection. But it’s like a shield keeping others from deeply connecting with us.

That’s why we need “spiritual help” to “feel safe enough to let go of the tools.”

You might be tripped up on the word “spiritual.” Think of it as a synonym for “connection.” Depending on the person I’m helping, I might change it to something like: Without help feeling connected…

To feel safe enough to stop people-pleasing, working too hard, drinking too much, whatever the habit we want to change, we have to feel connected. To ourselves, to someone who won’t judge us (like a therapist), to nature, to the universe, to God, to something.

In other words, the little child-like parts of ourselves inside of us that can’t put down the tools can’t do it alone. Like real children, they need to feel seen, heard, and loved enough to let go. They need help.

Hi, I’m Jeremy, a therapist and meditation teacher. Subscribe to my weekly email to get posts like this straight to your inbox here.

To work with me in individual therapy, join one of my therapy groups, or hire me for meditation classes, get in touch.

Download my free ebook on how meditation has made me less anxious and transformed my life.

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Jeremy Mohler

Jeremy Mohler

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Writer, therapist, and meditation teacher. Get my writing about navigating anxiety, burnout, relationship issues, and more: jeremymohler.blog/signup