Self-Help Methods or Psychotherapy?

26 June, 2021
Q I have been suffering from depression and anxiety for about 5-6 years. I have been practicing CBT self-help methods for the last 2 years. I have improved tremendously and reduced a lot of my depression, anxiety, and self-confidence issues. I practice the methods for about an hour per day, but still many of my problems bother me and cause me anxiety, inferiority feeling, and shyness. I have heard that substantial effect can only be achieved with the help of psychotherapy, but here we do not have any good therapist (I live in the Middle-East), and I think I would not even be able to pay it. I heard it is expensive. What can I do to improve more? Another question: is there a limit to how much I can improve using self-help methods? I am asking this because most of my improvement was achieved using self-help methods and not psychotherapy. Thank you.

Answer

Answer:

As-Salaamu ‘Alaikum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuhu,

Your questions are so important in life that Allah (swt) mentions their answers in His Book:

“Indeed, [O Muhammad], you do not guide whom you like, but Allah guides whom He wills. (28:56)

This proves that knowledge comes from Allah (swt), not people. Allah (swt) sends knowledge through people. Why make knowledge come to us through people in a way that confuses us as to where knowledge comes from? To “test” our faith. To pass this test, we have to distinguish the message from the messenger. If you think this is easy, think again: the largest religion in the world (Christianity) is made up of people who think that the Messenger (Peace on him) is the source of the message, i.e., God (swt)! To avoid this egregious misunderstanding, remember that guidance comes from Allah (swt), not people, even though it comes through people. To do this, look below the surface and think deeply.

A messenger can be our self (the cogitations of our minds), good advice from anyone (nasiha), a teacher, a therapist, etc. Even Shaitan talks to us to get us listen to him. He speaks to our “real” needs as humans (truth/knowledge), then, once “in” and he “has our ear”, he suggests false ways of getting our real needs met. The ability to decipher his false ideas from the real routes to our real needs is a lifelong process – the process of life.

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So no, you do not need a therapist to improve. You might need her assistance temporarily, but, first and foremost, you need Allah (swt). Allah (swt) sends down His knowledge to whom He (swt) pleases. Because His choice is our hand, all we can do is ask Allah (swt). He (swt) says He (swt) responds to the supplicant! And Allah’s (swt) knowledge can come through any route He (swt) chooses.

“Is there a limit to how much we can improve using self-help?” Allah (swt) says:

 “Say, ‘If the sea were ink for [writing] the words of my Lord, the sea would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even if We brought the like of it as a supplement’.” (18:109)

Because knowledge (“the words of my Lord”) is that which we need to “improve”, by definition, and because knowledge is immeasurable, there is no “limit” to how much you can “improve”.

To understand the relevance of the immeasurableness of Allah’s (swt) knowledge to our psychology, it helps to define the word “psychology”.

Psyche means soul. Psychology means the logic or the science of the soul. But what is soul? The problem with our modern-day science of the soul is that it rejects the Devine’s (swt) definition of soul because it no longer believes in the Devine (swt) – at least not in science. This absence-of-knowledge limits their ability to define soul.

In Islam, our soul comes from Allah (swt). It is the life-force in us. It comes in us through breath. The metaphysics in us that make us sentient beings. Feelings, thoughts, and beliefs are from our soul. These metaphysics are identified by things like the “aha moment” – insight, enlightenment – which also define “knowledge”. All knowledge has only one source: Allah (swt). According to the above verse, it is immeasurable.

In other words, the verbiage” self-help”, or “therapist”, or any helper is misleading. Even though Allah’s (swt) help comes through people, all help is actually from Allah (swt). So, don’t be deceived by the verbiage, or the person, or the book; these are façades designed to veil its real source to test you to see if you remember that Allah (swt) is the source.

“No one attains any of His (Allah’s) Knowledge except in Accordance with His Will…” (Quran 2: 255)

Because knowledge is subject to Allah’s (swt) will alone, we have to ask—beg—Allah (swt) to give us of His knowledge. And Allah (swt) works in mysterious ways.

The reason CBT works is because it goes below the surface (behavior) to the motives (meta­physics) that drive behaviors. Our motives are our beliefs. With our beliefs on the table, we can change them, by Allah’s (swt) will. When we change our beliefs, our behaviors change in turn, by Allah’s (swt) will. Habits get in the way of that because habits groove neurological pathways in our brains. That is why addiction is a disease because it is physical, not just lack of will-power. So, the habit-changing strategies of CBT help with that.

As regards the things you still feel you need to work on – anxiety, inferiority feeling, and shyness –, beliefs drive those feelings. They come from what your parents programmed you to believe, and from other experiences you had growing up, and from your soul – your personality. Some people are shy, some are not. Shyness may not be a problem. Feeling inferior is.

If you feel inadequate, ask yourself: what values are driving that “decision” (even though the “decision” is not conscious)? What measure am I using to determine my inferiority? In all likelihood, you are using a false belief like your class, or physical beauty, or family’s reputation, etc. Allah (swt) says that a person’s piety, charitable heart, sensitivity to other people’s needs, etc. are the measure of their worth! These non-material things cannot be measured with a ruler or scale. Because of that, we make the mistake of not valuing them.

I see from your question that you care and you think. These are blessed attributes! Thank Allah (swt) for them and love yourself for them. Even though they are gifts from Allah (swt), they are loveable, so you have the right to love them—to love yourself!

It is important to note that therapy is not about things foreign to us like learning another language or a science that has nothing to do with our daily lives, like brain surgery. Therapy is about things that happen to all of us every day—the bad things, that is. We just have to take the time to examine our lives and ask Allah (swt) for guidance. Converting bad feelings into lessons about life so we can grow and mature from them is what therapy is about.

Pain is not foreign to anyone. Childbirth is the “mother” of PTSD —we are thrown from bliss (the wombs of our mothers) into a world that makes us scream in pain. The pain of bad experiences makes us think. Pain feels unhealthy, but is actually good for us because Allah (swt) is good, so everything from Allah (swt) is good. Everything from Allah (swt), including bad experiences, Shaitan, and pain, are good, somehow—we just have to figure out how.

The tools of therapy are not magical or mysterious. I assure you, most therapists do not even think that bad experiences are good for us. Therapy teaches that bad experiences cause permanent damage and mental illness for life. Ultimately, the ability to survive painful experiences comes from Allah (swt), not therapy.

May Allah (swt) make it easy for you!

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About Nasira S. Abdul-Aleem
Nasira S. Abdul-Aleem, an American, has a BA in English from UC Berkeley and is about to receive an MS degree in counseling psychology (Marriage and Family Therapy - MFT) from the Western Institute for Social Research. For over ten years, Nasira worked as a psychotherapist with the general public and in addiction recovery.For the last few years, she has been a life coach specializing in interpersonal relations. Nasira also consults with her many family members who studied Islam overseas and returned to America to be Imams and teachers of Islam. Muslims often ask Nasira what psychology has to do with Islam. To this, she replies that Islam is the manifestation of a correct understanding of our psychology. Therapists and life coaches help clients figure out how to traverse the path of life as a Believer, i.e., "from darkness into light", based on Islam and given that that path is an obstacle course, according to Allah.