Self-Help Isn’t Enough for Native Women

The self, as we know it, is a western construct—a non-Native invention resulting in undue emphasis on self-help, self-love, and ascribing value to the self.

Women say, “You have to love yourself before anyone can love you at all,” and that seemed like solid advice, until I wondered what advice like that means to a person who is from a collective culture? A person like me.

The self, as we know it, is a western construct—a white invention. Self-help, self-love, and ascribing value to the self, couldn’t be more white, because it all amps up to the idea that people have quantifiable values, and that value is directly related to meaning. ‘What are you worth?’ ‘Don’t settle.’ ‘I’m worth it.’ These sayings pervade commercials for products aimed at women, women’s magazines, and women’s circles (not mine).

This talk posed major problems when I needed support for mental health issues. I was depressed, and I knew some component of my sorrow was based in my culture, my identity and my community. I felt anchored to historical trauma, and dysfunction, and my history. I don’t think any white doctor understood me when I said that I was partially resigned to mourning, because I mourn for my ancestors, even when I celebrate them. It was, and is, bittersweet. I couldn’t think of one event in my life that I did not attach to a broader story that included my people.


I tied my father’s institutionalization to how his people were treated in the past, and how that trauma bled into his behavior and mindset. Everything about anyone in my family was bound by the double-ness of being an Indian: there is us, and then there’s what happened to us. Somewhere between all of it was what we could be accountable for, what we could fix. But some things are just un-fixable—some things we must contain, process every day, and speak truth to that story for younger generations.

Those doctors acted like grief was a bad thing, a thing to fix. They acted like sadness, melancholy, or depression was unnatural, but I think it’s a very real reaction to injustice. In my treatment there was no component to deal with my history, or my mother’s, not in any way that acknowledged that historical trauma is real and tangible to us, but abstract to them. It is a physical pain, and a constant thing, just like the love we feel moment to moment—when we consider our hands and feet, and that we survived, thrived, even. I speak generally, but it’s a common feeling.

When I saw my mother, I saw her desire to bring those around her joy, and that her happiness wasn’t based in the self; her joy was more extraordinary. She thrived on making others stronger, healthier, happier, and smarter. Getting lights on our rez basketball court meant more to her than receiving recognition for it, and it’s that kind of thing that made us love her more. Picking medicine to help others was how she spent her down time. That was her idea of a vacation! It was so utterly boring to me back then, but now I wish I could go back and listen more intently to her teachings.

In the counselor’s office once, I tried to relate all of this. But her response was inadequate. She thought I was trying to explain away the things that happened to me, when I was trying to contextualize how what happened to me will be put on a continuum of women from my nation. What happened to me, it’s felt in the hearts of the people I love, and we share grief like we share joy or celebrate the land. It feels unilateral and instantaneous, and I don’t think it’s mystical. It seems pretty fundamental and intellectualized. We move together, and, at our worst, we turn on each other, but it’s always based in ‘us.’ The self signifies something plural for me, and trying to communicate that to so many people has been exhaustive. It’s not some hokey thing; it’s based in our teachings and knowledge.

So my counselor said, “You need to work on your self-esteem.” And I couldn’t. I esteemed myself, sure, but it wasn’t my measure of success, or part of my life in a daily way. It was something to resist.

“Don’t you value yourself?” she asked.

I thought a long time and decided it didn’t matter if I did or not, because what kind of capitalism is it to believe I hold value—that I could be quantified, and show men how to ascribe value to me—love me according to how I love myself. I can’t do that. If a man wants to love me, he’s going to end up loving more than me: he’s got to have an affinity for my culture, the theories of my culture, the stories, and if we have children, he will have to embrace my children as the children of my nation, too. We are bigger than our beings, and there is no container to measure the expansive nature of being me. There is love and tragedy to my being. Sometimes, I can’t be removed from tragedy. He has to love that, too.

I believe counselors, people in every day discourse, and beyond, they have to understand that a lot of these concepts of the self are based on some lonely person’s idea of contentment. People who could only find solace in themselves. I think, until they experience the kind of genocide we did, they won’t know what ‘us’ is, or how deeply rooted we had to become to survive. My mother’s idea and center of joy rested in the idea that her people would not fall, not again, not ever.

So, in the white buildings of health, wellness, medicine, and therapy, I just let them know a component of my healing depends on the people I love being okay, safe, and content. They brush it off, write it down, and I just take their advice with a grain of salt and remember my mother, who would probably say, “When you get done with this session, go to the mountain.”

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine and Yellow Medicine Review. She is Saturday Editor at The Rumpus and she’s a proud IAIA graduate.