Therapy with soul

“Any therapy which does not address the issues of soul must remain superficial in the end.”

James Hollis

Although the word “soul” has religious connotations, when I talk about bringing soul into therapy I am talking about taking a deeper view, which embraces the mystery of a person’s life and the problems they may be struggling with.

This means is that, as a soulful therapist, I try and resist the temptation to ‘fix’ the problem in a superficial way. Often attempts to resolve problems quickly do not last as the symptom returns in the same, or a different, manifestation.

Instead of seeing a client’s struggle with, say, addiction, depression or sexual problems as a symptom to cured I am interested in what this particular symptom may be saying about the person’s life and their unconscious longings and fears.

That does not mean ignoring the symptom. We need to, and the client will insist, that we attend to the problem he or she is bringing. But it does mean that we also look beneath the presenting issue to what else may be going on in that person’s life journey.

A major part of working soulfully is engaging with the shadow, which is what Jung called that part of ourselves that we reject because it does not match our self-image. The shadow often contains anger, jealousy, selfishness, lust and other ‘negative’ feelings.

Jungian therapist and author James Hollis describes working with soul in his book Swamplands of the Soul. He argues that it is the difficulties in our life – the compulsions, the  depressions, the anxieties – that mould us and create meaning. But we need to look beneath these symptoms, he says, and feel the feelings that are being covered.

He says; “Without the suffering, which seems to be the…requisite for psychological and spiritual maturation, one would remain unconscious, infantile and dependent. Yet many of our addictions, ideological attachments and neuroses are flights from suffering.”

If we are able to explore what feelings are being covered over by addiction, depression and anxiety we often discover anger (or even rage), sadness and grief. These feelings can seem so raw and frightening that we are afraid to touch them.

But, as therapist John Bradshaw says, “You can’t heal, what you can’t feel.”

A soulful approach takes us down, down into these feelings, down into the shadow. It asks what what meaning or purpose, if any, there may be in these feelings and related experiences. What it does not try and do is superficially ‘cure’ the symptom.

One way of giving painful experiences, such as abandonment or abuse, some meaning beyond our personal experience is through stories, myths and archetypes (universal symbols or patterns of behaviour).

In his book We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse, archetypal psychologist James Hillman gives the example of a man who, as a child. was abused by his father. Hillman opens up the possibility that this experience could be seen as a kind of initiatory experience, a way of understanding archetypal/universal themes concerning rage between fathers and sons, vengeance and submission.

By re-framing the experience in this way, “I’ve moved the memory, somehow, from just being a child victim of a mean father. I’ve entered fairy tales and I’ve entered myths, literature, movies. With my suffering I’ve entered an imaginal, not just a traumatic, world.”

While I agree, up to a point, with Hillman my concern is that this approach is not used to bypass the legitimate rage and sadness that the victim may feel. It may be necessary to first experience the victim feelings before being in a place to explore the mythical or archetypal elements.

But what I think Hillman is pointing at is our tendency to rigidly judge our experience as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Yes, being treated abusively is clearly ‘bad’. It affects our self-esteem, our ability to form trusting relationships and so on. But there may also something in that experience that forms our character, that perhaps gives us an extra sensitivity to other people’s suffering or that encourages us to seek an outlet in creativity.

As Hillman says: “Wounds and scars are the stuff of character. The word ‘character’ means at root ‘marked or etched with sharp lines,’ like initiation cuts.”

By Patrick McCurry

I'm a psychotherapist based in Canary Wharf, London, and Eastbourne, UK.

6 replies on “Therapy with soul”

I think that perhaps Hillman’s fear was that of freezing the feeling, and getting caught by the judgement.
To paraphrase him: when we are hurt by an abuse in our past, it is our idea of the past that is hurting us and not the original event.
Having gone through a Jungian analysis myself, I can say that the thing that helped me move on from past wounds was as Hillman called it, revisioning my life, gaining some perspective that took away my insistence that life was how it was and could be no other way. I was wrong about that. I now see that the people who hurt me were just as wounded as I was and that they were limited in their ability to love because they had not the freedom to choose love for themselves or in how they treated others.
Very freeing…

Hi Ptero, I appreciate your comment, especially as it comes from your lived experience. As you say, it can be liberating to get to a place where we can see those who have treated us badly as flawed – and often wounded – human beings. I think it is also often true that it is not so much the initial trauma that is so damaging, but what happens afterwards and how the difficult feelings are handled (if at all).

I really like this post. The works of John Bradshaw are very important to me and you quoted a great quote of his.
The idea of soulful therapy was soothing to my mind as I read your post about it. I think it is a beautiful way to approach a human being’s life and struggles- to find hidden meanings and connections.
I have been thinking of archetypes recently, particularly the wounded healer. I love art, creativity and literature and am naturally drawn to the concept of archetypes. Recently I was thinking I needed to read more about archetypes.
Great site. I will be reading.

Hi Rachel, thank you for your comments. Yes, I agree that working with archetypes and the soul can bring something different into counselling/therapy, or life generally. It can remind us that there is always much more going on than our conscious egos realise. best wishes, Patrick

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.