What does our psyche want now?

I recently attended a talk by the American depth psychologist and author James Hollis, whose books I had long admired.

James Hollis

James Hollis

“I often ask my new clients if they they think they have a soul and what it may be asking of them,” he said. That made me think. Hollis did not mean soul in the Christian sense, but rather the part of us that is separate from our ego, that is part of our unconscious and that has a connection to something larger than ourselves.

In the traditional religious meaning, soul is opposite to body, but in depth psychology soul refers to the Greek word psyche. Rather than being this ethereal, floaty thing that many of us imagine, in this sense soul is closely connected to our human experience, particularly our deep emotions, our longings, our joys, our mystery. This was an idea developed particularly by the archetypal psychologist James Hillman.

By ego, I mean the part of ourselves that we are aware of and which we think of as ‘us’, but which is only the tip of the iceberg and does not encompass our unconscious. It is our ego that tries to control our lives, and our environment, and which is constantly on the lookout for threats.

We need our ego to run the business of life, but if its needs dominate then our psyche/soul may need to make itself felt through neurosis and painful symptoms.

Writing in his book What Matters Most, Hollis says soul is a metaphor to describe our essence: “It is the energy that blows through us, that enters us at birth, animates our journey, and then departs, whither we know not, at our passing.”

Soul, by its nature, is actually impossible to fully define. While it lives in the unconscious it is constantly making itself felt in our conscious lives, through our emotions, dreams and imagination.

The reason Hollis asks his clients if they think they have a soul is because he is wanting to get away from the assumptions many people bring to therapy; that they have a ‘problem’ and that it is somehow the therapist’s job to get rid of this problem.

Depth work is not about solving the problem but about recovering the life we’ve somehow lost along the way, he says. Clients often come with a symptom, such as an addiction, a depression, an anger issue or a relationship problem, and they want the therapy to eradicate this symptom.

But depth therapy does not “cure” people or eradicate symptoms. “We don’t solve these problems, we outgrow them,” says Hollis. But to outgrow them may mean exploring what the meaning of the symptom is, what is our psyche trying to get us to pay attention to in our lives?

Mostly we are governed by our egos and we think we know what we want or what we need. But the psyche/soul may have a different idea of where we need to go. It is our ego that desperately wants to get rid of the symptom.

Some approaches, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), try to get rid of the problem the client brings. CBT can help, and I use some CBT  approaches in my integrative therapy. But my experience is that often CBT can seemingly get rid of the symptom, only for it to re-appear in another form. If the underlying issues are not dealt with this is always a risk.

But how do we know what our psyche is asking of us? One way of exploring this is through therapy with a practitioner who has experience in working with the unconscious. Other ways in include noticing our dreams and what they may be telling us.

As palliative care doctor, and therapist, Michael Kearney says in his book Mortally Wounded: “My own personal and work experience has [shown me]…that soul is connected to depth, to death, to the imagination, and that it brings with it a sense of meaning.”

 

Further reading

By James Hollis:

Swamplands of the Soul, Inner City Books, 1996

What Matters Most, Gotham Books, 2010

By Michael Kearney:

Mortally Wounded, Morino Books, 1996

Is it ‘selfish’ to have needs?

Clients will often seem puzzled when I ask them what their needs are in life. Some will even deny they have needs at all or regard it as somehow selfish to acknowledge them.

Those who find it difficult to recognise their needs are sometimes those who spend much of their lives focusing on others, on trying to keep everyone else happy.

But I would say that having difficulty in recognising our needs and getting them met in an appropriate way applies to many of us – not just people who have been brought up to deny their own needs.

This is an important issue because we all have legitimate needs and just because we ignore them they do not disappear. In fact, when we ignore them or are unaware of them these needs will still be directing our behaviour at an unconscious level.

Beyond the very basic needs of food, shelter, safety, warmth and so on, our needs include:

 

  • Physical touch and affection
  • Sex
  • Time for relaxation
  • Understanding
  • Respect
  • Belonging
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Fun and play
  • A spiritual life/sense of meaning
  • Friendship/companionship
  • Love

I think the reason many of us find it hard to identify and express our needs is because this was dangerous for us as children. We may have got the message, implicitly or explicitly, that our needs and wants were a bother to our parents.

For women there is also society’s message that they should be giving to others and be putting others’ needs (children, family) before their own.

 What happens when we fail to recognise or communicate our needs?

As stated above, if we ignore our needs they do not just disappear but will come out in unforeseen and often unhealthy ways.

For example, the person who doesn’t feel they have the right to ask for some down time when they get home from work may end up snapping at his or her partner or children.

Psychologist Pia Mellody describes how a child whose needs were not met appropriately can grow up into a “too dependent’ adult or an “anti-dependent” adult.

The too-dependent adult expects other people to take care of their needs and wants and does not take responsibility themselves. The anti-dependent, however, is unconsciously afraid to ask others to help meet her needs because that would make her feel vulnerable. She thus finds it difficult to be in a truly intimate relationship.

In her book Facing Codependence, Mellody says: “Not tending to one’s needs and wants appropriately is often connected to a feeling of low self-esteem (shame).”

The solution to this is gradually becoming aware of one’s needs and wants and finding ways to communicate them to others. As part of this process the individual will need to tackle the toxic guilt or shame that may arise when he begins to value his needs.

 

 

The value of allowing conflict

Most of us are taught from an early age to avoid conflict. We are taught to be polite, to be sensitive to others, to hold back any “negative” feelings.

Of course, it is generally good to be polite and to think of others. But if this becomes a habitual way of avoiding any conflict or disagreement this way of living can drain us of passion and energy.

This is particularly true in close relationships, where a desire to not upset our partner or friend, can leave us sitting on uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. This can lead to an underlying resentment.

Danaan Parry, author of Warriors of the Heart, says that we have got the message as children that conflict is not okay, it is dangerous and should be avoided: “ Furthermore, we are taught that if you avoid it, if you pretend there is no conflict when there really is, then it will all ultimately, ‘go away’. “

The problem is that conflict, when ignored, does not just “go away” – it goes underground and festers.

I often see couples in which one or both partners is holding back difficult thoughts or feelings because they don’t want to “rock the boat”. But when certain feelings or thoughts become taboo it can affect the entire emotional quality of the relationship and passion can begin to slip away.

I often hear clients say they avoid conflict with their partner, or with others, because they are worried they won’t “win” the argument, that they are not articulate or clever enough to justify their feelings.

But part of learning to allow conflict is letting go of the need to be right. It is getting away from an “I’m right, you’re wrong” perspective and moving towards a more open, less judging stance in which we are both allowed to express strong feelings and feel heard by the other.

As Parry says, it is only when we let go of the need to be right at all costs, that we can genuinely listen to the other person. But it is very difficult to let go of this need to be right because in some sense we feel identified with our opinion or feeling and that we must defend it or else look stupid.

In allowing conflict in our relationships we also need to allow ourselves to be emotionally touched by the conflict.

That may mean acknowledging that we may be feeling some sadness, fear or vulnerability, as well as anger. It may mean acknowledging that we have a range of different, sometimes conflicting, feelings.

Trying to find a solution too quickly can detract from the value of simply allowing these different feelings to be present. When we can lean into this emotional uncertainty, instead of resisting it, something new can emerge.

John Welwood, author of Journey of the Heart, says that recognising these different parts of oneself can be difficult to do: “Yet if I can stay on this edge where I don’t know what to do, without falling back into some old pattern – such as blaming her, justifying myself, or denying my anger – then for a moment my awareness flirts with new possibilities.”

Why no therapist can take you further than they themselves have travelled

One of the most important criteria when choosing a therapist is finding one who has travelled their own path and faced, if not completely worked through, their own difficult issues.

They don’t need to have everything perfectly resolved, even if that were possible. But they do need to have done the hard work of looking at themselves in their own therapy.

Good therapy will have helped them become more aware of aspects of their own Shadow. The Shadow is like our blind spot and is the parts of ourselves that we have unconsciously rejected. It may include vulnerability, anger and sexuality. It is not uncommon for us to see these rejected parts of ourselves in others, and to judge them.

The danger of seeing a therapist who has not done their own work to a deep enough level is that certain areas of the client’s life may subtly become “off limits”, at an unconscious level, in the therapy room.

Danaan Parry in his book Warriors of the Heart tells the story of his therapist who was puzzled about the fact that clients brought all kinds of issues but no one ever came to see him about sexual problems.

He asked for feedback from his clients and one told him she felt very comfortable with him, he was a good listener, made good eye contact and gently encouraged her to go deeper. But she told him:  “However, John, whenever I bring anything up that has to do with my sexuality – all the blood drains out of your face!

“It’s fascinating because nothing else changes. You still maintain eye contact, you’re still a good listener, your body language stays open, but your face turns absolutely stark white…and I get the clear message from you that it is not okay for me to talk about my sexuality.”

This feedback enabled the therapist to explore more deeply his own issues around sex and he realised that an incident when he was shamed by his mother as a child over a sexual incident had made that area of his life very uncomfortable. But he had not realised how he was communicating that discomfort to clients.

This story shows the importance of therapists having done their own work in therapy but also continuing to be curious about where their blind spots might be because it is never possible to become completely free of them. This ongoing work can be done by the therapist in their own therapy or in clinical supervision.

I was reminded of the importance of this area recently when reading a book by child expert Margot Sunderland about using stories to work therapeutically with troubled children. She says it can be tempting for some adults to make the story have a happy ending, even though the child has left the ending unresolved.

“For example, the listening adult may say, ‘No, don’t leave the little peanut in the gutter – let’s find it a nice home to go to.’ This is an example of the adult’s need to make everything all right, when maybe by leaving the peanut in the gutter the child is trying to communicate his feelings of hopelessness.

“This is a common problem when the…listener (usually out of conscious awareness) is running away from her own hopelessness, despair, grief and so on.”

So, seeing a therapist who has not done enough of their own psychological work can make the therapy less rich and less effective.

Instead of unconsciously giving permission for the client to bring whatever they need to, the therapist can turn into an advice dispenser or a rescuer who needs the client to behave a certain way.

Further reading

Warriors of the Heart, by Danaan Parry

Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children

This being human is a guest house

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A  joy, a depression, a meanness, 

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows…

The poetry fragment above is by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, who was a Sufi (Islamic mystic).

What I like about it is the message that all our feelings have a place, not just the ‘positive’ ones like joy or contentment.

Rumi compares the spectrum of our emotions to visitors at a guest house. We never know for sure which feeling will be the next to visit.

In the poem Rumi goes on to urge the reader to treat each ‘guest’ honourably, i.e. to welcome then in and not turn them away. In the same way, can we make a place for our anger, our sadness, our shame?

By making a place for our less comfortable feelings we also free up space for the more pleasant feelings. Often we try and escape uncomfortable feelings by denial, distraction or covering them over with drugs, alcohol, sex or TV.

But this doesn’t really get rid of those feelings, it just pushes them underground, into the unconscious where they continue to have power in less direct ways.

However, it can very difficult to allow the less pleasant feelings simply to ‘be’, without trying to change them or escape them. We live in a quick-fix culture where we are encouraged to immediately try and eradicate pain or discomfort – take a pill, think positive, count your blessings and cheer up.

There is often nothing wrong, of course, with taking medicine, thinking positive or counting our blessings. But when they become a habitual way of trying to deny deeper feelings our emotional ecosystem can become unbalanced. Paradoxically, suppressing ‘negative’ feelings can also make it harder for us to feel joy, excitement and enthusiasm.

One way of handling these feelings is neither to suppress them nor to necessarily express them, but simply to try and feel them without judgment. We may be able to come into a different kind of relationship with these feelings, in which we are not running scared but simply acknowledging to ourselves what we are feeling without getting into a battle with the emotion.

After all, we don’t always know why we are feeling the way we are and what role such a feeling might have in our life at that time.

As Rumi concludes his poem,

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent as a guide

from beyond.

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.”

Paying attention to our calling

.Acclaimed ceramicist (and author of The Hare with Amber Eyes) Edmund de Waal’s ceramics are very pure and minimalist in their design. He recalled how, at age five, he made his first pot and the teacher asked him why he didn’t decorate it with some colours.

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De Waal’s ceramics

He declared to the teacher that it was finished. “Even at that age, I must have known what I wanted to do with my life,” he says.

Reading this reminded me of how a person’s “calling” can be present from a very young age but that many of us don’t pay attention to the little clues and hints that may be pointing us towards our destiny.

This theme is relevant to therapy because many people find themselves feeling unhappy or dissatisfied without quite being able to put a finger on it. They may just have a feeling that they are not fulfilling their potential in some way.

Depth psychologist James Hillman argues that from infancy we all have a definite character and calling but that we often come under pressure to behave in psychologically “healthy” and conformist ways that can rob us of our uniqueness – a bit like the pottery teacher who wanted de Waal to add colours to his pot.

In his provocative book The Soul’s Code Hillman presents his acorn theory, which is about “reading a life backwards”. This means seeing early passions and obsessions not as problems to be corrected but as possible indications of a person’s future calling.

More mystically, Hillman draws on Plato’s idea that each of us is given a kind of guardian angel, or daimon, at birth, who guides us. This can also be seen as an inner spirit or guide., the little voice in our heads that often gets drowned out.

It is very important to pay attention to our childhood, and subsequent life, to catch early glimpses of the daimon in action, says Hillman.

“A calling may be postponed, avoided, intermittently missed. It may also possess you completely. Whatever; eventually it will out. It makes its claim. The daimon does not go away.”

What usually distracts us from following our calling are the social and family pressures to do what is expected, to make money, to marry the ‘right’ person, raise the ‘right’ kind of family and do the ‘right’ things. But then we may find ourselves strangely unfulfilled.

Psychologist and story teller Michael Meade says: “The real work in this world is not simply to succeed and ‘become somebody’, the real issue is to become one’s intended self.” He adds that the challenge for us all is to live with passion and purpose, and he quotes the poet E.E. Cummings, who said: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

In therapy clients have the chance to explore what really excites them, what they are passionate about but are not honouring in their life. This could be an artistic or musical gift, a desire to study or travel, or some other kind of passion.

He highlights numerous cases of famous people whose gifts or destinies were hinted at in their childhoods. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt, civil rights campaigner and wife of the famous US president Franklin Roosevelt, came from a very difficult family background in which both parents and a brother died before she was 11. She became antisocial, threw tantrums and retreated into day dreams about being the mistress to her father’s large household and accompanying him on his travels.

A conventional therapist would find no intrinsic value in her daydreams, suggests Hillman, in fact they would probably label them as delusion. For Hillman, however, they are not a pathology but rather a manifestation of her future calling as one of the most influential  First Ladies in US history

While most of us are not going to become famous artists or public figures, we can still look at our lives, our longings and dreams from a different perspective – one that is curious about which is our unique path and how we can honour it.

Photo by escdotdot, http://tinyurl.com/osn48b2