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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.”

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Discussion Individuals

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

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Discussion Individuals

Heinz Kohut and why we still need empathy for ‘childish’ feelings

There’s a common idea that when we become adults we must be independent and ‘rational’. We must not behave ‘childishly’ by needing others too much or not being able to easily handle our feelings.

But how nice it would be, as adults, if we were able to receive the empathy that many children get!

For example, if a child is very anxious about something, such as making friends at school, his parents will probably try and comfort or reassure him.

They may empathise with his anxiety, perhaps telling him that they too sometimes felt anxious about school when they were small. Then they might give him some practical tips on making friends or handling his feelings.

As a result, the child feels understood and supported – more able to take on the challenge of school.

But we do not usually extend this kind of empathy and understanding to other adults in our lives, such as partners. If our partner is very anxious about something that we don’t understand we may judge them (openly or to ourselves) as being ‘childishi’ or ‘irrational’.

We may even go further, suggesting they ‘get a grip’ or ‘don’t make such a big deal about it’.

But just because we are adults does not mean we no longer need the empathy and support we got as children.

Pioneering psychotherapist Heinz Kohut was the first to argue strongly that the needs we have as children do not suddenly disappear when we become adults. He was challenging the view that well-adjusted adults should be independent, self-reliant and get along without others if they need to.

Kohut defined the needs that children have, and which we continue to have as adults:

  • the need to be mirrored: children need to be shown by adults that they are worthwhile and valued. This happens not through what adults say but throught subtle cues, such as facial expression, tone of voice and attention. When the child feels this positive attention he or she grows up feeling secure and loved.
  • the need to idealise: if the child experiences at least one parent as calm, confident and powerful then he or she has someone to turn to when the world feels overwhelming. Over time the child absorbs or ‘internalises’ this influence and so is able to soothe themselves when things are difficult.
  • the need to be like others: children need to know that they belong and are not too different from others or that they don’t fit in.

Kohut’s argument was that these needs continue throughout life and that, at various times, we need to feel support and empathy from those closest to us.

Therapist Michael Kahn says in his book Between Therapist and Client: “Kohut’s theory is a useful counterweight to the quite common belief that as mature adults we are supposed to do it all on our own, that only the weak need other people.”

While all adults continue to have these needs for mirroring and empathy, those whose needs were not adquately met in childhood will have more severe needs. These people are still looking, as adults, for these childish needs to be met. In therapy these “immature” feelings can be welcomed and explored, not criticised and judged.

In therapy the individual is able to get in touch with the unmet needs of the child, and the probable anger and sadness that flowed from that situation. By experiencing an empathic response from the therapist the adult can begin to release some of the difficult feelings and, over time, to become more able to comfort themselves and take responsibility for their lives.