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Resisting the pressure to be ‘happy’

‘Tears are words that need to be written.’

– Paulo Coelho

We live in a culture where there is often an unspoken pressure to be happy, upbeat or positive.

Sometimes this message is explicit, as in ‘You just need to think positive!’ or ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself, cheer up!’ We may even hear this kind of exhortation after the death of someone close, if we have not bounced back to normal after a couple of months – ‘You just need to let go and move on!.’

I think there is a danger that, in following this cultural norm we disconnect from legitimate feelings that do not fit in with this belief, such as sadness, grief, emptiness or melancholy.

Yes these ‘negative’ feelings are part of being human. The risk is that if we disconnect from these, uncomfortable, feelings we also feel less connected to all our feelings, including those of joy or excitement.

We are using record levels of anti-depressants, not to mention alcohol, food, TV and other substances/activities to distract ourselves from darker feelings.

In his book Against Happiness, Eric G. Wilson criticises the modern Western culture of striving for happiness. He points out that much of the world’s art and creativity has its origins in dark feelings.

“I am afraid that our…culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life.”

This is not to say that there are not times in life when it may be necessary or helpful to ‘think positive’ and Wilson stresses that he is not trying to romanticise clinical depression, which is a deeply distressing condition. Nor is he questioning the importance of joy, exuberance or satisfaction in one’s life, which often arises spontaneously.

His target, rather, is the superficial notion of happiness which seeks to exclude any troubling feelings and instead try and create a world where only ‘positive’ feelings are allowed.

My training is in transpersonal, or ‘soulful’ psychotherapy. This is a therapy that takes a holistic or spiritual perspective on a person’s experience and does not see pain as something to automatically try and eradicate.

James Hillman, an American psychologist and author who built on the ideas of Carl Jung, argued in favour of soul in his essay Peaks and Vales. According to Hillman it is our soul that connects us to the messy realities of life, including failures, defeats and difficult feelings. Soul also makes itself felt through our psychopathologies – our obsessions, addictions, depressions and other symptoms.

While we may want to get rid of these ‘problems’, if we can pay attention to them, look beneath them, we may discover that they are communicating something to our conscious selves about a part of us that needs to be honoured or acknowledged.

Similiarly, feelings like sadness, grief or emptiness can spur us to make a bigger place in our lives for nature, art or human connection. Or these feelings may simply need to be felt, with no obvious outcome sought.

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Discussion

Finding meaning in depression

 

Depression is, understandably, usually regarded as an extremely negative experience. After all, it is painful to feel and can rob us of our enthusiasm, energy and enjoyment of relationships.

Many people come to counselling and therapy because they feel dissatisfied with life, have unhappy relationships or are stressed in some way. Underneath these symptoms there is often a depression.

In our culture we tend to try and get rid of depression when it appears, using pills or pragmatic advice such as ‘take more exercise’ or ‘count your blessings’. While for some there may be a role for anti-depressants or practical tips, sometimes we need to go a bit deeper and look at what the depression may be trying to say.

Being curious

A therapist working in a soulful way, while acknowledging the pain a depressed client is feeling, does not automatically try to ‘fix’ the client by trying to take the painful feelings away. Instead, he or she is curious about what may underlie the depressed feelings.

For example, in some cases it could be a buried anger that has never been acknowledged by the client but has now been turned inward in the form of depression.  Or it could be related to extremely painful experiences in childhood that have never been truly mourned.

Depression may also be a symptom that we are pushing down – literally ‘depressing’ – a part of ourselves that needs to be heard or honoured. For example, if we are living a life that is really in line with what our parents approvd of rather than what we ourselves longed for, those unmet needs may result in depression.

Suppression of life force

James Hollis, author of Swamplands of the Soul, believes that depression is often a suppression of a person’s life force and that everyone experiences depression at some point. He says: “The psyche uses depression to get our attention, to show that something is profoundly wrong. Once we understand its therapeutic value…then depression can even seem a friend of sorts.”

While it may be possible to understand some of what may be causing a depression, that does not mean it will necessarily lift quickly. A therapist working in a soulful way must be prepared to be with his or her client as they struggle with depressed feelings, resisting the temptation to “rescue” the client with false reassurances.

At times we do not know what is beneath the depression and we simply need to accept and sit with it in a compassionate way, trusting that it is there for a reason. This compassion can help heal, over time, even if our ego is desperate for the pain to disappear more quickly.

 

 

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Discussion

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.”