Soul & Therapy
After many years personal and professional experience working as a Jungian analyst and psychotherapist, I have come to understand the core of our being, the most sensitive and sacred part of ourselves, as the soul. It is through our souls that we connect to others and the environment around us; it is through our souls that we divine what is true and right for us; it is through our souls that we find motivation, energy and life.
Understanding the soul as central sheds a simple light on both our personal and relational difficulties, our conflicts, struggles, mental ill-health, lack of fulfilment, and the practice of psychotherapy. This part of ourselves, being so sensitive, is regularly pathologised by psychoanalysis; or we are socialised into feeling that we are bad, mad, selfish or ‘narcissistic’ and we cut off from it (usually to protect it from further hurt and rejection), which leaves us missing an essential part of ourselves and feeling unfulfilled.
Therapy, where the soul is seen as central, addresses the difficulties of this sensitivity, allowing the soul to develop in its own natural ways, finding its unique path in life, and allowing us to develop depth, connectedness to others and fulfilment. It also helps us identify the difficulties, struggles and terrors in doing so, as I will describe below. It helps us find a balance between self and other, so that we don’t have to either dominate the other, nor subjugate ourselves to them. This comes naturally, through development, and the engagement with and acceptance of and by the other person, recognising them as our equal. Sometimes we might also need to be challenged in order to help us see the effect we have on others. This process allows us to come to live by the soul’s own natural ethic - a ‘sympathy’ with others and the environment around.
The neuroscience of the soul
The soul is the most exquisitely sensitive part of the psyche, which can be understood in neuroscientific terms as the core self, which includes the protoself (see Antonio Damasio’s and Jaak Panksepp’s work for more details - all references below). From the beginning of life, the soul connects and tunes us in to those around us. As we develop, it continues to connect us to our emotional, cultural and socio-political environment, as well as our physical environment (which is why we can be both so at ease in nature and are so distressed at environmental disturbances and catastrophes).
It does this through the protoself, as Antonio Damasio (1999, The Feeling Of What Happens, pp. 153-60) describes, where changes in the world around us change us. In short, we are deeply and intimately affected by the people and the world around us, and it is precisely for this reason that we are so sensitive. This process works largely through the activity of mirror neurons, so that simply by observing someone doing something, we mirror that process in ourselves; this is the process of empathy (see the work of Vittorio Gallese).
Sensitivity and defences
However, from early in life, due to that exquisite sensitivity, we cannot bear too much discomfort, pain or distress, and we find ways to turn away from distress, or the parts of ourselves that cause distress, in order to regulate ourselves and to manage the distress. Yet we need to tune in to others, both to survive and to learn what we have to do to fit in with their emotional world - attachment is imperative! We rely on our carers both to respond to our needs and distress, and not to make us too distressed by their actions, inactions, feelings and responses.
When early relationships go well, and the other person is responsive and caring, we are able to be spontaneous and playful and engage with them. In this way, we gradually build confidence that people will respond positively when we need them. With this confidence we can then, in time, go off and explore the world around us, returning to our safe caregiver when we need or want to do so. This is how we form a secure attachment, and develop patterns of secure attachment that we take forward into other relationships.
Learning and fitting in - being ‘socialised’
However, when the distress is too much, and particularly when the other person causes us distress by their actions or inactions, we either sever that connection to them to some extent, leaving us feeling more isolated, or we cut off from the part of ourselves that got a bad reaction from them. This is not due simply to a one-off bad reaction, we try to repair things when the caregiver/parent does not respond at first (see Ed Tronick’s ‘Still face experiment’ videos, which are readily available on-line). However, if the other person persistently does not respond, we cut off / dissociate from that part of ourselves.
This dissociated part then becomes a free-floating ‘complex’, as Jung (1934a) called it, which will react powerfully whenever it is triggered by life events similar to the original event; for example, being rejected or feeling/fearing that we will be rejected. In this way we learn how to behave in respect to our relational environment, we learn what patterns of behaviour are acceptable and we behave as if the world will behave in accordance with our learned expectations (Beebe and Lachmann describe this well in their 2013 book The Origins of Attachment).
Narcissism and narcissistic wounding
This cutting off from parts of ourselves, this disconnection from elements of the core self and from the protoself (and thus from the soul), is reinforced by the fact that we come to ‘learn’ that this part of us is felt to be ‘too’ sensitive, too much, too self-seeking, selfish, mad, infantile, overwhelming and amoral, in short, too ‘narcissistic’. It can be all of these things, as I will describe, however if it can be recognised, acknowledged, accepted and understood, both by ourselves and someone else, it can come to find its true place within us.
It is one of our tasks to come to bring this core, ‘narcissistic’ part of ourselves into relationship with others, both through concern for them but hopefully through the fulfilment of engaging with them. If we cut this part of ourselves off completely, we live something of a half-life as, without being in touch with and living from this core part, we feel unfulfilled, and we know there is something missing that we are continually seeking.
Soul, selfishness and selflessness
Do we need to become selfless in order to be soulful? Many religious or spiritual forms have this, implicitly or explicitly, as a core tenet. Certainly we need to be able to contain and harness our desires so that we are not wholly dominated and driven by them, we need to be able to bear some frustration. However selflessness leaves something essential out.
Soulfulness is essentially the sensitivity that lies at the heart of the self. Instead of severing the connection between self and soul and living a disembodied life, I believe that we need to recognise the shadow side of the soul’s sensitivity and come to terms with that, as I will describe below. This is the process of bringing your self into relationship with the other (relatedness), without having to have things all your own way (selfishness).
The cruel lash of the superego
It is the superego, as Freud named it, that takes on the role of keeping us in line with what is expected of us, and this comes to be what we expect of ourselves. This is ostensibly in order to keep us safe. The superego has the power to inhibit and close down self-expression, to ‘kill it off’.
It can do this through shame, fear, terror, and intense feelings of being bad and wrong, which can make us freeze and collapse. Ultimately it can trigger suicidal feelings that make us want to kill ourselves in order to obliterate the self that is felt to be unwanted and that brings us into conflict with other people, incurring their criticism and condemnation. These are extremely powerful reactions that are not just ‘feelings’ that we can ignore, but bodily reactions that affect our whole (psycho-somatic) system, so that we might not be able to stand up, walk, speak or think. They are often experienced subjectively as different forms of annihilation.
Selling our souls and staying true to ourselves
Under these pressures, and under the imperative pressure to attach and survive, we sometimes have to compromise, cut off and betray ourselves in order to fit in, we 'sell our souls to the devil’. At some points in our lives we need to be able to protect ourselves in this way, as to be so completely open, exposed and vulnerable is intolerable. There is no shame involved in doing this, although we often do feel ashamed of ourselves for having done this. Yet the cost of cutting off and being isolated and disconnected is terrible, even though we have at least lessened the amount of feeling and distress that we experience.
Later in life however, we may want to reclaim these sensitive, soulful parts of ourselves, in order to be true to ourselves, to be fulfilled. This may entail standing up to those worst experiences of shame, terror, collapse and suicidal feelings. Jung  saw this as part of the process of individuation and as ‘standing against the collective’, as often the superego holds and reflects collective values [Collected Works vol 18, paras 1084 - 1106]. This can be quite a journey. Each journey will be unique, although there may be some characteristics in common. At the foundation, we each of us have ‘the right to be me’, true to our selves, to live by and from our souls.
Whilst we are, in this way, naturally social beings, we can sometimes buy in so completely to our sense of security being vouchsafed by what the other person thinks of us that we experience anxiety, and sometimes extreme anxiety, if we feel have not done or cannot do this. This may be when we come to realise that we can’t manage to be what (we believe) they want and, additionally, that we can’t manage to be what we want - knowing that we can’t be wholly in control of ourselves, our feelings, our behaviour or events, knowing that sometime things are too much, too overwhelming for us.
This can be a cause of intense shame. We feel that we are wrong, bad, or inadequate, that we should be different, and we desperately want to know how we can get rid of this anxiety, how we can be different, how we can feel good about ourselves, or be more confident as other people appear to be. It may be such anxieties that take us into therapy, but it may be that in therapy we can challenge our expectations of ourselves and others, look at how such expectations have arisen, and we begin to be more accepting of ourselves and our ordinary humanness.
The soul’s shadow
The soul, being the most sensitive part of the psyche, has certain problematic ‘shadow’ qualities associated with it, precisely due to the sensitivity I have described. Shadow characteristics are those we find hard to accept in ourselves, they may be such things as vulnerability or the need for care or that we depend on others, or the more ‘expected’, dark qualities that I will outline here:
Blame and sadism
When we are hurt, it is easy for us to be angry with the other person for causing us distress, and to blame them for doing so. It is clear that they have caused us the distress, and we can then sometimes feel that they did that deliberately, particularly if we have told them in the past how their actions affect us.
It is a short step from there to wanting to punish them for doing that. This punishment is a way of getting them to feel the distress that we don’t want to experience. Essentially we are evacuating what we can’t bear, yet we may hope the other person can receive it, understand it and help us with it, and not think us bad.
However, this way of relating can become quite sadistic in nature. If it becomes persistent, it can also become our default way of relating to the other person - getting them to try to make it better for us, or to please us, while we take up a ‘powerful’ position, not having to experience our vulnerability and hurt, even whilst we are struggling exactly with that vulnerability. This is the essence of a dismissive attachment pattern and it has often become associated historically with male domination, although it is not necessarily gender specific.
From the other side of the relationship equation, we can spend our whole lives trying to please others, who remain resolutely unhappy (as they naturally would if they are living out of their anger and blame, ‘safely’ but unhappily disconnected from their souls).
Coercion and control
Equally the soul-sensitivity can evoke controlling ways of being, perhaps in the way an infant can be controlling, in order to exert some natural pressure over the parent to respond. It is a natural and important part of our development that we develop a sense of agency and can exert some control over our lives and circumstances, but it is an important part of our development that we can discover the limits of that control; the serenity prayer sums this up wonderfully: 'God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference'.
Whilst it is imperative that the infant’s needs are responded to, for much of the time at least (although being able to deal with some frustration and to effect a repair of the relationship is also important - see ‘Infant-like dependency’ below), yet later in life, we can become coercive if we do not respect the other person as an individual in their own right, as someone who is not under our control and is free to make their own choices. This may be because we don’t feel we can survive without them, or we have come to rely on them and can’t bear separation. Yet, ‘If you love someone, set them free’ - we need to discover that we can survive and be individuals in our own right, who can allow the other person to be free too. Separation is therefore an important part of our developmental process. When there has been a good enough connection, and it may be that this is only later established with a therapist, this separation is an important step to selfhood.
However, when a soulful connection has not been established, separation can too easily feel like abandonment and unbearable loss. Under these circumstances we might then turn to control to try to prevent what feels unbearable, and perhaps an unbearable repeat of early losses (see below).
Coming into being
This control often comes about because we need the other person’s acceptance in order to feel that it is okay to be ourselves, to come into being, so that they come to be associated with ‘being ourselves’. The relationship needs to be sufficiently accepting and established to allow us to discover that it is okay to express ourselves in many different ways - happy, sad, exuberant, depressed, angry, fearful, intimate, distant - albeit in forms that we can come to be able to manage and contain ourselves.
It is this self-expression - the spontaneous expressions of our soulful selves - that is the source of satisfaction and forward movement, of engagement with others and fulfilment, as it allows the full and hopefully playful, creative, loving, and caring engagement with others.
Freedom and entrapment
On the other hand it can also be that, in remaining resolutely separate, in refusing to commit to the other in relationship, and continually abandoning the other in the name of separateness and freedom, we are making the other carry the agony of abandonment and the difficulty of attachment and dependency for us; this may ultimately need to be recognised, acknowledged and addressed.
Yet precisely because we are affected on a deep level by others, we can feel 'subject' to them, under their influence and, sometimes, trapped; particularly if they are not respectful of our agancy and autonomy or are coercive, controlling, blaming or punitive. Our souls naturally react extremely strongly to this, and we close off from the relationship, close down or want to leave, and it may be necessary to do so - we need to be judicious about who we choose to enter into relationship with.
However, whilst we have a deep need to be free to be and express ourselves, it is important we can use our agency to address the difficulties of relationship - to be effective and free as well as assertive and compassionate - hopefully we can then find a way to be separate without leaving, to be ourselves in relationship with the other, to help the relationship develop so that both partners can thrive and grow.
Living on the dark side
If we regularly turn to anger, blame, coercion and control, and try to remain in a position of power so that we do not have to experience the vulnerability and distress that are inherent in any deep relationship, it is as if we have chosen to live on the dark side. There cannot, ultimately, be fulfilment this way as we are not truly connected to others and we know that we are shirking our true, vulnerable, human nature and making others suffer on our behalf. This in itself creates a disquiet in us, and we cannot really trust in relationships or feel that we are truly loved or cared for; this too may need to be acknowledged and addressed.
Anger, hate and separation
Anger and hatred bring distance between us and the other person. Whilst this can be destructive to the relationship if it becomes our default way of relating, it is often the anger that comes from hurt that is the impulse toward separateness; the anger that discovers that we cannot control the other person, the hurt that they are separate and that we must, therefore, do things for ourselves (perhaps feeling somewhat abandoned), as well as the anger that is an expression of self, of self-determination and autonomy. In this latter case, there can be much relief and satisfaction in this recognition.
This then, is the discovery that we can survive, that we do not wholly depend on the other person, that we can distance ourselves from their effects on us, that we don’t have to be subject to them or controlled by them, that we can be free; yet also, hopefully, that we can remain connected to them and that they are important to us and that we are important to them.
The soul’s journey
We could say that part of our journey is to come to recognise and listen to our souls, to recognise our sensitivity and vulnerability and to learn to live with that. The soul’s journey is then also to recognise and respect the other person’s separateness and freedom, to give up our control of them. Sometimes this will require us to suffer and feel anxiety about their loss. If we can do this, we can allow them to have their own thoughts, to make their own choices and to grieve their loss if need be.
Where there is such freedom and respect there is a good basis for a lasting relationship, a secure attachment (which is the blueprint for so much of what I am writing). In a secure attachment we remain connected but are also separate.
In this process, through the other person’s acceptance of us, we come to discover that it is alright to be ourselves - all facets of who we are - and that we can live an autonomous life, enjoying and relying on others at times, but also able to function independently, with our own forward-motion and agency.
Being in touch with the core of ourselves can also liberate incredible energy, which can be overwhelming at times. Jung wrote:
‘Only the man who can consciously assent to the inner voice becomes a personality; but if he succumbs to it he will be swept away by the blind flux of psychic events and destroyed.’
(Jung 1934b, para. 308)
Jung is warning here about being swept away by the power of these ‘archetypal’ forces, as he called them. These need to be ‘humanised’ by being brought into relationship, by bringing one’s self into relationship with another person, rather than insisting that we have it our own way all the time. You could say that we have to take care not to drink too deeply from the waters of life, otherwise it can lead to us having an inflated sense of our own importance (which may be a natural stage we pass through - think of the exuberance of teenage life), or to insisting on getting our own way or, if it takes us over completely, going into manic states, out of touch with reality.
However, on the other side of the equation, if we feel we cannot effect others at all, and are continually frustrated, we can lose all sense of agency and become powerless and broken. The world feels too much, overwhelming, and we readily fall into depression. Our sense of being able to have some effect on others is important, it gives us a sense of being able to thrive, survive and be effective in the world.
Often, after repeated, particularly early, experiences of rejection we come to feel that we are essentially bad, that no one will respond to us and that no one would want to respond. This experience is then installed right at the heart of us, at the heart of our identity and in our default ways of behaving; it feels very much like who we are, something from which we cannot escape. This depressive turning away from the world then becomes our way of being, and we live as if trapped in a dark dungeon, without hope, deep in despair.
These foundational experiences related to being rejected / not being accepted are particularly important and need desperately to be recognised, addressed and understood compassionately.
As well as feelings of depression, hopelessness and despair, feeling that we are bad and are not wanted also frequently induces incredibly powerful feelings of shame as well as suicidal impulses. I believe the biological root of this is from the collapse response, where our self-expression is being killed off (by the ‘protective' superego) and, this being the whole of our experience at that moment, it feels as if we are dying or being annihilated.
It is as if we are being crushed out of all existence and we turn to embrace that experience within ourselves, owning it and owning the impulse to kill ourselves off, to commit suicide. These are very dark times and very powerful experiences, and at these times when we do not want to live it is as if our whole psycho-somatic system is crying out to disappear (as is said about shame: we want the earth to open up and swallow us).
Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein saw this in terms of a death instinct, but I frame it in terms of the most profound response to ongoing threat - the collapse response, which closes down self-expression. In working through our traumatic experiences (see below), we will probably have to face up to those who rejected us in the past, and those who trigger those feelings of rejection and self-annihilation in the present.
Hopefully, having acknowledged and lived through those feelings of being bad, we can, at some point, determine to choose life. This is not simply a rational process, but will involve recognising the cues of terror and shut down in our bodies, and learning to calm those and bring our bodies back into a calmer state. Yoga, tai chi and meditation, somatosensory body work (see Ogden, Minton & Pain 2006) and EMDR, as well as any other pleasurable activities, such as walking, exercise or sport, can be immeasurably helpful here.
Staying in the light
One of the key things to remaining true to our souls, is to be able to bear the vulnerability and to be prepared to suffer at times, rather than to automatically turn to anger and blame. This is not to become passive and masochistic, but to be able to think about what is going on for the other person, which will perhaps allow us to absorb some of their distress and hurt and to respond constructively to it.
However sometimes we will need to challenge the other person’s behaviour, particularly if they perennially blame us for any distress they experience and try to exert undue control over us. This requires us to be able to stand up for ourselves and deal with some conflict - staying in the light is not just about being all-accepting. It is much easier to do this if we are able to be separate, as well as connected.
Staying in the light brings its own immediate rewards, as we are liberated from the darker, agitated feelings of anger and hatred, which can become constant companions, and we can begin to appreciate and enjoy the gifts of life around us; to experience the wonder of our existence, of relationship and of the world in which we live.
The spectre of the past
Almost inevitably, as we come to listen to and tune in to the most sensitive parts of ourselves, we are put in touch with a number of things. First, the experiences that we couldn’t bear early on, which meant that certain parts of ourselves were split off / dissociated; these are, by definition, ‘traumatic’ experiences (by definition, because what is traumatic is precisely that which we cannot bear at that particular moment in time, and dissociate). [Another thing with which we are put in touch is our infant-like dependency, as I will address below].
We therefore begin to experience the wounds of old, the old traumas and the patterns of behaviour related to them. Some people, who have had particularly difficult early experiences, will probably have been hounded by these experiences throughout their lives. Others may find that they are put more in touch with them at certain points in their lives, or in therapy, and typically start feeling worse for a while.
It then becomes a question of whether we want to continue sweeping these responses under the carpet, or doing what will very likely be the painful work of addressing them - though this will hopefully also bring relief, because these things are not being avoided any longer. Many people, understandably, do not want to explore these depths and these old wounds, and to experience the distress associated with them. Some know that they have no alternative but to do so.
Working through early traumas
Although these early traumatic experiences have their roots in the past, they are still very much active in the present as they have played a determining role in the ways we have come to engage with the world, the ways we see it, the ways we behave, what we believe, what we believe about ourselves and what we believe about others.
These are not just ‘cognitive’ beliefs that we can simply decide to change, although challenging them and exploring them with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help, but they are rooted in our behaviours, in the way we see and feel about ourselves and the ways we act. We therefore tend to repeat those old patterns of behaviour - Freud called this repetition compulsion, taking the idea from the early pioneers of trauma theory, Charcot and Janet.
As these patterns manifest themselves in our relationships, we do at least, in this way, have an opportunity to recognise the patterns, and to finally, with the benefit of our more developed personality, and perhaps also with the help of the therapist, address and try to come to terms with them. We can no longer avoid them, or at least we can no longer try avoiding them (they don’t go away anyway, even if we try to avoid them).
If we are to work them through, this ultimately means facing our worst fears and experiences, living them through and discovering that we can survive them. This usually entails a great deal of exploration, looking at the experiences from all different perspectives, including seeing the way that we might be behaving towards others in the same way that we ourselves were traumatised. My book, Into the Darkest Places - Early Relational Trauma and Borderline States of Mind, describes these dynamics in detail.
This process is not easy, and there will likely be times when we will wish we had simply swept things back under the carpet! However one of the enormous benefits of finally facing these issues is to be able to no longer live one’s life in fear, to no longer live a half-life, and to fully stand by and be true to oneself.
As well as being put in touch with our early traumas, getting in touch with this most sensitive part of ourselves puts us in touch with our infant-like, some would say ‘infantile’, dependency. The more these parts of ourselves were not met in infancy, the more they will have been split off, and the more powerful, the more undeveloped and in their raw form, and thus the more frightening they will likely seem. We are then particularly afraid of our dependency on others, which may seem like neediness; our sensitivity to the others, which may seem like hypersensitivity; or we may simply be afraid of intimacy in general, preferring to remain separate, independent and ‘safe’.
This infant-like dependency is the root of all attachments and, on some level, the root of all long-term relationships. It is the blueprint for marriage in all its forms. The other person becomes incredibly important to us, their reactions in response to us are incredibly important, as are what they think and feel about us. Most important is whether they accept us as we are, can bear with and accept the range of what we feel, and engage with us in a deep, reciprocal way.
This will not be able to happen all the time, and there will be inevitable ruptures of the relationship, which can hopefully be repaired. As I outlined above however, it is here that we can turn to anger, control and blame, in order to keep this most sensitive part of ourselves safe. It is here that there is the challenge to develop trust and to allow the other person to be separate and free.
This is the developmental challenge for the infant growing up, and it is also the challenge for this part of ourselves in adulthood that has, perhaps, never experienced a satisfying relationship on this level before. Whilst I recognise that this is the root of all long-term relationship, I recognise that it can raise difficulties in therapy (see below on the shadow of therapy) as there are many ways that the therapist cannot meet these needs on the basic, ‘concrete’ level of a physical relationship.
The therapist is there to respond to and reflect on how the client relates, but cannot meet them fully as one would in an everyday relationship; or perhaps it would be better to say that the process of therapy inevitably introduces the frustration of some wishes that are intrinsic to every relationship. The therapist can, however, help the person understand these dynamics and understand the difficulties and conflicts which have arisen in their lives.
One way of trying to avoid the vulnerabilities of attachment, the pain of loss and rejection, the difficulties of human relationship, or to try to maintain ourselves in good feelings and not to be exposed to the old traumatic experiences of loss, fragility, fragmentation and bad feeling, is to focus ourselves on a particular kind of experience that at first appears to alleviate that. Nicotine perhaps, or alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex or seeking particular forms of relationship.
Because the alternatives - the loss, rejection, vulnerability etc. - feels unbearable (they touch on old trauma which are, as I’ve said, by definition what we couldn’t bear), it feels imperative that we stay away from them, as if we are allergic. We then become addicted to these experiences as a way of trying to stay in good experience and avoiding the bad. In some way they take over our lives to a greater or lesser extent.
Whilst sometimes this is a necessary avoidance and a necessary stage, at some point we will probably need to face the trauma, which means developing other resources. These may be spontaneously discovered in ourselves, or brought through relationship, perhaps with a therapist, or through calling on a ‘higher power’ (as Alcoholics Anonymous puts it so well). These other resources give us a broader base within ourselves that allows us to accept and bear what had previously been unacceptable, and to find a way of living from a broader spectrum within ourselves, encompassing both good and bad feelings, and living more in reality as it is.
How and why psychoanalysis pathologises
Because of many of the reasons I have outlined above, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy (broadly defined), regularly, consistently, although not universally, pathologises these core parts of ourselves - they lose the soul with the bathwater, to mix my metaphors! Thus this most sacred, sensitive part of ourselves is seen as infantile, too powerful, too demanding, too needy, too sensitive, too reactive, too selfish, too self-centred, too narcissistic, in short, ‘bad, mad and difficult to know’ (and see my further comments about this below).
therapy, soul and coming into being
A therapy where the soul is understood as central can recognise these patterns and recognise that this part of ourselves needs to be met and engaged with. It needs this, as being met is what allows the person to feel that it is alright to be themselves. We literally need these parts to be acknowledged and accepted in order, as I wrote above, for them to ‘come in to being’. If this does not happen, it is just as in infancy, when the parts of the self that aren’t accepted get split off and dissociated. A fundamental struggle for all of us is whether, and to what degree, it is possible, manageable and safe to be ourselves, to be true to ourselves, to manifest and incarnate ourselves in the world.
Therefore, what the soul needs for this to happen, in fact what it craves, is acceptance and connection. One of the primary ways that this is achieved in therapy, is for the therapist to ‘accompany’ the client on their journey; to accept what comes up and help see what sense can be made of it, what place these experiences have in the client’s personality and life.
This is to follow the client’s lead, but also to be there as an ‘other’, a separate person to relate to. The therapist is a person who accepts but is not controlled, a person who can understand and talk about the frustrations and pressures, including the pressures and anxieties that lead to anger and control.
So whilst the core self requires the other person’s acceptance and identification, in short their sameness, the full trajectory of the process is for the client to then come to accept and relate to the therapist as a separate person in their own right and to bear separateness themselves. This is the developmental dynamic between self and other, bringing one’s self into relationship with another person and discovering that that is alright, in fact more than alright, a place of play and interplay, engagement and joy.
These processes help us to integrate the core self, which is so often pathologised.
The shadow of therapy
Being in therapy often makes us more acutely aware of the longings and needs to be loved, met and accepted, and the fear that we are not loved or cared for but are instead, disliked or even hated. So a shadow side of therapy is that the old wounds and traumas, sensitivities and vulnerabilities can be brought more painfully into focus.
Whilst the feelings themselves cannot be satisfied as one would in an everyday relationship, the conflicts related to the shadow sides of the soul, as I have described above, can be understood. The focus can then be on how these issues manifest in the therapy relationship as well as other relationships and, in therapy, we can address the frustration involved related to this.
This core part of us does present challenges and difficulties in everyday relationships, as I have described. Being so sensitive and easily hurt, we can readily blame the other person for causing distress particularly, in a close relationship, related to fearing their loss or rejection. This is where the issue of separation and trust comes in: can we allow ourselves to experience the fears that are entailed in the other person being free, autonomous and separate? This requires trust.
This is not the trust that the other person will never cause us hurt, but rather sufficient trust in ourselves and the relationship that we will weather the difficulties, being prepared to suffer some of the distress ourselves by way of understanding what is going on for the other person. This anxiety and suffering is in the cause of both people being able to be respected as individuals in their own right. When we get it wrong, when we hurt the other person, we can apologise if need be, but this is in the context of the necessary tensions and pains involved in a relationship of two separate individuals.
The paradox of self and soul
The deeper and more true to ourselves we become, the more we live from the soul, yet also the more sensitive we become and the more it is that hurt and hate are elicited. At what point do we close off from the soul in order to protect ourselves from hurt, or lash out to punish those who have hurt us? Or can we become more able to bear and encompass all these feelings, and become a richer, deeper, truer person?
This is one of the paradoxes of life and therapy - the more we learn and the deeper we go, the more sensitive we become. Although perhaps it would be more correct to say that that sensitivity and those reactions have been there all along and we have just found ways of avoiding them, for better and for worse. Hopefully, through these processes (life, learning, therapy) we are better able to contain and live with all these reactions, to know ourselves as more human, as a person connected intimately with others and the material world around us (see 'Ubuntu' below), and to be rewarded by the benefits of what emerges along the way.
A few further comments:
Creativity and the unknown
Another aspect of being in touch with these primitive, sensitive, core parts of ourselves is that they are the source of our being and knowing. They are not cut off from reality (see Panksepp and Biven 2012 p. x), although they do require, first, our being open to them, and then our bringing our understanding to bear on these unformed, unformulated, inchoate experiences.
This is the heart of the creative experience, to give form to what was formless and inchoate, to translate what is sensed into a form that can be known differently - this might be through knowledge and understanding or through painting, sculpture, poetry, music, dance, drama, writing or the many other forms of creative activity. This involves being open to new experience, to bear being with the unknown.
In terms of psychotherapy, this is what the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion understood to be the process of thinking and development, where the client brings their inchoate and sometimes unbearable experience to the analyst - he called these beta elements - and the analyst is hopefully able to accept those experiences, bear them and come to think about them. That process of thinking he called ‘alpha functioning’, and thus the beta elements are turned into alpha elements, which can be known and integrated by the personality (see for example, Second Thoughts, Bion 1967). An example of this is what I have described above in terms of the person working through their previously unbearable traumatic experience with the help of the therapist.
And for those who are interested in how this fits with psychoanalytic theory:
The paranoid-schizoid and the depressive positions
In the Kleinian literature, there would be a great deal of overlap between what I am describing and what Kleinians would term the paranoid-schizoid position, and the move between that and the depressive position. Kleinians also call the paranoid-schizoid position, the narcissistic position (Hinshelwood 1989; Segal 1983). My understanding of the overlap is as follows:
The core self and the protoself are the origins of our energies toward life. The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp (1998) outlined 7 basic emotional systems: SEEKING, PANIC/GRIEF, FEAR, and RAGE, and, developing slightly later, CARE, LUST and PLAY. These provide us with the basic energies, the motivation, the libido. The protoself connects us sensitively, and sometimes hyper-sensitively to others and the emotional and physical environment around us, it lies at the heart of our experience of our soul.
This level of brain activity is acutely tuned in to the reality around us, although it may need to be ‘interpreted’ by cognitive functioning (see above about Bion); for example, as Joseph LeDoux (1996) describes: walking through the woods we may see a shape in the leaves and be alarmed: “Is it a stick or a snake?!” If we haven’t immediately run off down the path in terror, we may look more closely and see that it is, in fact, a stick, and we begin to calm down. The amygdala is central to this process.
This state of hyper-alertness may come across as ‘paranoid’. Furthermore, our hypersensitivity to the world around us may be unbearable at times, so that we need to either withdraw or cut that part of ourselves off, losing connection to our feelings and those around; this could be seen as a ‘schizoid’ withdrawal. This is my understanding of the term, the paranoid-schizoid position.
These sensitivities and energies slowly become contained through learning what they are and how they can be expressed, learning what worked in the relational environment in which we grew up and what didn’t, and how we carry these expectations forward to today and how and whether these sensitivities and ways of being can still be expressed. The parts that don’t work are split off, dissociated, or we put blocks in to keep us away from our core self, living in the cognitive construct of our egos, held in check by the superego.
What we learn, becomes the models by which we live and how we expect the world to function, our ‘internal working models’, as John Bowlby called them. But these patterns and expectations, encoded in our working memory, also limit and trap us in certain ways of behaviour, ‘ways of being with others’, as Daniel Stern (1985/1998) put it. We can come to despair of being able to ‘be ourselves’ or of being true to ourselves, as our superegos reinforce these modes of behaviour through fear, shame and dissociation.
Developing newer, more realistic ways of seeing the world and relating to others takes time, but these understandings are important in containing us so that we are not all the time living in an exquisitely exposed way, hypersensitive to what is going on at any one moment. We need the ‘containers’ of our understanding and our workable ways of being, held by our ego, in order to live from our core selves.
This core part of ourselves, the core self, has a primary function to evaluate experience - is this good or bad, safe or dangerous? (see Solms & Turnbull 2001, pp. 90-91) - to appraise it (to use Bowlby’s term). This means that we naturally and inevitably see things initially in terms of good and bad and have the consequent reactions to each - wanting to move toward the good experiences and move away from the bad ones, feeling distress and perhaps disgust and anger at the bad ones and pleasure, joy and attraction at the good ones.
As I have described, and as Klein (1946) puts it, this splitting into good and bad also applies to parts of the self too. We move away from those parts of ourselves that get bad, unpleasant, rejecting responses from those around us, which may include no responses at all, we split off and dissociate those parts, experiencing them as ‘bad’. To the extent that they are still parts of ourselves, even though dissociated, we in fact experience ourselves as bad.
In order to reclaim those parts of ourselves from dissociation, to become true and whole, we may have to do painful work to explore and own what has come to be felt to be bad, precisely because it was unacceptable to those who brought us up.
Jung called these elements of ourselves that we don’t accept, the shadow, as described above, and note that it might be parts of ourselves that are sensitive and loving that are relegated to the shadow as they are painful to live with, not simply elements that we traditionally think of as ‘bad’, like, perhaps, meanness, rage, hatred, anger or sadism.
As we develop, we come to see the world in a more sophisticated way, no longer driven and reactive to good and bad, but able to see that all experience has its place. This is what I understand Freud meant by the move from the pleasure principle to the reality principle. We are more able to accept the reality of different kinds of experience, both pleasant and unpleasant, and to accept these parts of ourselves as well, to integrate our shadows. Klein would see this bringing ourselves into relationship with the other and accepting both 'good' and 'bad' aspects of the relationship as a move toward the 'depressive position'.
The True Self and the persona
The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1960) described what he called the True Self (he capitalised the term) - that part of ourselves that we must protect at all costs. He described how if, in infancy, the caregiver is able to respond affirmatively to the infant’s self-expression, their ‘spontaneous gestures’ as he called it, the infant’s True Self begins to have a life (1960, p. 145). If this is repeatedly not the case, the infant develops a False Self. I understand this False Self as a largely cognitive structure, which keeps the person separated from their sensitive core self, their soul, as I have described.
I see the True Self very much as the feeling, connecting soul, and whilst we will always need to protect it, I believe it can be largely integrated and ‘lived from’, if we can accept all that goes with that.
Jung and the persona
Jung had a somewhat different view of these phenomena, seeing that we inevitably and necessarily have a part of ourselves that orientates us towards, and helps us adapt to, the emotional-relational world around us. He did not see this as necessarily false, in contrast to Winnicott’s ‘False Self’ concept; he called it the persona.
Our personas, which are highly adaptive in this way, may adapt seamlessly to the particular person with are with, so that we may be different with each and every person, and may be different on each different occasion. Jung saw the persona’s role, as part of the ego, to help us orient toward and live from our deeper Self.
Jung’s concept of the Self
I will bring this longer-than-anticipated (?!) piece about the soul to a close with some comments on Jung’s concept of the Self (he also capitalised the S in Self), which has something in common with Winnicott’s concept of the True Self, though Jung’s concept is a great deal more detailed, comprehensive and extensive.
For Jung the Self ‘holds’ all the potentials and parts of ourselves that are in some way pressing to come into being. The unfolding of these parts of ourselves, and the process of acknowledging and integrating them, he called individuation. Jung also saw the Self as wise and held that we had to listen to it. I recognise this as part of the processing that is going on the whole time without us necessarily knowing (it is going on unconsciously, often in these most primitive parts of the brain such as the protoself), as we appraise experience and adjust to what is happening in our lives, and try to come to terms with things and to adjust to them.
I have had cause to wonder about the wisdom of the Self in the past, as what emerges from the depths is certainly both powerful, disruptive, difficult, painful and sometimes dangerous. Jung dealt with this by calling it archetypal, and advising us to approach it with extreme caution. My understanding of the soul and the shadow side of the soul captures, I hope, some of the difficulties and dynamics of these vital (in all senses of the word) parts of ourselves.
It is a lifelong process to learn to recognise and respect this part of ourselves, our soul, and to try to live by it and from it, as it engages with the ever-changing, sometimes wondrous and sometimes terrible reality before us.
I have essentially been describing a deeper ethic of the soul, that does not come about through a set of rules. The final word regarding this deeper ethic is very well described by the philosophy of Ubuntu. This is a Nguni Bantu term meaning ‘humanity’, which is sometimes translated as either, ‘I am because you are’ or ‘I am because we are’, or more generally, ‘A person is a person through other persons’. To quote from Wikipedia, quoting from the African Journal of Social Work (AJSW), ubuntu is:
A collection of values and practices that people of Africa or of African origin view as making people authentic human beings. While the nuances of these values and practices vary across different ethnic groups, they all point to one thing – an authentic individual human being is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world (Mugumbate & Chereni, 2020).
This deeper ethic is shared, I would suggest, across all humanity, whilst particular mores and rules will vary from culture to culture, state to state, and organisation to organisation. I hope you have found these thoughts about the soul interesting, stimulating and perhaps even helpful.
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