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Jungian Depth Psychotherapy and The Definition of Self Control

June 5th, 2017 · definition of self control

The proper definition of self control is very important for people who need to deal with key issues in their lives.

definition of self control

Many feel that the issues that bring them into psychotherapy have a lot to do with self control, in a variety of different ways.
They feel that, if they could only control their reactions to various situations, or keep themselves from certain types of behaviour, that they could find a great deal of relief, meaning and forward direction in their lives.

Willpower

Depth psychotherapists know that individuals in distress often speak of cultivating their willpower.  The story they tell themselves will often go something like: “If I had more willpower then my life would work for me.  Then I wouldn’t get distracted / give in to this addiction / get caught up in depression … –or, fill in any particular issue or source of suffering or shame here.  You get the idea.

This idea has a long history.  Plato, 2500 years ago, felt that reason must rein in appetites and impulses.  The Roman Seneca the Younger held that “No evil propensity of the human heart is so powerful that it may not be subdued by discipline.”  Nearer to our time, Dale Carnegie stated, “Everybody in the world is seeking happiness—and there is one sure way to find it. That is by controlling your thoughts.”  This has been a very powerful idea.

definition of self control

…Control Your Thoughts!

But here’s the thing: is this sort of self control or willpower even possible?  The poet William Blake tells us, rather shockingly, “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”  Blake’s assessment actually seems to line up with many findings in contemporary neuroscience research.

York University’s Prof. Stuart Shanker reminds us that an fMRI of a brain experiencing strong emotional upset or intense fear or anxiety shows that the limbic system, or the “emotional brain” is very lit up, with neurons firing intensely and continuously.  Yet, the prefrontal cortex, where the rational, reflective self is located, is dim, reflecting that it’s pretty much offline.

Self-Regulation

Let’s suppose that this brain belongs to someone having road rage.  Suppose this person has been dealing with a great deal of stress and anxiety, related perhaps to work or family, and now, a truck has just done a lane change right in front of them without signaling, and our person is in a state of seething rage.  Plato, Seneca and Dale would all urge our driver to access the reasoning mind and so control any aggressive impulses.  But, as we’ve seen, an fMRI of the prefrontal cortex shows that the reasoning mind is pretty much shut down when our driver’s brain is in the state that it’s in.  So how can it reign in the emotional brain?

The answer is: it can’t.  No amount of “willpower” or “reason” will help, when the brain is stuck in this highly triggered “survival brain” state.  The same would be true of a multitude of other situations where triggers, (what a Jungian like Margaret Wilkinson calls traumatic complexes) have been activated, and are keeping brain functioning stuck in the limbic “survival brain”, rather than allowing the whole person to respond to the situation in a reasonable or emotionally regulated way.

So, the definition of self control must switch.  To be able to stay in a place where we can respond to situations in our lives appropriately, what we need is not willpower, but a developed capacity for self-regulation.

Integration of Unconscious Contents

Depth psychotherapy locates many of the sources of situations that might seem to result from so-called “lack of self control” in triggers that are rooted in the unconscious mind.  These move the individual into emotionally charged “survival brain” states, which Jungians and other depth psychotherapists have long referred to as situations where traumatic complexes get activated.

On this view of the human psyche, the definition of self control changes from the old idea of “building up will power” to an approach based on self regulation. Through the process of bringing to consciousness unconscious complexes, (often rooted in trauma), and allowing the individual to re-experience these life events in a supportive environment, the power of these events to throw the individual into out-of-control “survival brain” states is gradually reduced.

Taking the affective power out of traumatic complexes, and restoring that energy to the individual is a key part of depth psychotherapy.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst

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