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Life Changes: How Can We Face Major Life Transitions?

February 24th, 2020 · life changes

Life changes are growing in size and frequency in our lives, as we move further into the twenty-first century.

The question of how we will deal with these major life transitions is becoming more and more important for us as individuals as we each confront the challenges of our particular life journey. How will change come to you? And how will you cope with it? Perhaps the reality of big life changes is something you’re dealing with even now.

Traumatic Transition

Life changes can be raw, even violent events that strip away the certainties in our lives, leaving us without much defense against the impacts of life. The raw force of unmitigated change can be devastating.

Michael Enright, the host of the CBC radio program The Sunday Edition gave a powerful example of this on the show’s February 21 episode. In the feature item “Can Canada find a housing solution for its homeless?”, he quoted a shocking statistic: of the approximately 35,000 homeless people in Canada, between 3,000 and 5,000 are veterans of the Canadian military, many of them with operational experience in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the experience that a significant proportion of veterans have with return to civilian life is pretty emblematic of how not to deal with major life changes. Many are given very little preparation or assistance with the return to “civvy street”, and find themselves basically thrown into an environment that can seem very daunting and unfamiliar after living a military life for an extended period. As one veteran, Philip Kitchen, put it,

I love the military, the way it worked, the leadership, the opportunities. I was keen on my job…. The transition to civilian life is so hard, I can’t describe it. I had never been a civilian in adult life.

The consensus of a great many service and government agencies is that veterans are given very little preparation for undergoing the major life transition they will face.

Discharged veterans are a powerful example of what often happens around major life changes in our fast-paced, rapidly emerging society. Individuals are often ripped out of stable situations, and plunged into new, unfamiliar circumstances without any prior preparation or support. It can cost the individual a great deal, psychologically, to have to deal with change in this manner.

Beyond A Naive Approach to Life Changes

Many people in our time attempt a kind of “heroic” approach to life changes, whether it’s shifting careers, leaving a marriage, retiring, losing s spouse, re-marrying, moving to a new city, or any of a range of other major changes. In our era, people frequently just wade right in, often without really acknowledging what is involved emotionally in making a truly life-altering change. This can be very difficult and painful.

Our ancestors actually did a better job of this kind of thing than we do. Many indigenous cultures, and by no means least, Canada’s own First Nations, embody awareness of the need for processes of initiation when individuals went through major life changes.

If an individual in an indigenous culture was to go through a major life change, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood, his or her journey would likely be recognized through a rite of passage. Such a ceremonial process of initiation might span a considerable amount of time. In its complete form, as outlined by the famous scholar Arnold van Gennep, such a process of initiation would have three parts:

  • Separation, in which the individual goes through a withdrawal from his or her old status, and prepares to move to something new;
  • Transitional Phase, an ambiguous state, in which the individual has left the old identity behind, but has not yet taken on the new identity; and,
  • Incorporation of New Identity, in which the individual completes the rite, assumes his or her new identity, and moves forward into life with that new identity. This part of the rite is often symbolized by some sort of outward representation or recognition of adopting the new identity.

Once an individual passes early adulthood, our society doesn’t seem to do that well at providing rites of passage to acknowledge major life transitions. That may be part of the reason that there often seems to be so much anxiety and depression associated with life changes in the lives of individuals in our culture.

Life Changes and Rites of Passage

It’s essential that people give themselves compassion as they confront major life changes. It’s vital that they give themselves the psychological room to acknowledge everything that is happening to them — the losses, the disorientation, and the joys and pains of coming into a new lived reality and a new identity.

This acknowledgment can be a very demanding task in our fast-paced, impersonal, “aren’t-you-over-that-yet?” society. One important support and resource in doing this crucial work can be a solid alliance with a Jungian depth psychotherapist, as we move through all the life changes that are part of the journey to wholeness.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst


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Healing Shame about Aging

February 10th, 2020 · healing shame

People become much more conscious of the fact of aging through midlife and into the later years. This awareness often comes with a sense of shame. How can we begin healing shame like this?

I remember in my own case one particular moment when I began to feel this type of emotion, when I noticed a simple change in my hands that made them appear more venous, and well, …older. A very small thing, and yet very uncomfortable. Certainly many people past the age of even 35 can relate some experience of this type.

Is there any way that we can move forward through our various life transitions, that would allow us to begin healing shame about aging?

How Did Getting Older Become a Stigma?

Dr. Barry S. Anton, former President of the American Psychological Association relates a story which will resonate with many of us.

At a recent dinner party, a friend asked, “How old do you feel you are when you think of yourself?” To my amazement, everyone at the table answered that they felt at least 25 years younger than they actually were. Were my friends in denial? Were they yearning for the fountain of youth? …. Were we ashamed of our seniority? In our culture, youth is celebrated and old age dreaded. [Italics mine]

Barry S. Anton, “No Shame in Being Older”

Dr. Anton is surely right: we live in a culture that worships youth. Billions of dollars are spent on advertising products designed to make people feel younger, and, above all else to help them look younger. Looking older is considered a very bad thing. This is especially true for women, but each passing year finds increasing pressure applied to men to present themselves as more youthful, too.

In our culture a particularly powerful form of shame is body shame. If we don’t have the body we are “supposed” to have, we experience intense shame. In this sense, one powerful aspect of shame associated with aging is bodily shame.

Silence Around the Shame of Aging

Shame leads to silence. Evolutionary psychology shows that the emotion of shame evolved to prevent us from doing things that would lead to us being outcast from the our group or tribe, which in prehistoric times could mean the difference between life and death. Shame prevents group members from doing things that are taboo, and it also keeps group members from talking or thinking about things which are taboo to the group. As U. Montreal Professor Daniel Sznycer states,

The feeling of shame is an internal signal that pulls us away from acts that would jeopardize how much other people value [us].

Shame is fundamentally tied to social interaction and the norms of the group. In our age and time, people who are getting older feel pressure to be silent about their aging — because speaking about the challenges of getting older, and perhaps even celebrating parts of the aging process, would tend to challenge the norms of our social group, which include the idea that “younger is just better”.

But is younger better? While our culture seems to be convinced it’s true, many cultures have had very different values. To see a very powerful example of that, we need look no further than our own Canadian First Nations. As the First Nations Pedagogy Online website clearly states:

Elders have been the Gatekeepers of First Nations wisdom, knowledge, and history. Elders traditionally hold crucial roles in supporting…First Nations communities. They impart tradition, knowledge, culture, [and] values.

We might feel that “Well, that’s all fine for First Nations — we’re different.” Yet the fact is that it’s not all that long ago that elders held a similar place in our own cultures, and European societies also greatly valued people as they grew older. Perhaps an important part of healing shame about aging consists of re-connecting with this stream in human culture — and re-affirming the experience and fruit of living in ourselves.

The Wise Old Woman / Man

Throughout the literature and cultures of the world, the image of the wise old woman or wise old man play prominent roles. From a Jungian perspective, they represent an inherent capacity within us to respond in a wise way, from the depths of our processed experience, and from the promptings of instinct.

We need to re-connect with that potential wise elder in ourselves as we grow older. The elder represents our own capacity to respond to the situations of life in a wise way. We need to recognize that this may be a unique wisdom, also. No one else has had exactly the life journey that you have had, and no one else can tell exactly the story that you can tell. The more we work on ourselves, the more we realize how this is profoundly true, precious and worthy of great respect.

Coming to a place of appreciating and affirming the elder in ourselves involves recognizing, affirming and reflecting on the unique parts of our own journey. This work of self-compassion and healing the shame of aging can often be greatly assisted through working with a skilled and genuinely supportive depth psychotherapist.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst


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What’s My Life Story? PART 2: Getting to the Real Story

February 3rd, 2020 · what's my life story

In the last post, we had a good look at the power of our stories, and we began to explore a key question: “What’s my life story?”

“What’s my life story?” might seem like a simple enough question, but appearances can be deceptive! There are any number of stories that might be told about your life, but the key question is, what’s the story that you tell yourself about your life?

Uncovering the subtleties and details of your life story may take some real effort, because important parts of the story may be in the unconscious, rather than in the conscious mind. It may be a real process to bring that story out into the open, but it’s vitally important to do it. As we uncover the parts of the story, here are two key questions to keep in front of us:

  • Is the story I’m discovering authentic? Does it correspond to the actual facts of my life, to what happened?
  • Is the story I’m telling self-compassionate? Is this story of mine based on self-acceptance, and is it kind to me?

Is the Story I Tell Myself Helpful, or Self-Defeating?

Lots of times, when we start to uncover the story that really runs our show, we start to realize that it has toxic elements. This is often particularly true with stories from early childhood, or stories that are traumatic in nature, some of which may even be outside the reach of the conscious mind.

It can be really valuable to try and get in contact with the story or stories that you are telling yourself. Here’s a few things to try, in terms of getting in touch with those stories:

  1. Identify and write out the stories that you tell yourself about your life. Think back to your powerful stories about early childhood life, and think about the stories that provide meaning to your current life.
  2. Ask yourself whether those stories are helpful, or whether they undermine your sense of worth, uniqueness and meaning.

When My Story Stays Unconscious

“What’s my life story? –I haven’t got a clue!” It’s common enough for people to find that they have limited or no awareness of what the story or stories are that truly structure their lives. The stories are in the unconscious mind, and have an immense effect on the individual’s response to various situations. Yet they remain partially or entirely unknown to the conscious mind, which is often convinced that it’s solely in charge, and really can’t answer the question of “What’s my life story?”

There are ways to become more fully aware of our stories, and to bring them into focus. One is to think about the situations and relationships in your life that are most important to you, and that affect you the most emotionally. Once you identify them, really examine them to see if there are any patterns or themes in the way that those important elements of your life play out. You may well see key elements of your dominant story in those common thematic motifs.

If you remember your dreams, it may be important to see if any prominent themes appear in their imagery as well. You may well see key themes in dreams, including archetypal themes, which is to say, those very big, very universal themes that have structured human life for as long as there have been humans. As Jungian Analyst Andrew Samuels tells us, archetypes “cluster around the basic and universal experiences of life” — things like birth, death, coming to adulthood, marriage, key life struggles,and many more.

It may well be that there are archetypes in your personal story that represent potential for connection to your true story, and point the way to how to live it out more fully. Often, when one is confronted with a true or fundamental element of one’s own story, there is a shock of recognition.

Living from a Healing Story

In the words of Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of myth,

If you’re going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all.

All of us need to get closer to the power of our own personal big, healing story. No human being ever makes it through the life journey without being disempowered at some point by stories that are small, inauthentic and self-punishing. So, like some character in a myth or a fairy tale, life invites us to go on a quest in search of the real story of ourselves.

The journey to our own real story is one we have to individually undertake. Yet, a solid relationship with a good depth psychotherapist can be of tremendous support as you seek out the true story of you.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst


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What’s My Life Story? The Story I Buy Into Affects My Life

January 27th, 2020 · what's my life story

One of the most important questions a person might ask themselves is “What’s my life story?”

Why is that such an important thing? Well, it turns out that the stories we repeat to ourselves have a way of replaying and replaying in our lives. That can be a good thing for us — or something very debilitating.

Some people are surprised at the idea that we each have a life story that we tell to ourselves and quite possibly to others. “I’m not somebody important or famous! I don’t go around ‘telling’ my story!” Yet, the fact is, that in some very important and perhaps surprising ways, we do exactly that.

Recurring Themes and Bedrock Beliefs

Without realizing it, we all fall into the grip of certain key stories, and they can have an immense impact on our lives. We can all recognize some of the themes that appear in our stories, often from very early in our lives. Here are some examples:

  • The Hero Child – the one “destined” (or expected) to achieve great things;
  • The Victim – the one who always gets (and expects to get) mistreated by life or others;
  • The Outsider – the one who, for some reason, never quite “fits in”;
  • The “Good” Girl or Boy – the one who is destined (or expected) to be good all the time;
  • The “Bad” Boy or Girl – the one who always does “bad” or rebellious things;
  • The Caretaker – the one who is destined (or expected) to always take care of others.

You can probably think of people in your life who fit into one of these categories. Or, perhaps you realize that one of these stories governs all or some important part of your life. There are also many other “stories” that we can find governing all or part of our lives.

These stories are important, and they actually have a huge impact on our lives. That can be a very good thing if the stories genuinely reflect who we really are. In that case, they can help give our lives value and meaning.

In the words of the famous narrative therapist Michael White:

The most powerful therapeutic process I know is to contribute to rich story development.

While Jungian and depth psychotherapists might have a somewhat different understanding of “story” than White does, the above statement is profoundly true!

The Power of Hidden Stories

What are your hidden stories? The “narratives” that form and shape your life? As Jungian Gary Trosclair tells us,

One of the fundamental tasks we need to accomplish in therapy is to step back from the isolated details of our lives and get a sense of the larger picture, the patterns and themes that comprise our stories and to some extent define our lives. [T]hese stories … lead to our fundamental beliefs about who we are, how the world operates … and what will make life fulfilling for us…. Bad stories make us sick and good stories heal [Italics mine].

If we diligently ask, “What’s my life story?”, we can make conscious stories that are the real engines behind our lives, understand them, and see how they make us feel and act. If the story lines up with a good self-compassionate assessment of who we really are, we can see how it strengthens our sense of ourselves, reduces anxiety, and empowers us to walk into our lives in a good way. If it doesn’t support us, we can begin the search for better, more fulfilling stories.

If we remain unconscious of our stories, they retain a power over our lives that can be shocking in its effects. Often, the really powerful stories in our lives start to appear before we’re old enough to consciously make choices. These stories can give us extremely powerful messages about who we are, and what we can expect for our lives.

Example. C. is the daughter of parents of humble backgrounds who immigrated to Canada slightly before she was born. Her parents made enormous sacrifices for their children, and lived lives that were almost totally oriented to “the kids’ future”. On some level C. felt an enormous pressure to succeed. She worked furiously, and excelled at academics, got a full scholarship to university, attended a fine U.S. medical school, and went on to become a well respected orthopedic surgeon. At 46 years of age, she asks “Is any of this really what I wanted? Who am I, anyway?”

“What’s my life story?” is a hugely important question, and the answer to it can make all the difference in the level of fulfillment and self-acceptance I find in my life.

In the second part of this post, “Getting to the Real Story”, we’ll look at some of the important ways in which we can start to get nearer to our real story, and further our journey towards wholeness.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst


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Making Choices at Demanding Times in Your Life

January 20th, 2020 · making choices

Making choices can be easy and pleasant, or can take us through some of the hardest parts of our life journey.

Which way?

It often happens that we end up having to make major choices during the most demanding parts of our lives, which are sometimes called major life transitions. In fact, it may be the need to make a particularly important choice that actually creates a major life transition!

Sometimes choices are easy, but when they’re about things that are really important, they are often hard. When the choice is about something really demanding, often life is asking us who we really are.

I can recall one really difficult choice in my own life journey. It was a choice made in my very early 30s. I can truly say that it was a choice that determined which of two substantially different versions of being myself I was going to live out, for the rest of my life. After I had made it, I truly felt that I was somebody different than I was before i made it, much as Robert Frost wrote in those famous lines:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

When I Have to Choose

When we have to choose, and we sense that this choice is going to “make all the difference”, what are some of the most important types of decisions that we as people make? Well, this is far from exhaustive, but here’s a list of some typical major decisions in life:

  • to return to university for an advanced degree;
  • to stay with my career, or start my own business;
  • to get married;
  • to leave a marriage;
  • to have children;
  • to not have children; or,
  • to retire.

I’m sure that you could add many items to the list. What are some of the things that go on inside of us when we have to make these kinds of choices?

Well, one thing that is often present is that we are keenly aware of the things that we might get with each respective choice that we make, and we are simultaneously aware of what it is that we might lose. Often, we are also very keenly aware of what we know about making this choice, and also what we don’t know. And sometimes we’re keenly aware that we don’t know what we don’t know — that there are great gaps in our knowledge.

We may look at the issue from a very logical perspective, and that can be a very important thing to do. Yet there’s often a great deal more to a decision than that. Sometimes it can be very important to listen to our intuition, or “hunches”. Or we may have very strong feelings about the choice options. It may also be that our conscience or morality is trying to speak to us: if so, it can be essential to listen, for the sake of our long-term peace and well-being.

As we examine this, we pretty soon start to see that a very major decision is a very complex, very delicate thing. And it’s often all bound up in some very important ways with who we really are.

What Makes Choices Worse

What would make a choice dramatically worse would be to approach it in an unconscious way. “Now, that sounds just silly.” you may be saying, “How can you be unconscious, if you’re making a choice?” The answer is that consciousness is not black-or-white, on-or-off, but a matter of degree or level.

It’s possible to go through a decision-making process but still to not listen to large and very important parts of ourselves. This can happen in many different ways. Perhaps we’re meeting the expectations of someone else who wouldn’t like it if we brought certain thoughts or feelings into our decision-making. Or, perhaps it might be as straightforward as an incident recounted by Jungian analyst James Hollis:

In speaking of these matters in a public setting recently, someone said, “Why should I bother to think about these things?” “Well, because perhaps you are living someone else’s story if you do not,” I replied. “What does that matter if I’m happy?” she retorted…. I [had] the lingering impression that she did not want to work very hard at this identity stuff. I also know that our psyches will not be mocked and that somewhere deep within something profound gets wounded and ultimately reaches the surface as symptom, projection, obsession….

James Hollis, What Matters Most

Clinical experience tends to support what Hollis says about unconscious decisions. It’s astounding how much time people spend in therapy talking about fallout from previous bad decisions. It’s well worth it to be as aware as we can when we face those major times of choice.

Life-Giving Decisions

It’s possible to make decisions that treat us well as we move into the future. These tend to be honest decisions where we bring all of our feelings, our intuition and our thoughts into making choices, and also where we don’t get sidetracked or bogged down with small issues, or our own past baggage.

Depth psychotherapy can be a vital support as individuals go through the process of making choices involving key life issues. The safe container provided by this kind of therapy enables us to look at all the factors, conscious and unconscious that go into making the decisions that are so fundamental to our journey toward wholeness.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst


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Another New Year: Time, Change and Resiliency, Part 2

January 13th, 2020 · resiliency

In Part 1 of this post, we examined how remembering where we’ve been contributes to our resiliency in facing the present and the future.

Resilience

We’re still in the early days following all the emotion associated with the coming of the New Year. Yet the daily news is filled with stories of the devastating Australian bushfires, the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, and the tragic downing of a Ukrainian airliner in Iran, carrying so many young Canadians. These events are sobering reminders of pain, challenge and anxiety in human existence, and of the need to find strength and a sense of meaning to cope with the broken parts of life.

New Year’s, especially, may be an important time to reflect on our journey. It gives us a perspective to understand our past experience and life transitions, and all the things in our conscious and unconscious lives that have enabled us to “get through” to this point in our lives. These may be key resources as we move into our future.

The rest of this post offers some key questions to ask of ourselves: 1) as we seek to understand our life journey through the past; and, 2) as we seek to find the resiliency and strength to move through our future.

Refiner’s Fire: Experiences Which Have Formed Us

The first set of questions relate to experiences in our past that may have been very difficult, which have nonetheless shaped us to be who we are.

What have been the most difficult experiences or stressors in my past?  What have been the experiences that have really shaped me? How have each of those events impacted me?

The most difficult experiences in our lives may be things that we would rather not even think about. Yet, often these harrowing experiences can be the very ones that show us the strong and enduring part of ourselves, if we can just discern it.

If you recall the most difficult experiences in your life, can you remember what was so difficult about them? Or, how you got through those times? It’s likely that these experiences have profoundly affected or shaped your life. If you or I can discern how such events have made a difference to us, we’ll likely learn something important about who we are.

The Key People

Who are the important people in my life who’ve helped me when I’ve been distressed?  To whom have I reached out for support?

In every human being’s life, there are key people, who’ve been an integral part of the journey. Some people may be part of the pain and struggle in our lives, as they are tied to very negative experiences like abuse and betrayal. However, almost always there are key people who’ve been essential to our journey, and who’ve had a stabilizing and supportive impact, often at times that were crucial for us.

Who are the people who’ve been key supports in your life journey? What role have they played in your life? What is it that they brought to your journey, that made such a key difference? How did they see you? What does that tell you about who you really are — as opposed to the hyper-critical stories that it’s often so easy to tell ourselves?

The Voice of the Self

The final set of questions really emerges from previous two:

What have I learned about myself and about what’s really important to me during difficult times? Have I been able to overcome obstacles, and if so, how? What has helped me to find hope for the future?

Who are you really when confronted with extreme difficulty? What are the characteristics of my most fundamental self when the going is at its roughest? If you have faced extraordinary obstacles, how did you get through or around them? In such situations, we might expect ourselves to be at our worst, or perhaps we even remember ourselves at our most fearful or despairing. And yet, when you listen to peoples’ stories of these dark times, what you often hear is something else: people talk of a part or an aspect of themselves that somehow got them through this extreme difficulty.

This sense of a part of us that is wise and strong, and which abides with us in even the most difficult situations is one of the most important things that underlies genuine hope for the future. It can be essential to our life journey to seek to come into contact with that wise part.

A strong, supportive relationship with a Jungian depth psychotherapist can be a vital asset in seeking to come into contact with our fundamental self. Such a therapeutic relationship can be of inestimable value in finding our way through our lifelong journey to wholeness.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst


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Another New Year: Time, Change and Resiliency

January 6th, 2020 · resilience, resiliency

People seem much more likely to think about and make resolutions at the New Year’s season, than they are to think about change and resiliency.

finding happiness in life

That’s probably because we see the New Year’s season as a time for renewal and new beginnings, which in some respects, it certainly is. New Year’s resolutions allow us to feel that we are starting anew, perhaps that we are beginning again. I may have intended to use the exercise machine four times a week last year. That may have not worked out so well, — but here we are at New Year’s, and it’s a new beginning.

This has validity and importance for people, without a doubt. Yet there are other significant dimensions to the coming of a New Year, that carry important meaning. In a time like ours, when we’re constantly buffeted by change, it’s important that these other dimensions, which involve the fullness of our life journey, also be recognized.

Throughout the English-speaking world, it’s long been customary to take a moment in the beginning minutes of the New Year to sing Robert Burns’ “For Auld Lang Syne”. We might dismiss this as a musty tradition, but it’s worth bringing the lyrics of that tune into focus. The phrase itself is probably best translated as “for long long ago”, and the rhetorical question posed by the first lines is probably best rendered as:

Is it right that old times be forgotten?

Remember How You Got Here

It’s easy to give this question endless amounts of smarmy overlay and dreary sentimentality. Yet it’s very important for each of our own lives and our journey to wholeness. In our time, the internet, smartphones and an endless succession of other technologies bring a continual influx of the new. It’s an era when “disruption” is seen as a positive, even life-giving thing. This current information culture gives us strong incentives to focus on the novel, and on what’s changing, rather than understanding and appreciating the things in our collective or personal past that have made us who and what we are today.

Yet it’s important for each of us to turn a discerning and compassionate eye onto our own journey. We need to understand, in a self-compassionate way, how we got to where we are today. That entails understanding just how much change each of us has undergone to get here. It also entails understanding and appreciating the experiences that have really shaped us into the particular unique individual that each of us is.

Easy to Forget the Journey…

There are many voices in our culture that seem to imply that the best way to be strong and advance in life is to forget all about the past, and to live in a way that just moves forward. In a time like ours, this is a very seductive message. As wave after wave of change washes over us, it’s very easy to feel disconnected from our personal past, with all it’s pain, courage and hard-won clarity.

As we celebrate the end of a decade, it may be valuable to think back on ourselves of ten years ago. Given the fast pace of events, can we even remember ourselves and the world as it was in 2010? Yet, it’s not that long ago!

Often that past experience of ourselves, and of how we have gotten through the demanding experiences of the past can be an important part of our resilient core as we approach the future.

Resiliency Through Affirming Who We Are

As the American Psychological Association tells us that,

[r]esilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress …. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.

APA Website

We face a world now where there is a continual onslaught of anxiety and stress from ongoing, relentless change. We need to be able to “bounce back” in the face of continual stressors. One important way to gain such resilience is through connecting with our past in meaningful, healing ways. These often involve connecting with out past experiences in life events such as past major life transitions. Depth psychotherapy can be centrally important in helping us to access these resources for resilience, contained deep within ourselves.

In our post next week, I’ll be continuing our exploration of resources within ourselves that contribute to our resilience.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst


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Avoiding Burnout or Depression at Christmas, Part 2

December 16th, 2019 · depression, depression at Christmas

In my last post, we looked at Christmas burnout, and this post continues to explore that theme.

What is the root cause of all the Christmas burnout and depression at Christmas? Do we have any idea?

Well, a recent study by human resources firm ADP Canada looks at the “time off tax” that Canadians pay around holidays and vacations. It turns out that, in the present work environment, people often feel that they have to put in a pretty substantial number of hours of extra work before and after time off from work, to make up for “lost hours” devoted to themselves and family.

This is certainly not the only thing that makes holidays like Christmas very demanding — far from it. However, it surely is an indicator of one of the things that can make holidays like Christmas so stress-inducing. That is the strong feeling that many people have in our culture that “I am not doing enough.” or, simply, that “I just am not enough.”.

Often, people in our culture confront a specific sense of depression at Christmas. This may well be because they cannot rise to the challenge of making the holidays (and their own individual lives, and their family life) into the wonderful, magical festival of light, joy, peace and good feeling that they are told that this season ought to be. Anyone seeking to gain a sense of the kind of enormous expectations generated by this season need only look at some lines from the most popular Christmas songs:

  • “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”
  • “Simply having a wonderful Christmas time”
  • “Children laughing, people passing / Meeting smile after smile…”
  • “What a bright time, it’s the right time, to rock the night away…”
  • “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, it’s the best time of the year…”
  • “Voices singing, let’s be jolly / Deck the halls with boughs of holly…”

When we look at all the messaging around the holidays, it’s pretty hard to avoid the sense that “the Christmas spirit” or “that special Holiday feeling” is something that we’re supposed to whip up, or create. No wonder people feel pressured, or even burnt out or depressed!

A Season of Renewal

We may be very pressured trying to turn Christmas into something that meets the expectations of others, along with our own. Yet, perhaps we need to ask: is that the only way to look at the Holiday season? If so, it makes the Holidays seem pretty bleak!

What exactly is a holiday, anyway? In his book The Archetype of Renewal, Jungian analyst D. Stephenson Bond examines one of the most ancient holidays we know of in history. This holiday was a New Year’s festival that originated in ancient Sumer around 3500 B.C.E. It was known as the Akitu festival, a name which means “power making the world live again”.

This holiday had to do with “the death and re-birth of the King”, and what that meant for these ancient people was that the whole of life — the King, the society as a whole, the individual — went through a kind of death and re-birth. Everything in this society was renewed through this festival.

The people of ancient Sumer and Babylon did not sit around, worrying whether their preparations for Akitu were adequate, or whether they had done enough, or whether they were going to “have a good Akitu”. Their perspective was that the Akitu festival came, and it renewed them.

Does this perspective have anything to offer us?

Renewal: Are We OK with That?

What would it be like for us to view the Christmas and Holiday season as a season of renewal, rather than as a big sense of obligation that leaves us feeling inadequate or disappointed? We are so busy in the lead up to the holidays: gift-buying; planning travel and/or activities; decorating home and tree, and many other activities. Often, the “day of” Christmas is absolutely frenetic. Going to parents’ house, parents-in-law, brothers, sisters, the home of the ex to spend some time with the kids — the number of separate destinations in this time period is mind-boggling.

What would it be like in the midst of this period to take even one day to:

  • grow;
  • authentically connect with people;
  • listen to your own inner voice; and,
  • reflect on what’s really important to you, what you really want at this point in your life journey?

If the fundamental (Jungians would say archetypal) essence of a holiday or festival is renewal, what would it mean in our time and place to open ourselves to renewal in the Christmas or Holiday season?

Beyond Depression at Christmas, to Renewal

The most profound kinds of renewal often stem from our own depths. Often both our barely acknowledged conscious selves, and the unconscious mind are full of the desire for renewal and the need to travel our own journey towards wholeness. The healing journey involved in the relationship at the heart of Jungian depth psychotherapy can be a path to renewal and a connection with our own very deepest values and perspectives.

On the cusp of the Holiday and Christmas season, 2019, may I take this opportunity to wish you authentic joy, true peace and lasting renewal as you travel the road to yourself.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst


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Do You Have “Christmas Burnout”? Many People Do!

December 9th, 2019 · christmas burnout

Christmas burnout is a psychological reality, as depth psychotherapists well know. Many people experience it. It happens on a number of levels at the same time.

Christmas and the Holidays are a time of very high expectations, in a number of different ways. Traditionally in the western world, Christmas is regarded as the most significant and joyous season. It was loaded with deep religious meaning for our ancestors, and for a significant number of people, it still is.

In addition to this heavy freight of religious meaning, Christmas is also regarded as loaded with very special meaning for family life. It’s expected to be a time when families connect in a unfailing, unfaltering way to each other, and love, joy and peace abound. There should be that “special Christmas feeling”, and there should be no conflict or sadness, anywhere in sight.

At least that’s the set of expectations that we continually absorb from the television, movies, music, product marketing, eggnog lattes and endless other Holiday-related messaging that fills our culture at this time of year. It’s easy to be influenced by this, consciously and unconsciously, and drawn into carrying a huge set of expectations, almost before we know it.

Holiday Expectations and Realities

Everyone knows that the holidays are “supposed” to be a time of joyous celebration and connection with family, but they can also be an immense source of stress as we try to meet that expectation, depending on what we are dealing with in our lives.  Those who have lost an important loved one, or those who may be dealing with a separation or with realities such as job loss can find this time of year very challenging, and extremely stressful.  But many who are not facing this kind of major life transition can also find the holidays very challenging.

For many people, just the process of getting together with family members can be a very demanding thing that is full of anxiety. Socializing with family members when there might be personality conflicts, outstanding issues, or great political differences can be a very sizable stressor. In my own family’s case, I can remember deep political divisions between family members causing many a stormy “Merry Christmas” in my youth!

Stuck in the Rut of Overwhelming Expectations

One of the most difficult things about the holidays, and something that can contribute most directly to Christmas burnout is the way that we “should” or “ought” on ourselves about what this season must be. It can be easy to get locked into a lot of rigid, painful patterns, because we have our inner voices that tell us that “It’s GOT to be this way, or it won’t really feel like Christmas.” or “This is the traditional way that our family / church / culture celebrates the holidays.” or “What would everybody else think, if we did something other than XYZ?”

To put it bluntly, there might be a whole lot less Christmas burnout if we stopped focusing on meeting the collective expectations around the holidays, and focused on what might be meaningful for ourselves as individuals. What if we listened to our inner voices around what might be valuable, healing and hope-creating at this time of year, and let ourselves off the hook about how we’re not being enough in someone or other’s eyes. Might it be that we would find ways to make our holiday season much more Self-directed in the best sense of the word?

Finding Our Own Way

In the second part of this post, I’ll be focusing on some suggestions for ways to keep the holidays that emphasize our own needs and personalities, rather than what other people, the groups we belong to, and our culture as a whole culture expects. Jungians would emphasize that it can be an important part of our individuation journey to keep the holidays in ways that retain meaning for our own real lives.

The key to avoiding Christmas burnout begins in a place of self-acceptance and self-compassion.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst


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Men and Emotions: a Key Part of the Journey to Wholeness

December 2nd, 2019 · men and emotions

The whole subject of men and emotions is a big one in our lives today. For us men, it’s all tied up with our ability to accept and be kind to ourselves.

work related stress

Accepting our emotions? To be frank, this is exactly what men in my age group were taught not to do. We were taught that the last thing you wanted to be as a boy growing up was “emotional”. That was equated with being weak, or, to use that horrible phrase, “being a sissy”.

For guys my age, “growing up” was equated with learning to hide your feelings, which, of course, was a sure recipe for anxiety and depression. I would like to think that things have improved since I was younger — but the evidence would seem to indicate that we still have a long way to go.

Studies by researchers like Emory University’s Robyn Fivush show that mothers of children between ages 2 and 3 respond quite differently to boys and girls around emotion. Girls are often encouraged to feel the emotions more directly than boys, and girls tend to be given the message that it’s OK to feel sad — but not to get angry. Meanwhile, boys get the message that anger is much more acceptable than sadness. Girls are also encouraged to rely on a support network around feelings, while boys are encouraged to be much less expressive and more contained about feelings — and especially not to shed tears.

Maleness and the Spectrum of Feelings

In our culture, men tend to learn to be cut off from their feelings, especially strong feelings like sorrow or grief. This dissociation can be a major barrier to accepting who and what I am, and to the journey to wholeness, or individuation process.

The fact is that large parts of our life and our identity are fundamentally connected with experiences involving strong emotion. If those experiences are curtailed, or if we cannot share them with others in order to help process them, it can genuinely diminish us as people.

If men are taught to cut themselves off from their feelings, to shun emotional contact with others and/or to use substances and distractions to bottle up feelings and repress them, the consequences can be severe and far-reaching. This was shown very insightfully in a recent CBC Alberta documentary, “Digging in the Dirt” which highlights the mental and emotional price paid by oil and gas industry workers in isolated areas.

The film documents the stories of several men working in the trades in isolated camps, where there is no nearby town, no social support and where the workers “FIFO” — fly in, fly out — at the beginning and end of every 3 week shift. Each of these men tells how he had learned to repress and deny feelings of isolation, loss and emotional hurt. This included hiding these things from other men, but even more fundamentally from themselves, often in ways that involve drugs, overwork and alcohol use. This attitude toward feeling, along with an aggressive, “hypermasculine” male culture in an environment where there were no emotional supports was utterly disastrous for these men. They were — mostly — able to pull out of the tailspin in which they found themselves, when they began to connect with supportive others, and began to acknowledge and accept their own feelings and emotions.

Why Being a “Strong Guy” May Hurt More Than Help

Most boys are brought up to revere the image or ideal of the “strong man” It’s an ideal as old as Homer’s Iliad — and much, much older. For the most part, that “strong guy” image doesn’t include any kind of emotional vulnerability. Can you imagine The Invincible Iron Man having a moment of emotional connection and sharing his deep sadness?

If being a “strong guy” is about suppressing emotion and avoiding real connection with others, it may hurt us far more than help us. The whole thing may end with being not so “strong” after all. It may also keep us from connecting with some essential parts of our own life and story. Often for men, exploring the parts of our lives where we’ve felt things most strongly, and felt at our most vulnerable, can be a doorway to experiencing ourselves in new and liberating ways.

On the other hand, if we men don’t explore our emotional reality, and if we even resist it, we may well find our world getting smaller and smaller, and more and more out of control, emotionally. That was certainly the experience of many of the men featured in Digging in the Dirt. This can lead to experiences of deep distress, especially at times of major life transition or mid-life transition.

Emotions and the Journey Towards Wholeness

Exploring our emotional life is a key part of our journey to wholeness. It’s only as we come to fully accept all of our emotional and feeling states, including the difficult ones like anger, sorrow and fear, that we start to get a comprehensive sense of who we are. Only then do we begin to explore the undiscovered self. Sometimes, what our emotional states can tell us about ourselves comes as quite a surprise.

Yet recognizing and accepting our emotional selves is only part of the journey with our emotions. Eventually, we will seek to have enough distance from our emotional states to not be completely run over by them and controlled by them. However, to get to that place, it’s necessary to first accept our emotional states for what they are.

This journey to find our emotional life can be intense. It requires courage, patience and a genuine kindness for oneself and self-acceptance. It can be tremendously helpful in this work to have the support of a compassionate and trustworthy depth psychotherapist, who can assist in processing the full range of our feelings safely.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst


© 2020 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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