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What Is Self Awareness, And Why Should I Care? #2

April 27th, 2015 · what is self awareness

Now, really: what is self awareness?  As we saw in the last post, there’s more to self awareness than might first meet the eye.

what is self awareness

Precinct of the Prophetess, Delphi, Greece

“‎Gnothi seauton”… “Know thyself”  These words were known to the ancient Greeks, and were so precious that they were inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the ancient world’s most important oracular site.

Great words… how do we make them real for ourselves, now?

what is self awareness

Self-Awareness as Treasure

If you study the myth and wisdom of the human race, you quickly learn that self awareness has been viewed in many, many cultures as a treasure.

There is one thing that is universally characteristic of treasures: they are generally thought of that way, because they aren’t the easiest thing to get.

Many feel they know themselves.  What they generally mean is that they know the ego, the conscious portion of the personality, reasonably well.  Yet, the kind of “self-awareness” that really makes a difference happens on a whole other plane.  It’s usually about relating to parts of ourselves that are either partially or almost completely unknown to consciousness.


The Dialogue with the Undiscovered Self

The “price tag” for self awareness most often relates to the gradual discovery of what depth psychotherapy refers to as “the undiscovered self”.  We learn that we are something other than we seem to be to the ego, when it tells itself its stories.  As Jung stresses, and others echo in varying language:

what is self awareness

The experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego.

We turn out to be someone other than who the ego would like to believe itself to be.

In everyday consciousness, the ego plunges ahead heroically with its plans and goals, frantically striving to bring its idealized and sanitized pictures of who we are into being.  Yet, if we’re honest, at some point, we come up against another reality.  As Jung again says,

The self, in its efforts at self-realization, reaches out beyond the ego-personality on all sides; because of its all-encompassing nature, it is brighter and darker than the ego, and accordingly confronts it with problems which it would like to avoid.  Either one’s moral courage fails, or one’s insight, or both.  [MC 778]

First and Second Stage Ego

There is a big difference between an ego that cannot accept this new reality, and one that can, and adapts accordingly.  American Jungian analyst Edward Edinger describes these two states as “the first stage ego” and “the second stage ego”, respectively.  As he relates, “The first stage ego cannot accept defeat and therefore must suffer it totally” because its rigid attiude of non-acceptance of the self simply cannot be sustained (such a change in awareness can often occur in conjunction with major life transitions, including the midlife transition).

Self awareness, then, is really that life changing state in which the ego accepts the reality of our broader identity, the self, and stays in dialogue with it.  It’s much less rigid in its picture of our identity than “first stage ego”, and a great deal more compassionate in its dealings with who we are.  Above all, it’s a great deal more honest.  As Polly Young-Eisendrath and other later Jungians have stressed, what we are here referring to might be called a “felt sense” of self, of something bigger, rather than some vague metaphysical idea.

To Live in Accordance with the Self

What is self awareness?  Well, it’s certainly no simple cake walk.  Awareness of the broader self can be something that we work on, and grow in, for the whole of our lives, and that takes our best efforts [“the Treasure”].  It can result in encounters with ourself that are sometimes profoundly disturbing, but which can ultimately turn out to be some of the most important, valuable and defining experiences of our lives .

For many, the on-going work of depth psychotherapy is a key part of coming to a continuously growing, dynamic answer to the question of the self: “Who, really, am I?”

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

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© 2015 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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What Is Self Awareness, And Why Should I Care? #1

April 20th, 2015 · what is self awareness

What is self awareness, anyway?  Lots of people talk about it, but why should anyone give a hoot about it?

what is self awareness

Consciousness and awareness of the wider self are fundamental to depth psychotherapy and Jungian analysis.

Limitations of the Ego

Conscious awareness seems all inclusive, but is really fairly limited. What psychology calls the ego, the part of ourselves that is consciously aware, the  “I”, has being shown by contemporary neuroscience research to be but a small part of our psychic activity.

Contemporary technologies show us that the lion’s share of activity in the brain remains below, rather than above, the threshold of consciousness. The unconscious mind takes in a great deal of reality that eludes consciousness, and processing it in ways that consciousness can barely imagine, at speeds that leave consciousness in the dust!

To be truly self aware means to come to the greatest-possible understanding of these hitherto undiscovered aspects of the self, to respect them, and take them into account as fundamental to who we are. Truly mature adulthood involves permanent and ongoing dialogue with the unconscious mind, in openness, humility and continually expanding self acceptance.

what is self awareness

Long before the astounding discoveries of contemporary neuroscience, depth psychotherapists realized the great vastness and vital importance of the unconscious mind.   They realized that, very often,  encounter with the unconscious mind was a fundamental source of meaning and healing.


Awareness of the Unconscious

What actually is the unconscious? Simply put, it’s everything in our psychic life of which the conscious mind is unaware.  Yet, that does little justice to the huge variety of different things happening in the unconscious mind.

The personal unconscious certainly contains everything that we have forgotten or repressed. But it also involves a huge range of things pertaining to bodily awareness, and things we are subliminally aware of in the external world.

Yet much of the unconscious is not strictly personal.  Evolutionary psychology and neuroscience have both revealed innate patterns of response, built into the human mind that function over and above learning and human experience.  We share these with all other humans. There are various names for this aspect of who we are; Jungians refer to them as the collective unconscious.

To be truly self-aware is to be actively aware of, and related to, these aspects of our unconscious mind.

The Mechanics of Awareness

So, again, why should I care about any of this?  What is self awareness, and why does it matter?

Let’s look at a typical key example of our unconscious functioning.

what is self awareness

Consider human anger.  Anger is a part of the functioning of all vertibrates.  And, often, one of the early things encountered in psychotherapy is a person’s anger.  Yet anger can be repressed, often so much so that a person is even completely unaware that he or she has it.  Yet anger is a fundamental part of our human make up, as psychiatric researcher Erik Goodwyn tells us:

Survival tendencies… have required that humans have an innate capacity for violence and aggression in order to protect or garner resources.   Neuroscience has shown that frustration of goal-directed behaviour triggers [rage].

He goes on to outline the various different ways in which men and women express rage and engage in competition for scarce resources.  He points out specific innate patterns of behaviour that depth psychotherapy might call archetypal.

It’s possible for humans to be unaware that this whole dimension of anger is in them, and that, far from being an indulgence in sinful behaviour, is unavoidable and innate.  If we live with a lack of connection to this aggressive reality, and how it can plays out, we run some pretty big risks:

what is self awareness

Often, self-awareness is a matter of very great practical importance.

Consciousness Unfolding

Our consciousness is limited, but it is a matter of very precious importance.  In my next post, we’ll look more at self-awareness, how it’s essential on our life journey, and how depth psychotherapy can enhance it.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

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© 2015 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)


If You’re Feeling Stuck in Life, How Can You Get Free? #2

April 13th, 2015 · feeling stuck in life

So, if, as we saw in the last post, feeling stuck in life is something we want to get beyond… why is it so hard to get beyond it?  If we’re stuck, what are the sticking points?

feeling stuck in life

From the experience of many people in depth psychotherapy, there are some key things that we can learn about getting unstuck.

Letting Go

feeling stuck in life

It may sound odd to say it, but sometimes the thing that most keeps us stuck is that we’re clinging to something and we can’t make ourselves let go.    This is something that a person might be doing semi-consciously, or unconsciously.

Now, we may get some benefit from “holding on”.  For instance, a relationship may not be working for me at all, but I may persist in it, because it would simply be too painful to face the loss of the hopes and dreams I had for the relationship, back when it began. So I may just keep on, enduring, because being stuck feels like a somewhat better alternative.

Or sometimes, we persist in a situation that can’t possibly work for us, and where we can’t be ourselves, because we gain a certain reward for being self sacrificing, or being a martyr.  Some learn very early in life, in the family of origin, that this is what is expected of them. To get past this may require a person to see who they really are in a whole different way.

The individual may have to ask him or herself whether it genuinely is better to be stuck with the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Often new possibilities for life and meaning surround us, but it’s a risk to embark on the path towards them. If we don’t open ourselves to them, though, we end up mired in the same old same old, with psychological consequences that may be very dire in the long run. In the end, perhaps it all comes down to the situation in a quotation attributed to Anais Nin:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud

was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Accepting and Understanding What Psyche is Trying to Bring Us

As I mentioned above, a great deal of the issue around stuck-ness and letting go can revolve around the unconscious mind. Today neuroscience is making us powerfully aware of the enormity and importance of the unconscious mind, which researchers like Prof. Jaak Pansepp call the “core human psyche”, but pioneers like C.G. Jung intuited its importance a century ago.

Often, our stuckness can be rooted deeply in the unconscious. What is more, the solutions that we need to get past these dilemmas may well need to emerge from the unconscious mind. To let them emerge and bring their healing influence may take some real trust in our deepest selves. It is very often around this issue of trusting the deepest self, and having compassion for it, that depth psychotherapy performs its most healing work.

Psychotherapy that is open to the dynamic reality of the deep self requires a profound respect for the instinctual roots of the psyche, and for the wisdom which resides there, which often goes far beyond our capacities for rational problem solving.  The two million year old man or woman often knows exactly what he or she is doing.

The Un-Stuck Version of Myself

As the wisdom of the unconscious emerges, there may be some basic truths I have to face.

feeling stuck in life

Often, getting past being stuck involves listening to the rejected and suppressed part of the self: the shadow.  The work of depth psychotherapy is bringing the stranger home, and often the stranger is our own true self.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

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© 2015 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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If You’re Feeling Stuck in Life, How Can You Get Free? #1

April 6th, 2015 · feeling stuck in life

Feeling stuck in life can be an extremely troubling thing.  Is there any way to begin to change things, and get beyond that terrible sense of going nowhere?

feeling stuck in life

Just when you don’t expect it — quicksand!

Here are some important psychotherapeutic dimensions of the feeling of stuckness that we need to come to terms with, before we can ever get un-stuck.

feeling stuck in life

1.  Accepting That Something Needs to Change

It may seem like a totally obvious thing to suggest that a person must accept that he or she is stuck, in order to move beyond it. But things are not quite that simple, psychologically. Depth psychotherapists well know that it is all too easy for us to give rational assent to the need for change, and yet to continue on in our denial.  On a more visceral, emotional, only partially-conscious level, there can be all kinds of reasons why we’re not ready to give up our attachment to how things have been. It may be that our past stuck-ness gives us a sense of emotional security, shields us from emotional pain, or flatters our ego. It can take some real courage to look at, and accept why I can’t let go of “the old status quo”.

To begin to move towards something new, I may need to move to a true emotional and visceral understanding of why I’m feeling stuck in life.


2.  Being Genuinely Open to Something New

It can be a huge hurdle to accept the risks involved in moving toward a new possibility. There are so many different things to be weighed up.

For instance, if I want to expand my social world by joining some new group or organisation, I will have to confront my own fear of being rejected, which may run very deep. Until I’m ready to recognize my fear, and run that risk, I’m probably going to remain stuck. Similarly, if I want to create something new, such as a piece of art, I may have to accept that what I create might not be up to my standards, or to the way that I had envisaged it. But if I consistently avoid that kind of risk, I can be sure that I will remain stuck in the status quo.

I may also have to face the possibility that things might happen in a new situation that might be completely different from anything that I had expected.   This could be very hard, because, often, we don’t like dealing with the unpredictable when the stakes seem high.

3.  Listening to the Neglected Parts of the Self

For all of us, there are parts of ourselves of which we’re aware, and to which we’re consciously connected. It’s also true, that, for each of us, there are parts of our being of which we are only partially aware, or not aware at all. If we can find ways to listen to those parts, we may well find some signposts as to how to get beyond our stuckness.

Listening to our body can be a great way to start. Many of our aches, pains and muscular tensions can tell us a great deal about how we’re stuck. Back pain, neck pain, stomach upset, jaw clenching, head ache, nervous tics and many other symptoms can all show us a great deal about the places in our lives where we are carrying conflicts and too much tension. Effective forms of psychotherapy can often open up the meaning of these bodily cries for help.  We have incorporated this powerful wisdom through the work of pioneers like Marion Woodman.

The same is often true of an individual’s dream life. Very often our dreams will show us clearly where we are conflicted, or where the tensions in our lives are preventing us from moving forward. Where possible, it is a regular and important part of depth psychotherapy or Jungian analysis to work with dreams, and to see what they are showing us about how a person might move forward in his or her life.

Just as important can be our random fantasies and thoughts, or even unconscious slips and mistakes, which are often a fertile source of vital information about a person’s deepest yearnings and conflicts.

Being Willing to Let Go: What I Need to Move On

feeling stuck in life

Often, getting past being stuck involves being willing to let go of something, so that there is room for the possibility of something different in life.  In my next post, we’ll look at all the dimensions of letting go, and being open to what psyche is trying to bring us.

Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst

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© 2015 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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