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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


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

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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


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

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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


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

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