Journeying Toward Wholeness

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Individual Psychotherapy & the Spiral Path

October 20th, 2013 · individual, individual psychotherapy, Psychotherapy

Many people enter individual psychotherapy consciously or unconsciously expecting the process to be linear, rational and directly goal-oriented.

individual psychotherapy

Yet, people often find, as they start to tell their stories, that the real course of their lives is not nearly as straightforward, simple or consistent as they expected.  It often seems to have much more of a spiral or multi-spiral character.

People start to experience themselves as much more many-layered and subtle than they had initially supposed…

Stories and Apologies

In therapy sessions, as people talk about ordinary life, one of the commoner things that I hear them say is:  “I’m sorry that this is so convoluted”; or, “I’m sorry, I seem to have gotten way off track…”; or, even, “How did we end up talking about this?” individual psychotherapy

Then, very often, I try to connect what we are talking about to a theme from earlier in the session — the connection, for instance, between this week’s episode of Breaking Bad and their own father’s illness, that they hadn’t yet made consciously.  Such connections are often not just blatant, but they most often reflect the person’s inner reality. That unbelievably varied and multi-hued inner reality that we each are, which is not so easily encapsulated, explained or described.

Irreducible Me

We all have a story that we tell about ourselves.  But a key question is whether that story going to be the small story, or the big story. The small story is most often the one dictated by social convention. The big story might be seen as what Jung refers to as our personal myth; the deeper, more complete story, that takes in all the dimensions of who we are.

It matters which story we accept.  Are we going to let ourselves be reduced to what others say or know about us, or are we going to accept the full truth of all that we are?

Yet the Movement is Around a Centre

individual psychotherapy

Letting in that fuller experience of ourselves can seem disruptive and chaotic.  Over time, though, the apparently random and haphazard movement in inner life shows a very different character.  As Jung tells us:

The way to the goal seems chaotic and interminable at first, and only gradually do the signs increase that it is leading anywhere. The way is not straight but appears to go round in circles. More accurate knowledge has proved it to go in spirals: the dream-motifs always return after certain intervals to definite forms, whose characteristic it is to define a centre. And as a matter of fact the whole process revolves about a central point or some arrangement round a centre…

~C.G. Jung

The Fundamental Reality of the Self

The central point to which Jung refers is the heart of our identity, the Self.  As Jung puts it elsewhere, the self is the sum total of our psychic wholeness, or, as Professor Samuels puts it, the “archetypal image of the unity of the personality as a whole.”

To enter into individual psychotherapy, particularly depth psychotherapy, is to enter into a deeper experience of the Self and its many dimensions.   As we experience this wider Self, we experience our own reality, solidity and uniqueness.


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© 2013 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive, Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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Individual Psychotherapy: Quit Living Provisionally! 1

July 20th, 2013 · individual, individual psychotherapy, Psychotherapy

In individual psychotherapy, a key issue for an individual can be finding a way to return to his or her own actual, immediate experience of life.

individual psychotherapy

As Jung  indicates in this quote, it is far too easy for us to live provisionally.  That is to say, to live our lives as if they don’t really matter or count.


Still Not Taking This Life Seriously

For a very, very long time, Western culture  has conditioned us to treat the real happenings in our lives as not real — as if they don’t count.  Partly, this is due to a certain version of Christianity, which views this world as a veil of tears, and sees the sole purpose of this life as readying us for life after death in “a better place”.  The power of this worldview has diminished — although many are still under its sway — but there is a variation of it, still very potent, that goes back to Plato.  On this view, only thoughts, and particularly reason and logic, are truly important.    And, as a result, western civilization is very much stuck in its head.

individual psychotherapy

Virtually Alive (Sort Of)…

For many in our time, information technology has intensified the tendency to live in our heads, to live “virtually” or “in the cloud”.  There are many in our culture whose most intense experiences have involved video games, or role playing in online chatrooms.  From the perspective of individual psychotherapy, that is quite concerning.  Such “virtual worlds” are the latest, most technologically intense version of provisional life: spoon-fed generic experiences, rather than real, individual life.

As a culture, we are in continual avoidance of our own real lives.  We are too ready to float above the real joy and pain in our life, and call it living, when it is really only participation in the collective fantasies of mass entertainment and consumerism.

The Unconscious In the Immediate

Jung tells us, “our unconscious often tries to convince us of the importance of living here and now.”  I believe that this may be even more true in our time than his.  Our dreams may well reflect when we get too divorced from the immediacy of life.  Similarly, we may find that inexplicable slip-ups and errors in performing ordinary daily activities may be the way in which the unconscious draws our attention away from our ceaseless mental taskmaster, with his or her inflexible agendas and killer timelines.

Epidemics of events such as repeatedly losing our car keys as we are trying to get out of the door to go to work may reflect the attempts of the unconscious mind to bring us back to more natural rhythms, and a greater awareness of the immediate events in our lives.

individual psychotherapy

This, Now, COUNTS

This present abiding, right here, right now in the awareness of our actual this-moment experience, is what makes human.

Often individual psychotherapy, and particularly depth psychotherapy, brings us much closer to our feeling, sensing and overall experiencing of our own actual lives.

Next post in the series:  Why Living Now Matters


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© 2013 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive, Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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4 Ways the Orphan Appears in Individual Psychotherapy

June 17th, 2013 · individual, individual psychotherapy, Psychotherapy

The experience of the orphan is surprisingly important for individual psychotherapy.  Why is this image so powerful for us?

individual psychotherapy

For those who come from stable family backgrounds, that might seem like an absurd thing to claim.  But let me try and show you what I mean.


To live as an orphan, is to feel completely alone in the world.  To feel that the world is not dependable or safe, and in particular, that there are few or no bonds with other people that can be depended on at any deep level.


The true orphan is one prevented from forming and relying on the bonds to parents and family that are so crucial in early life.

To be an orphan is to experience radical aloneness.  It is to experience radical vulnerability.

There are many people who genuinely don’t have parents.  Some actually don’t have living parents.  Others, many more, live the wound of profound abandonment, due to parental apathy, abuse or fundamental rejection.

And, all of us, in the process of individuation, will at times partake of orphan reality — where we are left feeling profoundly isolated and abandoned, with no resources to rely upon but our very own.

Eric Clapton sings of many kinds of orphan state in the song Motherless Child:

Forever Taking Leave (Always on the Verge of Departing).

As John Bowlby showed, one of the characteristics of those who, like orphans, have had weak or broken attachment to others in early life is that, very often, they can be ready to cut their connections to other people, places or situations at the drop of a hat.

When I reflect on this, I’m reminded of some lines from an old pop song by the Eagles:

“I’ve got this peaceful, easy feeling / I know you won’t let me down / ‘Cause I’m already standing on the ground”

The orphan part of our psyche is always ready to pull away, because it never truly feels like it is at home, or that it really belongs.

individual psychotherapy

Yearning for Home

Yet orphans continually yearn for home.  Symbolically, home represents a place of true belonging, to which a person is fully, fundamentally and irrevocably connected.

This yearning is deeply embedded in human psychology and biology, through 200+  million years of mammalian evolution.  It expresses itself in a vast variety of ways in human art, literature, music, religious symbolism and philosophy — and also, I note with interest, in baseball!

individual psychotherapy

To Really Come Home

All human individuals can can experience this orphan dimension to human existence — can, at times, feel incredibly alone and without a true home.  One of the key benefits of in depth individual psychotherapy is to enable the individual to have the sense of being at home in her- or himself, in one’s true nature.  Just what that means for any given individual is apparent as he or she takes his or her own journey into the experience of the orphan, and into self-understanding, and self acceptance.


PHOTOS: Attribution Some rights reserved muffet ; texas_mustang  ; Sister7     VIDEO: © 2007 WMG Motherless Child
© 2013 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive, Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)


4 Human Truths about DSM-5 & Individual Psychotherapy

May 14th, 2013 · individual, individual psychotherapy, Psychotherapy

Since 1952, the APA’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual [DSM] has been key to psychiatry and psychology in North America, and has had a profound influence on much individual psychotherapy.

individual psychotherapy

Yet, with the upcoming release of version 5 [“DSM-5”] the validity and scientific authority of this mainstay is under intense scrutiny.  What does this mean for individual psychotherapy?


1. NIMH: DSM Has Failed Patients

In recent days, Dr. Thomas Insel, the head of the NIMH, the largest funder of psychiatric research in the U. S., announced that NIMH would not fund research projects relying exclusively on DSM criteria, due to a lack of clarity and objectivity concerning the DSM’s categories.   Among other things, he stated that,

“Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. [italics mine]…

While DSM has been described as a ‘Bible’ for the field, it is, at best, a dictionary, creating a set of labels and defining each….

Patients with mental disorders deserve better.”

This is a very serious blow to the DSM-5, a mere 2 weeks before its release.

2. But Biological Psychiatry Isn’t A Total Solution

Dr. Insel and NIMH have concrete suggestions as to how to overcome the  lack of true scientific depth in the DSM:

“Mental disorders are biological disorders involving brain circuits that implicate specific domains of cognition, emotion, or behavior;…

Mapping the cognitive, circuit, and genetic aspects of mental disorders will yield new and better targets for treatment.”

While all would welcome advances in neuroscience, it seems that Dr. Insel sees all “mental disorders” as reducible to biological states of affairs that can be mapped and described.  If so, many in his and related professions would not entirely concur.

Are “mental disorders” simply biological states of affairs that can be fully understood and addressed on that level alone?

3. Still Something Missing

It would certainly seem that there’s more.  There is the whole vast area of the individual’s subjective experience.

Dr. Eric Maisel regards the upheaval around DSM-5 as “the beginning of a movement in the direction of a smarter and more truthful understanding of human distress”.  However, as he states, that happy outcome can only occur if the science of the psyche takes adequate account of the inner states of the individual — his or her inner life.

He goes on to state what should be obvious: the central fact of individual therapy is that a human being is involved here.

From a specifically Jungian place, we might wish to add that to address a specific human being is to address a unique phenomenon, whose essence will never be completely classifiable.

4. The Irreduceability of the Human Individual

Key to the healing of psyche is the individual human being, with his or her unique journey.  Empirical science will no doubt continue its inquiries, but as Eric Maisel reminds us, the factor that must never be lost sight of is the inner life of the individual human being.  This is the heart and soul of individual psychotherapy from a depth perspective.


PHOTO: Attribution Some rights reserved  annrkiszt ; 
© Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive, Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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Individual Psychotherapy: A Golden Age of Workaholism 3

April 14th, 2013 · individual, individual psychotherapy, Psychotherapy

In individual psychotherapy for workaholism, it’s a matter of key importance to understand what it is in the person as a whole that underlies this dangerous and destructive pattern of behaviour.

individual psychotherapy

As with almost everything in psychotherapy, we can predict that this addictive pattern emerges in part from the individual’s story, and in part from the broader social and collective forces at work around the individual.


The Golden Age: Our Culture Glorifies Workaholics

Without saying so in so many words, our culture glorifies a workaholic attitude.

individual psychotherapy

The people that inspire us as heroes in our culture are very often people we would characterize as “driven“: relentlessly single-minded in their pursuit of some goal, and as hard on others around them as they are on themselves.  Such larger-than-life figures, like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, captivate us, and, with their laser-like focus, can attain an almost god-like status.

Pullitzer Prize winning social scientist Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death described this type of obsession with the heroics of achievement as “a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog.”

When Working Is Easier Than Facing Myself

Our culture is full of exhortations to this kind of heroic/obsessive goal-directedness.  This drug is readily consumed: its fantasy dimension can take us away from hard-to-deal with aspects of our personal lives.  Individual psychotherapy often shows that the workaholic hamster wheel can be easier than facing feelings of conflict or emptiness in our closest personal relationships.  It can be easier to immerse ourselves in work than to face who we are and what we really want in life.

Workaholism: What are We Looking For?

What is it that we are really looking for, from our work?  Certainly, we need work that provides for our own needs and those of our families.  In a time of increased economic insecurity, that need can drive us excessively hard all on its own.  But when it gets mixed up with the heroic idealization of work, it can be easy for work to take over an inhumanly large part of our lives.  Yet the truths remain true:

  • Work is not going to meet my deepest social needs, nor my need for love;
  • Work, on its own, is not going to provide me with real meaning in my life;
  • Work cannot function as the root source of my self-esteem; and,
  • Work is not going to enable me to escape the necessity of being who I am, and living my own life.

Something Better

Self-acceptance is a key element in the process of moving beyond workaholism.  It is tied up fundamentally with the process of journeying towards a sense of wholeness and completeness in my life.  I am, at base, an ordinary human — but unique, and that’s what’s precious about me.

The exploration of the uniqueness that we each possess is the only solid basis for a life, and it is the heart of meaningful individual psychotherapy.


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

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Individual Psychotherapy: A Golden Age of Workaholism 2

March 19th, 2013 · individual, individual psychotherapy, workaholism

Given the current epidemic of workaholism, it’s an issue for individual psychotherapy to take very seriously.

individual psychotherapy

We need to understand as much as possible about how it can possess and consume the lives of individuals.

If we take workaholism seriously as a form of addiction, what does that imply for the way we look at compulsive working?

Workaholism as Addictive Self-Medication

If workaholism is a form of addictive self-medication, we need to think about it in terms of one of the key cornerstones of addiction therapy.  That is the principle that you will never get a person to give up an addiction, unless we understand what the addiction actually does for the individual, and help him or her to find another way of meeting that psychic need.


Prof. Ruth Simpson of Brunel University has described a phenomenon she calls “presenteeism“.  In addition to the tendency to come to work when one is ill and shouldn’t be there, Prof. Simpson characterizes it as “”the tendency to stay at work beyond the time needed for effective performance on the job”.

Is working endlessly a form of self medication?   It most surely can be, by performing several functions for the individual.  Two primary things it does are as follows.

1) It allays my anxiety by giving me the feeling that I’m exerting additional control over the work load.

2) It assures me that, through my satisfyingly virtuous performance, I am doing more and better than the others.  No one is putting forth the effort that I am.

Work and the Hero Archetype

Individual Psychotherapy

Heroic Work: Hercules Cleaning the Augean Stables

The workaholic, whose work is never done, strives to accomplish the superhuman, the Herculean, the task beyond mere human doing — more…better.  As such, the he or she is in the grip of a monstrous inflation.  He or she is identified with the hero archetype.

True heroes aren’t human.  Ulysses, or Achilles or Hercules — or Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter — are beings from myth.  When we try to literally live hero out in human life, as the workaholic does, we set ourselves up for a potentially tragic outcome.  As James Hillman has it:

“…the hero then, in a living world of gods, and the heroic today are two very different cases….

Then he [sic] was half-man and half-god, but when the gods are dead, the hero becomes all too human….  Today, cut off from this psychic background, the heroic becomes the psychopathic: an exaltation of activity for its own sake.

“Exaltation of activity for its own sake” — could any phrase better characterize workaholism?

Freedom in the Self

Healing from workaholic compulsiveness involves the kind of self-acceptance that allows persons to be free and adequate in themselves.  To truly be oneself, in the awareness of one’s own self and life as enough, is no small thing: it is the root antidote to compulsions to be god-like or superhuman in competence.  Such self-acceptance is the goal of the journey of individual psychotherapy.


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

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Individual Psychotherapy: A Golden Age of Workaholism 1

March 4th, 2013 · individual, individual psychotherapy, Psychotherapy, workaholism

In my clinical practice in individual psychotherapy in an affluent suburb, workaholism is one of the more common issues.

individual psychotherapy

I’d go so far as to say that the present time may one day be known as The Golden Age of Workaholism.

What is workaholism?  The simple answer is “a consistent and compulsive addiction to working too much.”   And certainly long hours are characteristic of the workaholic.  But there is much, much more that characterizes a work-addicted person, as pioneering psychologist Barbara Killinger has outlined.


It’s common in individual psychotherapy to encounter individuals in whom work takes up inordinate amounts of psychological space.  It is not just that it takes up too many hours; work can almost completely absorb the energy and feeling life of the individual  As Dr. Killinger observes, it’s “a Gerbil-wheel, adrenalin-pumping existence rushing from plan A to B, narrowly-fixated on some ambitious goal.”  At the extreme, nothing may matter outside of work.


Divorced from Emotion

In individual psychotherapy we regularly see people who are effectively divorced from their real emotional life as a result of addiction to work.  The fixation can be so extreme that little else — spouse, children, outside commitments, even religious affiliation — has any meaning alongside work.

Compulsive Drive for Approval

How does this diminished sense of  one’s life come to take hold of a person?  Very often, it stems from a need to assert power and control — perfectionism striving to completely “master” the work environment.

Such a drive for control can be rooted in a deep inner compulsion to win the approval of others, and/or to gain recognition of one’s success.  Often such a powerful and unrelenting drive can be rooted in a very deep-seated sense of feeling profoundly unfulfilled or unloved.

The Uncontrollable Chariot

individual psychotherapy

The myth of Phaethon captures much of the psychology of workaholism.  Phaethon was the son of the sun god, Helios.  Taunted by schoolmates when he tells them this, Phaethon visits the sun god Helios in his palace, to confirm that he is Helios’ son.  Helios affirms this, and lovingly grants Phaethon a wish.  But Phaethon asks to drive the sun chariot — great hubris, for not even Zeus could control those fiery horses.  Helios tries to dissuade him, but cannot.   Phaethon takes the reins at dawn, mounts the skies, but cannot control the fateful horses. His wild ride threatens the earth.  Zeus is compelled to destroy Phaeton with a thunderbolt.

individual psychotherapy

Phaethon is driven to ego inflation by deep questions about who he is, and about his own value as a person.  Consequently, he single-mindedly fixates on the power and prestige of driving the sun chariot, and, as a result, meets his end.

Similarly, emotional blunting and inflated single-mindedness can burn up the workaholic.  A key goal of individual psychotherapy for workaholism is to bring him or her into acceptance of what he or she is, and to move beyond work as the sole validation of worth.


PHOTO: Attribution Some rights reserved by Raychel Mendez ; detail from “Apoteósis de Hércules” by Francisco Pacheco
© Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive, Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)




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Individual Psychotherapy & Holiday Stress: Renewal

December 31st, 2012 · holiday stress, individual, individual psychotherapy, Psychotherapy, stress

Working with people in individual psychotherapy around holiday stress teaches you a lot.

 individual psychotherapy

Among other things, you realize that, on some level, many of us do actually expect some kind of renewal at this time of year.

Does this result from expectations nurtured by our particular culture?  Perhaps so.  But there is also the age old reality of the solstice, and the effect of shortening and then lengthening days on all of us.  SAD, or seasonal affective disorder shows that many of us are deeply affected by the power of the light.

The sun’s power diminishes as we near solstice, and then ever so slowly comes back.  The expectation of renewal is part of our being, as it was for our ancestors thousands of years ago.  Jungian individual psychotherapy regards that expectation of renewal as archetypal.

But What Kind of Renewal?

Those in the second half of life know it’s not possible to simply wipe the slate clean, and start life again.  This reality of holiday stress is bluntly affirmed by one of the most popular Christmas songs of the last 30 years, “Fairy Tale of New York” by Kristy McColl and the Pogues [WARNING: Offensive Language]:

It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent expression of lost hope and broken dreams than this song.  Why is it so popular — at the very season of renewal?  In my opinion, the answer rests on another aspect of the holiday season that I discussed in my last post: the deep yearning for reality that accompanies this season.  In individual psychotherapy, people often reveal that want to believe in the possibility of renewal in life — but, in our era, they refuse to accept a cheap sentimentalization that lacks any substance.  In truth, we simply cannot stand any more…


It’s striking that, given our wariness about sentimentality, we remain fascinated by another figure who embodies renewal at this season — Ebenezer Scrooge!  I recently attended Soulpepper Theatre‘s annual dramatization of Dickens’  A Christmas Carol, and was fascinated to watch the audience, and realize the power that this story has to draw us in.  Why does this story still resonate?

Part of the reason is its power to reach the Scrooge element within each of us.  We want to believe in new possibilities for the rigid, mistrustful wounded part of ourselves that could readily give up on the possibility of anything new or alive.  We want to believe in renewal.

The Archetype of Renewal

Renewal comes from acknowledging that wounded, shamed, weak, deeply disappointed part of ourselves as indeed ourselves, and showing it real compassion and acceptance.  It’s so easy to treat it with contempt, which can very readily turn into contempt for the weakness and brokenness of others.  If we can connect with and accept the Scrooge in ourselves, there is hope for connection with others, and, above all, with our own real lives.  This goal of recognizing  and accepting all that we are is the goal of individual psychotherapy in depth.


Attribution   Some rights reserved ItzaFineDay ; VIDEOS: “Fairy Tale of New York” © Warner Music UK Ltd 1988 ; “A Christmas Carol” © Soulpepper Theatre Company




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Individual Psychotherapy & Holiday Stress: Reality

December 22nd, 2012 · holiday stress, individual, individual psychotherapy, Psychotherapy, stress

One learning I’ve had from from practicing individual psychotherapy is that some holiday stress stems from people’s attempts to find reality at the heart of the holidays.

individual psychotherapy

That sounds like a surprising thing to say.  But the yearning for real, meaningful experiences around the holidays actually runs quite deep.

The Realm of Kitsch and Bling

In the holiday season, we are surely living in the realm of kitsch, that style of mass-produced artifact that uses well-worn cultural icons or images. It’s a term generally reserved for


things gaudy or lacking in substance, designed to appeal to a wide audience at a shallow level.  Unfortunately, much of holiday art, design and decoration is kitsch, which contributes to holiday stress.  The same is true of much of holiday storytelling, especially in the mass media.

We fill the holidays with kitschy symbols and images of Christmas in our culture, and we also fill up the holidays with extravagant gifts, which can easily pre-occupy us during this period.  Yet, for many, the “bling” that accompanies Christmas feels hollow and empty.

Reality vs. Sentimentality

Many people experience holiday stress because of the way in which the season is shrouded in sentimentality, which might be characterized as appealing to shallow, uncomplicated emotionality at the expense of depth and real, individual humanity.  It’s not hard to find expressions of sentimentality tied to the key elements of the holidays.

Tired Symbols in Need of Renewal

The traditional symbols of the holiday season have lost some or all of their energy or vitality.  Jung would be the first to tell us that, when symbols lose their power and effectiveness in peoples’ lives, they must either be renewed or be replaced.  Over 40 years ago, Ian Anderson sang of the need in our culture for a renewal of holiday symbols, and of the need to get beyond the cloying sentimentality with which it has become encrusted.

What IS Real?

Individual psychotherapy shows that holiday stress often reflects our yearning for reality and genuine experience.  Few among us are really complete cynics about the holidays.  Even individuals without religious conviction look to them as a time of increased cooperation and goodwill among people, and, also, perhaps a hope for genuine connection with family members and friends.

Focusing on a sense of personal reality during the holidays relates to bringing a sense of reality and personal meaning back into our lives in general.  It’s always important to ask ourselves what in our lives carries a sense of deep meaning and reality.  Some of this may have to do with personal philosophy or meaning, worldview, or spirituality.  Some of it may have to do with deep and genuine connections and relationships with others in our lives.  Again, as individual psychotherapy knows, connection with those things for which we have genuine, deep passion is also essential.

Our yearning for reality during the holidays reflects our need for reality and substance in our lives in general, a key focus of individual psychotherapy that focuses on depth, like Jungian therapy.

Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

Oakville, Burlington & Mississauga Ontario


Click below to arrange a no obligation initial session:

Attribution   Some rights reserved wellohorld ; VIDEO: “Christmas Song” from album “This Was” © Chrysalis Records Ltd 1968



Individual Psychotherapy & Holiday Stress: Gifts

December 17th, 2012 · holiday stress, individual, individual psychotherapy, Psychotherapy

This is the season of holiday gifts, and, as individual psychotherapy well knows, gift-giving is often a major source of holiday stress.

individual psychotherapy

Does gift-giving create holiday stress for you?  Well if so, you’re in good company.  Anthropology tells us that gift-giving is a near-universal practice through the history of human cultures.

Gifts are Intensely Personal

Gift-giving — and especially gift exchanges — are immensely significant.  In cultures like the ancient Polynesian or the Haida First Nation, with its potlatch ceremonies, gift giving is tied up with maintaining and strengthening social bonds, maintaining social status — and it even has huge spiritual implications.

So this year, when you’re trying to decide what to get Uncle Fred, don’t be surprised to feel emotional complications and perhaps holiday stress surrounding the giving of gifts.  The anthropologist Marcel Mauss defines a gift as

“an object that contains spiritual elements and engages the honour of both giver and receiver.”
Haida Gwaii – Potlatch for New Chief Nang Jingwas

As individual psychotherapy shows, gift-giving is both personal and archetypal.  Among the Polynesians, or Haida, or even when considering the origin of Christmas gifts, the objects being exchanged don’t just have a monetary or physical value, but embody
a spiritual reality.  As Mauss says of Maori gift giving,”one clearly and logically realizes that one must give back to another person what is really part and parcel of his nature and substance, because to accept a gift from somebody is to accept some part of his spiritual essence, of his soul“.

Gifts are Archetypal

Gifts may seem like pretty mundane things, but they actually carry a significance so deep that it can properly be called archetypal.  Often in human culture, there is a higher spiritual agenda in gift-giving, and a deep feeling that the gift must be appropriate to the essence of the receiver, to who they really are.  The gift is an honouring and acknowledgement of who the receiver of the gift is, in their individual reality.

Our Gift Compulsion

The experience of individual psychotherapy shows that our culture is confused and conflicted about the meaning of gifts, in no small part because we are conflicted about the meaning of individual human existence.  In a culture in spiritual crisis, the meaning of human life is the acquisition of ever more expensive and splendid “stuff”, and not surprisingly, the meaning of gift-giving degenerates into ever-increasing pressure towards continually “bigger and better” gifts.

Our Need for Gift

The gifts that we and others need are not the most expensive or most luxurious, but the gifts that honour our true nature and substance.  To give such gifts, the giver must see who we really are.  Such a gift would bring us back to our souls, to self acceptance, and would connect us in profound ways with the giver.

What is the gift that you need, at this holiday season?  And, just as importantly, what gift do you need to give?  In its own way, individual psychotherapy at its best is profoundly concerned with these questions.


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