Journeying Toward Wholeness

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How to Deal with Adversity

January 28th, 2019 · how to deal with adversity

At times, we all struggle with how to deal with adversity. What can help us get through fundamentally difficult situations in life?

how to deal with adversity

Adversity can take many different forms, that vary a lot depending on people’s age, life situation and particular life experiences. I’ve previously written about emotional pain, which certainly can be a very great source of adversity, but it’s far from being the only kind.

The Many Faces of Adversity

Adversity is something that can come in many shapes and sizes. Starting from relatively early ages, often in our early teens, humans become aware of adversity in the lives of people close to themselves, and often in their own lives.

Teens begin to realize that people face adversity in very different ways. As they mature, they discern that sometimes people face and grow through adversity, even when it’s incredibly severe. They also realize that sometimes individuals can be devastated by their adversity.

The question of how to deal with adversity becomes very real for them. Like all of us, they start to develop their own approaches to dealing with life’s most difficult situations, on both a conscious and an unconscious level.

How Adversity Can Take Us Down

The adverse situations in life can have a very negative effect on us. They can play a major role in addiction, self-harm, helplessness, and many other types of difficulties.

As Jungian analyst Gary Trosclair describes, we often have a response to adverse situations in our lives on two levels. He describes how the initial reaction to emotional and adverse situations is a primary emotion like anger, sadness or anxiety. What can then make things a great deal worse is a secondary reaction that can involve a strong, tense reaction that takes us to a place of defensive body postures, secretion of harmful amounts of cortisol, and generally giving way to the feeling that we’re confronting absolute disaster.

However, as Trosclair tells us, and University of Pennsylvania’s Prof. Scott Barry Kaufman affirms, we don’t have to just sit in this destructive, corrosive place. There are creative alternatives.

Creative Responses to Adversity

One possible response to the question “How to deal with adversity?” is through exploration of the creative dimensions of the Self.

Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to hear prominent Jungian analyst Kathrin Asper lecture on the life and work of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who used her creativity to help her deal with adversity. Kahlo suffered numerous highly adverse experiences, including polio in her childhood, a nearly fatal accident, intense chronic pain and an extremely difficult marriage. Kahlo explored these experiences through her art, and was courageous enough to let her deepest pain be the foundation of her creative work. Through her art, she was able to find meaning in her most deeply painful experiences.

It’s striking that, in his book Wired to Create, Prof. Kaufman also sees the life of Frida Kahlo as illustrating the role of creativity in dealing with adversity. As they state:

Art born of adversity is an almost universal theme in the lives of many of the world’s most eminent creative minds…. Much of the music we listen to, the plays we see, and the paintings we look at—among other forms of art—are attempts to find meaning in human suffering. Art seeks to make sense of everything from life’s smallest moments of sadness to its most earth-shattering tragedies.

Nor is it just artists who respond creatively to suffering. We can see much the same in the vast creativity of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in response to the adversity of ALS, and in C.G. Jung’s Red Book, which is a response to a harrowing psychological crisis he experienced in midlife transition.

I can’t speak for you, but I’m no Kahlo or Hawking or Jung. But each of us can still use our creative capacity as a means of answering the question of how to deal with adversity. Instead of just succumbing to the type of secondary reaction Trosclair describes, I can make the choice of searching for a creative response to my adversity. I can get very curious about my reaction to the problems in my life, and I seek different ways to respond to those situations. I can also find ways to express what I’m feeling through writing, drawing, painting, or other forms of self-expression.

Depth psychotherapy can often greatly assist the individual in responding to the adverse experiences of life in creative, meaningful and life-giving ways.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst

PHOTOS: Pat David (Creative Commons Licence)
© 2019 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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What Are the Goals of Therapy? Why Do It?

January 21st, 2019 · goals of therapy, goals of therapy, goals of therapy

Sometimes psychotherapists are not overly clear about the goals of therapy. Why should I bother getting therapy, anyway? What is it going to do for me?

Vague messages appear in mass media about the purposes of therapy. These might convey a sense that “therapy will help you to be a happier person” or “therapy will improve your mental health”. But what kind of a concrete difference will doing therapy really make in my life?

Therapy: Not Just About What’s Wrong with You

In earlier times, therapy was thought to be exclusively about healing an illness. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was known to say things like the following;

A layman will no doubt find it hard to understand how pathological disorders of the body and mind can be eliminated by ‘mere’ words.

Freud certainly thought that the function of “talk therapy” was to treat and heal “pathological disorders”. He has been followed in this by many different types of therapists with very different approaches, who all have felt that the role of therapy is to heal mental sickness.

Beyond Healing Illness

But that’s certainly not true of all psychotherapies. So-called humanistic psychologies have long had a different view of their task. We see that in the following quote:

In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I heal treat or change this person? Now I would phrase the question this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his or her own personal growth?

~Carl R. Rogers

In more recent times, we have the assertions of the “positive psychology” movement which imply that psychotherapy should be focused on

…valued subjective experiences: well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness (in the present)…. the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent, and wisdom.

~Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi

Jung’s View of the Goals of Therapy

Much is commendable in humanistic and positive psychology. However, as impressive as these views are, there’s still something missing. In my opinion, C.G. Jung, who actually predates many of these figures, captures much of that something when he tells us that

The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.

The underlying idea in this quote is that each of us has a fundamental identity hidden in the core of our being that we are trying to live out. In the process of finding my true identity through the course of all the experiences and major transitions of my life’s journey, I gain a sense of my individual place in the world, and of the unique meaning of my particular life.

True therapy, effective therapy (or analysis as Jungians call it) is about discovering the human being that I truly am. The central goals of therapy are all intimately related to the living out of my true identity in the world.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst

PHOTOS: Rick Obst (Creative Commons Licence)
© 2019 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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The New Year and the Psychology of Hope

January 7th, 2019 · psychology of hope

The early days of the New Year confront us with the question of the future, and the psychology of hope. Where can I find solid hope for my future?

psychology of hope

New Year’s: Crossing the Bridge to the Future

In our era, people face substantial anxiety about the future.  We’re bombarded with news and information from many directions — economic, environmental and political, among other sources — that often seem bleak. Additionally, each individual has to deal with their own particular life circumstances.  Where can we find some source or sense of abiding hope that will help us to move forward into a future that seems welcoming, that seems to be a place where we would actually want to live?

The Dominant Stories

That sense of hope may be difficult to find in some of the dominant stories that our culture gives us about what is really meaningful and valuable in life.

Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics, is an expert on the measurement of happiness.  He recently wrote an article in the Guardian Newspaper entitled

The money, job, marriage myth: are you happy yet?

Dolan is using the word “myth” here in a different way than Jungians use it, but his concern is that we can come under the influence of harmful stories, which he also calls narrative traps, such as the stories in our culture around wealth and success, that tell us that, no matter how much we have of these things, we ought to be reaching for more.  As he puts it, these stories tell us that “ever more happiness is achieved with ever more money and more markers of success”.  Dolan stresses that, beyond a certain point, this just isn’t true, and that the “happiness hit” that you gain from more money and more status actually gets smaller and smaller the more you get.

Dolan suggests that to be happier we need to move from a culture of “more please” to one of “just enough”.

We might agree with Dolan that the “more please” approach doesn’t really bring happiness — or hope.  Yet Dolan doesn’t seem to give us anything to put in its place that really could provide valid hope.  The idea of “just enough” may give us a sense of moderation or responsible environmental stewardship — but is that really something to live for?

What Really Brings Us Hope?

Humans fundamentally need hope!  This is especially true at the times in life that involve major life transitions.  As Paul Tillich told us, “Without hope, the tension of our life toward the future would vanish, and with it, life itself.”

However, we can’t go to the store, and just pick up hope off the shelf.  Jung stresses that, “Faith, hope, love and insight are the highest achievements of human effort.”  Contrary to what many voices in our society might tell us, we actually have to put concrete effort into creating hope in our lives.  As the positive psychologists would tell us, we have to live an engaged life, where we use our strengths and virtues to gain genuine gratification in the main areas of our lives.  We also have to use our abilities in the service of something much larger than ourselves.

How Do I Find My Hope?

All of this sounds good in general, but how do I go about finding what genuinely gives me, my individual self, hope?  “There is no recipe for living that suits all cases” Jung tells us, meaning that I have to go on an individual journey to find out what I need to live my own true life in my authentic way.  What works for other people, and brings meaning and hope for them, may be different than what works for me.  Again, as Jung asserted in one of his most profound quotations,

The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.

The task of finding what gives us a truly individual sense of meaning and hope will take our real effort, and in many senses is the masterwork of a lifetime.  Yet we can begin to search for what is fulfilling right now, right where we are.  Often working  with a skilled depth psychotherapist can be an important part of opening up our individual journey to hope and meaning.

With best wishes for a New Year of Meaning and Hope!

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst

PHOTOS: Daniel Jolivet (Creative Commons Licence)
© 2019 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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Coping with Holiday Stress, 2: Concrete Steps to A Better Holiday

December 17th, 2018 · coping with holiday stress

Our last post explored coping with holiday stress, and expectations.  This post explores practical steps for alleviating holiday stress.

coping with holiday stress

Let’s look at things pragmatically, but also from the perspective of viewing the holiday period and coping with holiday stress as an important part of our journey towards wholeness.  From this vantage point, what can we do that would assist in coping with holiday stress?

Acknowledging That the Holidays Do Create Stress

As we discussed in the previous post, it’s important for us to simply acknowledge that, for many of us, the holidays are an extremely stressful period!  Many of us face stresses during the holidays around time, money, meeting the expectations of others, family stresses and wounds — and a host of other possible factors.

We need to be up front with ourselves and acknowledge that our holiday experience is often far from perfection.  We may find much of value in the holidays, but we need to accept the places where they can make excessive or unacceptable demands upon us.

Denial: Not a Great Way of Coping with Holiday Stress

With the holidays, we can be tempted to tell ourselves that there’s nothing wrong, and that everything is just going wonderfully. Part of us may really want to channel our inner Will Ferrell or White Christmas Bing Crosby and just believe we can have a blissful stress- and fault-free Holiday Season.

This approach can end up amplifying holiday stress.  We need a more down-to-earth method of coping with holiday stress.

Accept the Demanding Parts of the Holiday Season

Acknowledging the good parts of the holidays is important, but equally important is acknowledging the difficult parts– and the parts of ourselves that have trouble with the holidays.

Here are a few key practical suggestions on how to cope with and accept all the parts of the holidays, including those that may provoke stress in us.

a)  Keep your expectations realistic.  Not everything about the holidays is going to be perfect. It’s essential to be compassionate to ourselves, recognizing that we can’t use magic to get a perfect Burl Ives “Holly Jolly Christmas”.  No one gets to have “perfect”.  Be kind to you, and enjoy the good things that really are there in the holidays,

b)    Don’t over-commit.  Getting over-tired and taking on too much leads to the opposite of a warm holiday — it can feed depression and anxiety.  Limit yourself to reasonable and enjoyable commitments.  Get others to help with tasks, if you need them

c)   Don’t overspend.  This can be a major contributor to post-holiday blues.  It’s wise to set a realistic budget, and stick to it.

d)  Don’t try to do everything at the last minute.  Thinking about your holiday plans, and getting them in place in advance can certainly save a great deal of holiday stress.

e)  Learn to Say NO!  This word may seem to have nothing to do with the “Christmas spirit”!  Yet, it has everything to do with self-acceptance, self-compassion and maintaining healthy boundaries that reduce stress.  Other people may have lots of ideas of how you should spend your time on the holidays.  Some might be very appealing.  But, ultimately, as with many things in life, it’s important to ask yourself, what do I really want?

f)   Accept people and situations for what they are.  Christmas can be difficult for many people, because they have to encounter people, often family members, with whom there is conflict, a possible history of trauma, or who are dealing with addictions, mental illness or other major problems.  It can help to try to set aside differences, where that’s possible.  In some cases, as when there has been abuse, that simply is not possible.  Then it’s essential to avoid contact by whatever means possible.

g)  Above all, acknowledge your feelings.  If you have experienced loss, separation or grief, it’s essential to recognize those feelings.  If the Holiday season is associated with bad memories, as it can be for a significant number of people, it’s important to acknowledge that, and work on good ways to take care of yourself in this season.  Whatever, you feel, it’s important to acknowledge it, not fight it.

Talking to a skilled depth psychotherapist to explore the individual value and meaning of the holiday season, and how it forms part of our journey to wholeness, can be of genuine benefit.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst

PHOTOS: Jim, the Photographer (Creative Commons Licence)
© 2018 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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Coping with Holiday Stress: A Depth Psychotherapy Point of View

December 10th, 2018 · coping with holiday stress

We’re now right on the edge of the time when most people start coping with holiday stress.  For a great many people, this is easily the most stressful time of the year.

coping with holiday stress

I’ve written a number of posts on this topic, but I think that it is still as relevant as ever!  Most depth psychotherapists are aware that this time of year is one in which they receive many contacts from potential clients, quite simply because it is such a stressful time of year for people.
There are many aspects of coping with holiday stress, so much so that it would be relatively easy to write up two dozen different blog posts on the subject — relatives, finances, time pressure — the list goes on and on.
For this post, though, I’ve decided to focus on one aspect of the holidays alone, one that is central to the impact of holiday stress.  That is the tremendous expectations that we so easily place on the Christmas / Holiday season.

The Heavy Weight of the Holidays

One of the most difficult aspects of the holidays can be the way that we carry such an idealized weight of expectation about them, which can easily lead to intense anxiety.  If you consider lists of the most popular Christmas music you’ll find titles such as the following:

  • “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”;
  • “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”;
  • “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”; and,
  • “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”

If you listen to these songs, they’re no doubt charming and even beautiful.  But if you listen closely to the lyrics, you become aware of something else.  They portray an incredibly idealized picture of Christmas, with mistletoe, endless joy and a universal friendly feeling with a warm glow, with every particular detail just right.  Yeah: no pressure people — just get every detail perfect, or else “the most wonderful time of the year” won’t be what it’s supposed to be.

Needless to say, in these songs, there’s no mention of relationship difficulties.  Or financial difficulties.  Or unemployment.  Or the recent loss of a loved one.

Coping with Holiday Stress is Harder if We’re in Denial

Many of us grew up in households where Christmas was idealized to quite an extent.  Yet, perhaps without even being fully aware of it, we can easily perpetuate this attempt to reach an idealized summit of “maximum Christmas” without really ever becoming fully aware of what we’re doing.

We can keep doing that, year after year, trying to live up to some ideal perfect Christmas that never arrives for us.  This can be particularly difficult if people feel an intense amount of pressure to give their children the wonderful Christmas that they perhaps never had for themselves.  Many people are striving so hard to make Christmas right for their kids or grandkids, or other family members.  Often, that can be a source of genuine credit card bill anguish in January.

Changing Our Expectations

It may be that the best means of coping with holiday stress is to change our expectations to something more human and self-compassionate.  What would an approach to the holidays that was kinder to ourselves look like?

It might well be that the holidays would be less stressful if we could meet them with a lot more acceptance of ourselves and of our own life situations.  If we could approach them less as a perfectionistic test that we have to pass, where we and everyone we love has to somehow “make the grade” in terms of our holiday experience, and more as an opportunity to get outside of the busy stress-filled round and re-connect with our selves and our journey to wholeness.

There might be real value in approaching the holidays as a gift to us, rather than as something that we have to achieve.  Perhaps taking the time to value what we do have, and to give ourselves the holidays that we need and want, rather than the ones that meet the marketers’ expectations.  Perhaps acceptance of our lives as they have been over the last year, and seeking to be open to seeing the meaning in our own real lives might give us the holidays we genuinely want and need.

This process of self-acceptance and of uncovering the meaning in depth of our lives as they unfold is a key part of the process of  depth psychotherapy .

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst

PHOTOS: MollySVH (Creative Commons Licence)
© 2018 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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Are You Satisfied with Your Life? If Not, What Can You Do?

December 3rd, 2018 · are you satisfied with your life

Are you satisfied with your life?  We all feel that this is a crucial question, but it can be tricky to answer!

are you satisfied with your life
If someone asks me whether I’m satisfied with something more specific, like my dinner in a restaurant, or my new car, or even a job, or perhaps even a marriage — it might be easier to give a straightforward answer.  But if someone asks you “Are you satisfied with your life?”, the question can seem really hard to answer, because our lives are such complex, intricate things.
Work by psychologists such as Prof. Ed Deiner of University of Illinois has shown that this is a much more useful and revealing question for people to ask themselves than whether or not they are “happy”.  Happiness is necessarily very transient, and our happiness is up and down a lot.
Instead, when we ask ourselves, “Are you satisfied with your life?” we get at deeper, more fundamental questions in our lives viewed as a whole.  This sense of deeper satisfaction gets very close to Jung’s meaning when he emphasizes that a sense of meaning is far more important to a person than “being happy”.   As he puts it,
The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.
I’m certainly aware in my own journey of times when my satisfaction with my life has been very high, and times when it has been remarkably low.  The times when life satisfaction is low always have a great deal to reveal to us.

When You’re Really Dissatisfied with Life

When life is really dissatisfying for us, it manifests in a variety of ways.  We may experience anxiety or depression.  The flavour may seem to have gone out of things.  It even seem to us that whatever we have in our lives is just never enough.

Psychological theorists, both ancient and modern, have suggested that human beings are always dissatisfied.  In a sense, that’s true.  We are always motivated to seek something — that’s what makes us human.  This “divine dissatisfaction” that the poets speak of keeps us continually moving in search of more fulfillment; this is what keeps artists and others always stretching and growing.

Yet there’s another, more troubling state, which we could call absolute life dissatisfaction, where, so to speak, everything turns into dust as soon as we taste it.  This is a common experience of people in modern North American life: people surrounded by “stuff”, but the level of unease and discontent experienced by many has never been greater.

The High Cost of Going Through the Motions

Lots of people respond to this type of life dissatisfaction by just doubling down on what they’ve always done.  A person who has focussed all their energies on getting and maintaining a beautiful home may feel a sense of hollowness or emptiness that their house pride just doesn’t help resolve.  Yet, instead of genuinely asking themselves “are you satisfied with your life?”, someone might simply choose to double down on getting a bigger and better house.  And when they’ve got that one, they’ll look for an even finer place.  We can keep up this futile channelling of our dissatisfaction in this way, possibly for a whole lifetime, never getting nearer to lasting value.

In Search of True Value

Yet, often a major life transition like the loss of a loved one, or entering into midlife transition or later life can lead the individual in a different direction.  It can often be that the question “Are you satisfied with your life?’ points the individual in the direction of the undiscovered parts of the self.

The paths that bring some sense of meaning, purpose or satisfaction can be quite unexpected.  The mathematician discovers a love of cooking.  The realtor becomes devoted to her tango classes.  The parent moves from grieving the empty nest to passionate devotion to a cause that he or she finds meaningful.

Often, depth psychotherapy can be of vital assistance in helping the individual to find the wellsprings of value and meaning in life that are truly unique to the individual.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst

PHOTOS: Filip Deblaere (Creative Commons Licence)
© 2018 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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Stress and Time Management: Are We Getting It Right?

November 19th, 2018 · stress and time management

In our time, there is a great concern in the collective psyche about stress and time management.  It’s one of the great preoccupations — and addictions — of our era.

stress and time management

CBC Radio host Michael Enright recently interviewed Brad Aeon , of Concordia University School of Business, an expert on time and productivity.  He stresses that our society is obsessed with being more and more productive — and that it’s hurting us a lot.  As he states:

“We tend to judge other people and their status by the number of hours of work they put in every week. 

Work 80 hours a week? You’re a good person.

Work 20 or less? You’re a slacker.”

According to Aeon, the productivity bar goes constantly up.  This is because we tend to look at people we label “overachievers”, and use them as the standard for what average people are supposed to do in a day.  But as Aeon points out, these overachievers are often not the typical person: they are often very well off with access to much support that others may not have.

The Obsession with Doing More and More

From the perspective of psyche, why are we so obsessed with doing more and more?  How has such endless pressure and anxiety found its way into our everyday awareness and our fundamental life choices?

Aeon sees this attitude as rooted in a sense of guilt and inadequacy, which we are somehow trying to overcome or compensate.  This would seem to be at the heart of “the Protestant Work Ethic”, as Max Weber called it — although it affects us regardless of religion!

The whole complex around stress and time management certainly has a deep hold on us.  It’s easy to find statements in psychological writings like this: “Poor time management can be related to procrastination, attention problems, or difficulties with self-control.”  Sometimes that’s true enough, but Aeon provides us with a useful contrast:

[M]any people believe if they become more productive and do everything right, they’ll finally be happy….  [But there] is no end to the quest for efficiency and time management, meaning you’re never going to be satisfied with your current level of productivity.

What’s at the root of this driven-ness, that pushes us to do more and more and more?

Stress and Time Management: Keep on Running (On Empty)

Such pressure can certainly be rooted in the fear of job loss, but often it’s rooted in even more fundamental things.  At its most virulent, it can be rooted in feelings of inner hollowness, powerlessness, and the fear that my life is inconsequential, as measured against the lives of other “more significant” people.

Before we let ourselves be pushed around by this pressure, it’s wise for us to take into account Brad Aeon’s haunting words: you’re never going to be satisfied with your current level of productivity.  To stay on this treadmill means that we have to run on it ever faster and faster, or face the anxiety and depression that comes when the addiction isn’t fed.

Self-Acceptance, and the Call to be Oneself

There is always going to be pressure from economics, but that’s only part of the pressure around questions of stress and time management.  There are bigger issues that we have to confront.

Jungians know that a prime factor is whether we accept and have compassion for ourselves.  To accept and love myself means to move into a psychological place of embracing what I am, and accepting and welcoming the fact that I am not someone else.  This is not always an easy task — but it’s the only route to feeling a sense of contentment and value in your life.

Hand in hand with such acceptance is the awareness that there is something uniquely valuable in me, that wants to be lived out — that only I can live out.  Only a major life transition can enable us to be finally free of the endless, deadly trap of weighing ourselves against others.

This task of accepting and valuing myself, and finding my own unique identity and meaning is far from easy.  It’s the work of a lifetime.  Often, depth psychotherapy can be of vital help in creating an environment where we can find this.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst

PHOTOS: woodleywonderworks (Creative Commons Licence)
© 2018 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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Severe Emotional Distress: It’s a Part of Human Life

November 12th, 2018 · severe emotional distress

Severe emotional distress is a normal part of human experience, even though we might sometimes act like it isn’t.

severe emotional distress
I’m writing this on November 11th, when we commemorate the sacrifices of all those Canadians who served in the military and experienced war or conflict. This year saw something very significant happen in Canada’s remembrance of our veterans.
For the first time ever, Canada’s Silver Star mother, Anita Cenerini, was the mother of a soldier, Pte. Thomas Welch, who took his own life on a Canadian Forces base after returning from overseas combat duty.  She worked tirelessly for 13 years after her son’s death to gain official recognition that his suicide was directly connected to traumatic experience incurred in the Afghanistan war zone.
The recognition of Ms. Cenerini as a Silver Star mother marks a very important step in our growth as a nation.  We have just marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1.  Many soldiers came back from that war suffering from “shell shock” as it was called then, and struggled with the stigma of being perceived as weak or cowardly.  Canada now recognizes that Pte. Welch’s death was the direct result of untreated severe emotional distress from traumatic experience in active military service.  This is genuine growth in our consciousness as a nation.

The Pain of Severe Emotional Distress

We still see a certain tendency in our culture to regard severe emotional stress as some kind of a flaw or deficit in the individual who has it.  This is often true even when we ourselves carry the severe emotional stress.  As a therapist, I’ve often been privileged to witness individuals sharing their own experience. Often peoples’ stories involves a high level of emotional suffering.  Yet often the individual will follow up by assuring me that he or she is weak, or self-indulgent, or telling me, in a phrase well-known to depth psychotherapists, that “lots of people are worse off than me!”


Such individuals are right, of course.  In almost all cases, it is possible to find someone somewhere who has had it worse.  Yet, recognizing that doesn’t change anything about the fact that the individual sitting in front of me is dealing with a harrowing amount of severe emotional distress.  We sometimes need to just face up to that fact, in a self-compassionate way.

Unacknowledged Severe Emotional Distress

If we deny the reality of our emotional pain, if we minimize it, or find some other way to run away without dealing with it, we can expect to pay a heavy psychological price.  We can certainly find ourselves experiencing intense anxiety or depression.  We may also find that our lives get diminished in a range of ways, as when we end up running to addictions — to food, alcohol, drugs the internet, work or a whole range of other things — as a means of coping with severe emotional distress.  Or, we may simply lead very small lives, in an effort to avoid situations where we might re-experience our pain.
How can we acknowledge our pain, and move towards finding some sort of healing or growth, without being overwhelmed by it?

Severe Emotional Stress & the Journey Towards Wholeness

There is a great deal of research evidence to back up what Jungian psychotherapy and other depth psychotherapies already know from clinical experience.  As UCLA Prof. Annette Stanton et al. have established through research in the area of physical illness, actively processing and expressing emotions reduces distress.  Conversely, avoiding and denying strong negative emotion can easily lead to worsening symptoms.  Very often, expression and processing of severe emotional distress is best done in a controlled, safe, accepting environment, and many have found that depth psychotherapy can provide an environment that facilitates healing and allows the individual to move more fully into his or her life.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst

PHOTOS: Ben Seidelman (Creative Commons Licence)
© 2018 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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The Many Faces of Fear of Failure — and How To Get Past Them

November 5th, 2018 · fear of failure

A culture like ours, which so prizes and praises accomplishment, has a shadow side; among other things, it appears in our fear of failure.

fear of failure
As depth psychotherapists are acutely aware, the psychological atmosphere that most of us inhabit in North America is charged with tension.  That’s about a sense of opportunity, at times, to be sure, but in our particular contemporary time, many of us have an especially strong sense that our world is full of risk.  For many, this reality can generate a strong sense of fear of failure.  This fear can be so intense that it can pull people into a place where they are frozen into inaction, afraid to attempt anything that moves life forward.

Everyone Experiences Fear of Failure

We’ve all had experiences of failure.  If you’re anything like me, you’re probably had them in some high stakes situations, where you really wanted to succeed.  If you have, you recognize that failure can bring a range of emotions including sorrow, anger or rage, deep regret, a sense of overwhelm, confusion and disorientation, or feelings of frustration and powerlessness, among others.  Two of the most powerful feelings that failure can bring are a sense of self-recrimination, and above all shame.  It is this last, corrosive feeling that is most potently tied to the sense of fear of failure.

To experience shame in a very limited, moderate way is one thing.  To know it at its extreme, for which we use the expression to be ashamed of oneself — that’s quite another.  It’s that kind of shame that is associated with failure in the experience of the fear of failure.

Jungians know that shame of this kind is intimately involved with the part of the personality that Jung called the shadow.  Jung defined the shadow, broadly speaking, as that part of our personality that we do not wish to acknowledge.   Failure can be viewed as an invitation to accept, and love, those parts of ourselves that we would rather not acknowledge.

Fear of Failure Can Lead to Disengagement

If fear of failure, and the shame that often underlies it remain unaddressed, they can take a really deep hold in a person’s life. This is particularly true in the aftermath of a person encountering a sizable setback.  Such a setback can  be occupational, romantic, financial, or of some other kind.  The individual may come to avoid challenges, or even avoid the mainstream of life.  He or she may find him- or herself living a very small-scale life — all due to fear of failure.

What’s more, the fear of being a failure can intensify as we age.  As we move past midlife, and into the second half of life, the individual may even be consumed by the sense that he or she has been a failure.  This fear or sense of complete failure can manifest as something truly devastating in the individual’s life.

Fail Better!

Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No Matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.

~ Samuel Beckett

As famed neuroscientist Gregory Berns emphasizes, the paralyzing power of fear of failure is often rooted in the sense of condemnation and shame from others that we anticipate experiencing if we should fail.

What will people think of me if I fail?” — this thought encapsulates much that lies at the core of the fear of shame that mires individuals in the ruts of life.  It paralyses them from trying the things that something deep within them calls to them to try.

C.G. Jung pointed us in another direction, the path of what he called “the law of fidelity to our own being.”  This means trying things that we genuinely feel drawn to, and moving beyond our fear of the condemnation of others, and our self-condemnation.  It means moving to a place where even failure can be seen as growth, and as life-giving — in Samuel Beckett’s words, to fail better.

This is a life-giving place, but it may be a part of the journey towards wholeness that we’re required to travel pretty much on our own.  It’s at this point that truly supportive depth psychotherapist may be of tremendous value.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst

PHOTOS: Michael (a.k.a. moik) McCullough (Creative Commons Licence)
© 2018 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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I Need to Change My Life, But… HOW?

October 29th, 2018 · I need to change

Do you need something different?  Many of us get strongly hit by the awareness somewhere in our life journey that “I need to change my life”.

i need to change

In my case, this has occurred with great intensity twice, but with most intensity around age 45 — deep in the heart of the midlife transition.  This a frequent time for such an awareness, but there can be many other times where we’re struck by the realization that I need to change.

There’s a potential big difficulty, however.  It may be completely apparent that I need to change.  The difficult part is that it may not be easy to see how.

When the Need to Change is Inescapable

There are many different messages that I might get that would indicate to me that “I need to change my life.”  Sometimes these messages may be on the level of basic physical or economic survival.  If it is a matter of basic health or even life itself, the requirement for palpable change is clear and very hard to argue with, even if I’m very unclear on how to bring the change about.

However, sometimes the need to change is really just as inescapable, but we can’t see it — or we refuse to do so.  We might face a clear inner voice manifesting through anxiety or depression , an intuition, or “hunch”, something that comes through our dream life, or a physical health issue.  (Sometimes when we need to bring change into our lives, and we have not yet acknowledged this reality, or are ignoring it, the images in dreams can make this clear in very graphic ways!)

A – If I Ignore, or Run From My Need for Change

It’s possible to run from or deny the part of myself that’s giving me the message that “I need to change”.  It’s also possible to just continue on, doing what we’ve always done, staying stuck in a rut, even though we really know that we have to change our circumstances, or perhaps some fundamental attitudes.  If we do try to avoid the challenge of change, it often has real consequences.

Being in denial about the need for change can devastate our relationships with others.  For example, if I can’t control my anger, or if I can’t be more emotionally available, I may risk alienating or completely losing people who are important to me in my life.

Denial or avoidance of the need to change can even more dramatically impact our relationship with ourselves.  As psychiatrist Abigail Brenner stresses, impetus for change may come from an “inner voice” telling us that we have to move to a different place than where we are.  Awareness of this sense of call, which Jungians tend to think of as vocation may occur in any of the physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual aspects of our being.

To ignore our vocation can leave us feeling that we’ve missed something very important in our lives.  In some cases, it may even feel like our lives are drifting towards meaninglessness.

S – Facing That I Need to Change — Practically

At some point, the fact that I need to change may become inescapable.  This may become apparent through very strong emotions, such as intense anger or strong grief, motivate us to move towards something different.  Or, we may just come to the point of genuinely feeling intensely that “This is enough.  I need to change.”  Or our outer circumstances might combine to make it absolutely clear that I can’t continue as I’ve done to this point.  The awareness may come to us in a huge variety of ways.

While it’s essential for us to come to the point of recognizing that we genuinely need to change, depth psychotherapy can help us explore what we feel, helping us to uncover the undiscovered self, and helping us to find ways to make the change real in our lives.  The journey towards wholeness. centers on finding ways to move forward on the path of choice and change, so that we honour who we most fundamentally are.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst

PHOTOS: Robert Couse-Baker (Creative Commons Licence)
© 2018 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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