Psychology Archives

In which we replace “abnormal” with “extraordinary”

Over the years I’ve read and listened to my fair share of material about “calling.”  The late James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling is the only book I’ve ever read that has helped me making sense of  it (Hillman was a famous Jungian analyst and died a few weeks ago).

Hillman eloquently describes how calling  is separate from our vocation and our talents and is present at our birth. He uses the ancient word “daimon,” – religious traditions would call this a “guardian angel.”   Hillman describes the daimon as a soul-companion that never leaves your side, has your best interest at heart and helps you carry out your destiny (for more on daimons see author Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular TED talk).

Although this isn’t a parenting book, and he only touches on the topic, what he says about childhood and parenting is very compelling. Especially this:

Our lives may be determined less by our childhoods than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods. We are less damaged by the traumas of childhood than by the traumatic way we remember childhood as a time of unnecessary and externally caused calamities that wrongly shaped us.

In regards to children and their psychology he says:

I want us to imagine that what children go through has to do with finding a place in the world for their specific calling. They are trying to live two lives at once, the one they were born with and the one of the place and among the people they were born into.

The entire image of a destiny is packed into a tiny acorn, the seed of a huge oak on small shoulders. And its call rings loud and persistent and is as demanding as any scolding voice from the surroundings. The call shows in the tantrums and obstinacies, in the shyness and retreats, that seem to set the child against our world but that may be protections of the world it comes with and comes from.

And on how a children’s dysfunctions are part of his or her gift:

This book champions children… It seeks to make sense of children’s dysfunctions before taking these disorders by their literal labels and sending the child off for therapy… Psychopathologies are as authentic as the child itself, not secondary, contingent. Given with the child, even given to the child, the clinical data are part of its gift. This means that each child is a gifted child, filled with data of all sorts, gifts peculiar to that child which show themselves in peculiar ways, often maladaptive and causing pain. So this book is about children, offering a way to regard them differently, to enter their imaginations, and to discover in their pathologies what their daimon might be indicating and what their destiny might want.

As a parent, I often find it tedious to be a parent in an era where parent is no longer simply a noun but is now a verb (parenting). So I appreciate how Hillman disses the modern notion that a child’s fate is largely determined by his or her parents.

The worst thing a parent can do is neglect her own calling and focus solely on the child:

If we do not differentiate her daimon from her child’s, then mother must also be declared a monster maker, whose daimon or demon lives out its life in her physical child.

I also like how he lets parents off the hook here:

To expect parents to see through the child into the acorn, to know who is there in nuce, and to tend to its concerns – is far too much. That is why teachers and mentors come into the world…

As caretakers, parents cannot also be mentors. The roles and duties differ. It is enough for a parent to keep a roof over your head and food on the table, and to get you up and off to school. Providing a cave of security, a place for regressions is no small job.

One of the most painful errors we make is to expect from a parent a mentor’s vision and blessing and strict teaching, or expecting from a mentor shelter and concern for our human life.

The best thing a parent has to offer his or her children is imagination – having a fantasy about the child:

For it is not ultimately parental control or parental chaos that children run away from; they run from the void of living in a family without any fantasy beyond shopping, keeping up the car, and routines of niceness. The value of the parental fantasy for the child is that it does force it into opposition and into a beginning recognition that its heart is odd, different, and unsatisfied by the shadow cast upon it by the family’s view.

Far better for parents to wish the new baby were a boy, call her Harry, Sidney, or Clark, and cut her hair short, than for them not to have any wish at all. At least the acorn is challenged and has a reality to contend with, the reality of the parental fantasy, which can result in seeing through the parental fallacy itself – seeing that I am not conditioned by and the result of my parents.

Again, parenting is not the focus of this book, but I just wanted to highlight the parenting parts in this post. The overall theme of the book is that we should learn to exchange the term “abnormal” for “extraordinary” and discover how to correctly imagine our lives.



It’s time to bring back the La-Di-Frickin-Da.

Below is a ten second clip of the late comedian Chris Farley saying “La-Di-Frickin-Da” in his inimitable way while performing as the Matt Foley character on Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s:

Image of Well La-Di-Freakin-Da!

It would be fun to put that as my voice mail greeting or play it each time a kid whines about something.

A couple of friends of mine and I have turned La-Di-Frickin’-Da into an acronym – LDFD – and find it comes in handy in emails and instant messages as so many things in life warrant a LDFD.  ;-)

If you’re interested in having a few laughs, click here to watch a complete Matt Foley skit. Chris Farley grew up here in Madison, WI and here’s a blog post I came across about a trip a fan made to Madison to visit Farley’s grave and favorite restaurants and such.

The blog also points to this poster (Farley died of a drug overdose):

That reminds me, I’m reading the book War of the Gods in Addiction: C.G. Jung, Alcoholics Anonymous and Archetypal Evil by David E. Schoen, a Jungian analyst. I don’t have an addiction and neither does anyone in my immediate family, but I’m highly interested in the idea posited in the book that the 12 steps in A.A. are similar to Jungian psychology. The book is based on correspondence between Bill W., a co-founder of A.A., and Jung.

Anyway, according to this book, addiction isn’t totally the person’s fault, as that poster says. But addiction isn’t just physical, however. There’s a psychological element as well. Schoen also says the cure isn’t medical:

There is a manageability to most most emotional/mental disorders other than addiction. Presently, almost all of them can be treated effectively with a combination of medications and psychotherapy. Medication and psychotherapy have not proven effective primary treatments in arresting alcoholism and addiction.

He recommends A.A. and/or Jungian psychology for a variety of reasons, because they both emphasize the spiritual as essential elements for achieving sobriety and recovery. Jung said the formula for overcoming addiction is spiritus contra spiritum (spirit of life against spirit of death).

So, even though that wasn’t my intention when starting this post, I ended up mentioning Chris Farley and Carl Jung in the same post. La-Di-Frickin-Da, as Matt Foley would say.


The cure for loneliness is solitude

While flipping through my notebook the other day I came across the notes I took last March in St. Paul, MN at the workshop with James Hollis, PhD, Jungian analyst.

Below are the notes from one of the pages and I couldn’t help but think how each sentence could be a book or workshop topic unto itself, although simply pondering each sentence is plenty of exercise for my little gray cells:

“Behind the wound lies the genius of the person.”

“Fundamentalism is an anxiety management system designed to rid ourselves of ambiguity.”

“We’re all recovering children.”

“You can’t individuate through the other but you can’t individuate without bouncing things off them.”

And my favorite:

“The cure for loneliness is solitude.”


Your Vocation

As individuals we are not meant to be well-balanced, sober servants of collective values. We are not meant to be sane, safe or similar. We are, each of us, meant to be different…

The shape and character of our vocation may change at different developmental stages. We have not just one life, but many lives to live, and in the course of however long we are privileged to live, many tasks, many vocations.

Personality, or personhood as Jung might define it, is not found in adjustment to external expectations, but in serving one’s calling in the context of our environment. This may bring one to an individual experience of being ‘misjudged, derided, tortured, and crucified.’

No wonder vocation is seldom served. And yet, and yet, something in us always knows better. Something in us, no matter how much we flee it, summons us. We may avoid it all our lives, but deep down, something knows. It knows us whether we wish to know it or not. There is no escape from this knowing though much of contemporary Western culture is a flight from knowing what, inescapably, we already know.

We will be most nearly real when we serve our vocation. We will not be spared suffering, but we will be granted a deeply felt sense that our life is right, even when suffering isolation and rejection.

That deeply felt sense of what is right for us… is how we can find it is we are to do with this precious and fragile gift of life and transcendent reality we are summoned to serve. This sacrifice of the ego will constitute our greatest gift to the world.

The sacrifice of collective acceptance, which individuation demands, is redeemed by our bringing a larger person back to the world, to our relationships and to our dialogue with mystery.

–James Hollis in Creating a Life (p. 109-111)


Your Fate

Image and video hosting by TinyPic“Whatever one’s fate may have in store, the task, if we are up to it, is to serve the individuation imperative, to become as nearly like ourselves as we can manage.”

-James Hollis

So what is this “individuation” Jungian psychologists are always yapping about?

I’ll let Hollis explain (from his book Creating a Life):

One of the most profound of Jung’s contributions to the field of psychology is the paradoxical concept of individuation. Even today the term is misunderstood as egotism or self-absorption. Such a path is seldom if ever the path of ego gratification, creature comforts, vacillation and flight. It is the cruciform path of the Self which will seek its own fullest being whether the ego cooperates or not.

Just as Dietrich Bonhoeffer surely prayed for his release from Flensburg K-Z Lager, so he also prayed that in that mad place he might know God’s will for him. He had been brought there because of his opposition to Hitler; it was not God who put him there. But his task, while there, before he was hanged, was to find and serve his fate with as much fidelity as he could manage. That is the model of individuation. It is not the path of solipsism, isolation, self-aggrandizement. It is the path of defeat which may lead to a life well lived.


Creating kingdoms out of complexes

The older I get, the more I wonder if we ever have direct encounters with other people, or if we only interact with each other’s complexes, projections and neuroses.

The idea of the complex is considered to be Jung’s greatest contribution to the field of psychology and most of what follows in this post is a synthesis of Jungian analyst James Hollis’s thoughts on complexes and projections.

A complex is an emotionally charged, internalized experience that has a splinter identity and a splinter script. When you get defensive and start justifying something, you are in the throes of a complex. When your reaction to something is disproportionate to the situation, that’s a complex. Bodily changes often accompany this.

An example of a complex is when you talk on the phone with one of your parents and find yourself reverting back to childhood in your feelings, behavior and what you say.

Some common complexes are the power complex (seeking sovereignty over environment and other people),  the fantasy of immortality complex, and the fantasy of the magical other (the notion that there is one person out there who is right for us). And, of course, the mother complex and father complex. “How many children are enlisted into the impossible, not to say unfair, project of making their parents feel good about themselves?” Eek.

Hollis says one can create an entire kingdom out of a complex.

Complexes are what bring people together. One might marry to find the good parent in the other, to find an abuser in order to confirm a wounded sense of self, or seeking what was missing in family of origin.

So what about projections?

Hollis says the central law of projection is that which is unconscious will be either repressed or projected. We are never free of projections. “It is truly frightening to realize how little one is conscious in the formation of intimate relationship.” Eek.

When we fall in love, what we fall in love with is some aspect of ourselves reflected back to us in the other. What we do not know about ourselves or will not face in ourselves will be projected onto the other. We project our childhood wounding, our infantile longing and our individuation imperative. Hollis said that when he was a college professor, his students could never grasp this, for they wanted desperately to believe that their romantic partners were the fulfillment of their dreams and couldn’t accept the huge role projection plays. “I’ll see you when you’re 40,” he would tell them.

Blaming our partner for stepping on mines we have laid is where most couples are when they walk into therapy, he says.

How to become more aware of and perhaps begin to outgrow some of our complexes and projections?

This requires that we ask ourselves of every impulse and behavior: “Where does this come from within me? Where have I been here before?”

If one can identify unquestioned, reflexive tendencies in one’s life, those for which rationalizations are immediately available, one might be able to walk backward to the formative experiences of which they are the ‘logical’ expression. Then one might be able to imagine alternative attitudes and behaviors as possibilities.

And as for projections in our relationships, he says we should ask that most difficult of questions: “What am I asking my partner to do for me that I should be able to do for myself?”


Your Test

Image and video hosting by TinyPicThe test of a psychologically mature person, and therefore spiritually mature, will be found in his or her capacity to handle what one might call the Triple A’s: anxiety, ambiguity and ambivalence. – James Hollis


Your Biggest Obstacle

Image and video hosting by TinyPicJames Hollis said the #1 thing he learned during his six years in Zurich while training to become a Jungian analyst is this:

Who we’ve become is our biggest obstacle.

Oops. :-)


My favorite definition of neurosis

Image and video hosting by TinyPicA neurosis is wherever we are allied against our true nature.” – James Hollis

A more roundabout way of saying it is: “some profound energy or value has been repressed, pathologized, and is now reasserting its will upon us. Whenever we force ourselves to do what is against our nature’s intent, we will suffer anxiety attacks, depressions, or addictions to anesthetize the pain of this inner dislocation.” – James Hollis

Other neurosis definitions:

“Neurosis is the flight from authentic suffering.” – Jung

“Neurosis is symptomatic of a reduced vision of life, a worldview of insufficient amplitude.” – James Hollis

“A neurosis is often a rebellion of an unconscious psyche against forces which it perceives as threatening to its specific nature.”  – June Singer

Jung said our neuroses are forms of suffering that have not yet found their meaning.

“Is not our chief neurosis – by which I mean our estrangement from nature – our desire to hold fast to what is forever transforming, to freeze the familiar, to submit motion to stasis, to solicit immortality through rigidity.” – James Hollis

Don’t forget to rock your neurosis.


Your Task

“Our task is to be defeated by ever larger things” – Rainer Maria Rilke

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending a workshop by author and renowned Jungian analyst James Hollis.

I listened to him for a total of 5-6 hours and there wasn’t a single sentence of fluff. His speaking style is elegant, low key, and the content was never boring. It was like a college course condensed into 6 hours. His background as a humanities professor was evident as he rattled off from memory countless quotes from poetry, literature and Jung.

The above quote was one of them. Notice the use of the word “defeat” rather than “overcome.” Being defeated seems discouraging yet, as Hollis said,  if you’re defeated by ever larger things, it means you’re growing, developing and following an agenda that leads you more and more into mystery. Jung said encounters with mystery are defeats for the ego.

Hollis says the task for midlife is the recovery of personal authority. This isn’t self-absorption but is submission of the ego’s desire for comfort, consensual approval and predictability in service to whatever it is that what wants to come into the world through us.