Saturday, August 04, 2007

Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
~ Santayana

This well-known quote applies as much to individuals as it does to nations. In fact, it can be seen as the foundational maxim of psychotherapy. I hope to provide here some context for this stance.

In recent decades, psychology has entered what Elio Frattaroli (Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain) calls the "Age of the Brain." He contends, and rightfully so, that psychology has become too focused on treating the brain with chemicals, rather than doing the intensive and sometimes arduous work of healing the deeper issues. If someone is depressed, why spend months in therapy when you can "fix" it with Prozac?

Certainly, neuropsychopharmacology has its place as an important part of dealing with mental illness and neuroses, but it should never be the only solution. The problems that plague our lives are issues of the soul much more often than they are issues of brain chemistry alone. There is growing evidence that neurochemical patterns in the brain are shaped by experience as much or more than they are triggered by genetic factors (especially in depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder).

When I use the culturally-loaded term "soul" (also known as the Self in Jungian psychology, the Atman in Hinduism, the Buddha Nature, or the Witness, among other terms), I mean that element of the psyche that experiences our lives and needs to make sense of things in ways defy rational understanding. It seeks communion, experience, interconnectedness, and inclusion; and it prefers darkness, fertility, and the freedom to be without doing. It is not rational, nor does it care much about cognitive understanding.

When soul is neglected, it doesn't just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning. Our temptation is to isolate these symptoms or to try to eradicate them one by one; but the root problem is that we have lost our wisdom about the soul, even our interest in it. We have today few specialists of the soul to advise us when we succumb to moods and emotional pain....

~ Thomas Moore, Introduction to Care of the Soul

I've not been a big fan of Freud over the years, but I am beginning to see more and more that his early insights into the working of the mind were crucial to the development of psychology. He was maybe the first to understand the position Moore takes in the above quote. In "Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through," Freud outlined the essential way that soul works to make us more conscious through neurosis. Frattaroli can paraphrase it better than I can:

Freud describes neurosis as the compulsive repetition in action of a personal past that cannot be consciously recollected. This reenactment of the past is a reliving not of childhood events as they actually occurred but rather of emotionally patterned interactions learned in childhood, motivated "scenarios" that tell a story based both on actual events and on attitudes, emotions, and fantasies that were developed around those events (35).

Importantly, even when we can recollect those events themselves, we generally have little or no access to the emotional content and how we learned to relate to the world based on those events. We repeat the scenarios of the past rather than actually remember them -- a kind of repression. But the soul wants us to remember, to become more whole, so as Moore suggests, the behavior patterns will keep occurring until we stop to look at them, usually when they have driven us to therapy.

When we are experiencing depression, anxiety, or some other psychological dis-ease, we generally feel isolated, disconnected, and numb. A psychology of the soul contends that this is not our natural state. Soul works to alleviate this state of aloneness in the only it can -- it tries to force to look at why we feel this way.

The Subpersonality View of Neurosis

One of the ways the mind keeps these feelings repressed is through the creation of "managers" (see this post for a more thorough definition), whose job it is to keep us from re-experiencing those feelings and are triggered whenever we get into a similar situation. As subpersonalities, these managers enact the repetitive behaviors that were learned as children to avoid the pain of the past trauma, which as adults are generally dysfunctional behaviors.

But whenever there is a manger, there is a corresponding disowned self, or exile. While the manager tries to keep us safe from old wounds, the exiles, because they have been relegated to shadow, project the "feeling tone" of the event onto other people or situations. Thus, a child who was abused by her father will often end up choosing abusive men in relationships. The dynamic of the exile's relationship to the abusing parent is projected onto the men she meets, and because this is all shadow material, she unconsciously chooses men who will allow her to reenact the abusive situation.

My sense is that the soul is partly involved in this process. By allowing the projection, and maybe even initiating the projection, the soul colludes with the disowned self/exile to attempt to create a situation in which the old wound may finally be healed. Modern psychoanalysis has moved toward to idea that we reenact not those events that we cannot remember, but those events that we cannot feel.

The problem, as Frattaroli sees it (and I agree), is that modern psychology will be presented with someone who is depressed, maybe or maybe not knowing why. And rather than do the "archeology of the soul" that is needed to heal the original wound, the doctor will prescribe an antidepressant and send the person off to feel better. But nothing has been healed. The situation causing the depression, which may be known intellectually but not emotionally, will keep happening. Insight into the source of our pain is important, but we are not dealing with the realm of cognition, we are in the realm of the soul, or psyche.

When we can identify the subpersonalities at work, rather than medicating them away, we can begin to get to the root of the issue. This takes serious work in the therapy room, which costs money, and is why managed care advocates drugs and cognitive-behavior approaches (of brief therapy). These approaches have their place, but only in specific situations.

For more serious issues, where past trauma is most certainly part of the problem, deeper therapy is crucial. If we cannot remember and re-experience the emotional states that have been repressed, we will continue to repeat the same situations throughout our lives.

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