Today’s episode is, on a personal level, deeply meaningful to me. Some time ago, I went through what I now know was a crisis of the Soul. As always, I went and search for answers in books and philosophies. That was when I found Dr James Hollis’s work on Jungian Psychology.  Dr Hollis is a Jungian psychoanalyst and the author of sixteen books, his work is incredibly extensive and accessible.

In today’s long conversation, we honed in the meaning of what Jung calls ‘the second half of life’. According to Jung, the first half of our lives is very much about fitting in, adapting to social norms and conventions, but as we enter the second half of our lives, what has worked all these years no longer do. This is when we start to ask questions like, “Who am I apart from my roles? Who am I apart from my history? Who am I apart from my obligations?

I specifically asked about things that I see again and again in emotionally sensitive and intense people, such as the conflicts we face for being a natural non- conformist,  the fear of being ostracised by the crowd, and the guilt we feel for breaking away from home. We also discussed the burden of our parents’ unlived lives.  I directly asked James the question: Are we responsible for our parents’ happiness and wellbeing? 

Finally, we discussed how Jungian/ Depth Psychology offers us unique ways to understand our psychological symptoms and how we can listen to our dreams.

The materials in today’s episode are denser than usual;  but if you are a fellow seeker, I think you will benefit tremendously from what’s coming. 

 

A Trailer

 

 

 

ABOUT OUR GUEST

 

Dr. James Hollis is a Jungian psychoanalyst and the author of sixteen books, including Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life (2006), What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life (2009), and Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey (2018).  He taught Humanities for 26 years in various colleges and universities before retraining as a Jungian analyst at the Jung Institute of Zurich, Switzerland (1977-82). He is presently a licensed Jungian analyst in private practice in Washington, D.C. He served as Executive Director of the Jung Educational Center in Houston, Texas for many years and now was Executive Director of the Jung Society of Washington until 2019, and now serves on the JSW Board of Directors. He is a retired Senior Training Analyst for the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts, was first Director of Training of the Philadelphia Jung Institute, and is Vice-President Emeritus of the Philemon Foundation. Additionally he is a Professor of Jungian Studies for Saybrook University of San Francisco/Houston. 

He has written a total of sixteen books, which have been translated into Swedish, Russian, German, Spanish, French, Hungarian, Portuguese, Turkish, Italian, Korean, Finnish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Farsi, Japanese, Greek, Chinese, Serbian, and Czech.

Website: www.jameshollis.net

 

THE TRANSCRIPT:

 

Imi:

Hi, Dr. Hollis. Thank you very, very much for coming on to the Eggshell Transformations podcast. It’s an absolute honor to be with you.  Your work has been hugely influential and meaningful to me on a very personal level. A few years back when I was going through an existential crisis, I found solace in knowing that I wasn’t the only one.  

The themes around authenticity and belongingness, meaning of life, what it means to live an examined life — I see them again and again in people that I work with, and people around me. So I thought to have you on, to be able to discuss various topics would be a great idea. Thank you.

James:

Privileged to be with you. Thank you.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN, TO LIVE AN AUTHENTIC LIFE?

Imi:

You are a Jungian analyst. I’m interested in many aspects of Jungian psychology and depth psychology, as I imagine many will be. So I can talk to you about many topics forever, and we can be here until next week. Today, I probably want to focus on something that is not very talked about. It’s not that easy to find information on, and yet I see a similar struggle in a lot of people that I work with, which is the idea of what it means to live an authentic life around the middle passage, or what you call the second half of life. Would that be all right with you?

James:

Of course. Of course, certainly.

Imi:

Great. And I’m sure these concepts are all related. We don’t exist in a vacuum, so the systemic and what’s going on in the world will inevitably come into that as well.

James:

We have to remember from whence we began. We were equipped initially with an internal guidance system called instinct, that we were tiny and vulnerable and dependent upon our environment and the circumstances into which we were born. None of us got to choose that family of origin or that particular time in history, or that genetic inheritance or whatever.

But because of that vulnerability, we all have to make adaptations and we have to fit into the world around us. We develop what the British psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott called the false self. Not false because we’re hypocritical or feigning in some way, but adaptive rather than coming out of our natural selves. And so the purpose of the false self basically is to meet two needs, to manage anxiety and stress from that environmental encounter on the one hand, and secondly get our needs met with the limited powers that we have available to us. In time, we slowly reinforce those reflective responses to people. Because early on, we start making some early judgments about world and relationships and ourselves— Is the other trustable, untrustworthy? Am I okay as I am, or do I have to adapt and fit in in some special way?

We adopt stories out of that, too. These are more or less unconsciously-formed stories, but they arise out of our need to try to make sense of our world. We get attached to our own stories, so we bring those stories—  some of which are conscious “(This is what you can do, and this is what you can’t do,”) and some of them are not conscious. We engage them as we enter the world, and we bring them with us. 

I’ve often thought of the purpose of therapy from midlife on is a kind of analysis of and critique of the stories that we’ve been living and producing our patterns. Because none of us rises in the morning and says, “Well, today I’m going to do the same sort of stupid, counterproductive things I’ve done for decades.”

WHAT ARE OUR DYSFUNCTIONAL BEHAVIOURS TELLING US?

There’s a good chance that I will, because of the power of those stories. Which is one reason why in the face of the world’s demands, we see patterns. So the problem with the unconscious is, it’s unconscious. So we have to start with a tangible world, like our behaviors, and to see the patterns that are there, and to realize especially the ones that are not productive for us, or even hurtful to us, or maybe others. And say, “All right, but you know that’s coming from something within you. 

The only person present in every scene of your life is you, so we have to hold you accountable for your behaviors and their consequences.” But many of these stories, as I indicated, are coming from a place that you don’t really know very much about.

WHAT IS OUR DEPRESSION TELLING US?

We start with that tangible world and move backwards, or we start with emotional states. If I’m doing all the right things, and yet the energy is not there. I’m feeling depressed or self-medicating or whatever the treatment plan may be, then we have to say, “Okay, why is our psyche here autonomously withdrawn its approval and support for the places that we want to put our energies?”

So we begin to work with these things, and then it starts loosening up the material. And then a person, for the first time, may begin to look within and see, “Well, what are the engines of choice here? What are the search machines that are at work within me? Why these instead of something else?” 

Really our feelings, if we are feeling depressed or anxious, they really have important information embedded in their about our lives.

SO WHAT DO WE DO WITH OUR ‘SYMPTOMS’? 

Imi:

It’s interesting that you started with the end product — the behavior and the feelings, because that’s where modern psychology is very much focusing on. Modern therapy such as CBT seems, in my opinion, limited when it comes to our soul’s calling. 

To read from one of your books, you said, “Any therapy that does not address the issues of soul must remain superficial in the end, no matter how much symptoms palliation it initially provides.” This is also my experience, where clients may get symptoms relief for a while and then the problem returns, only in another form or sometimes more rampant. What makes Jungian psychology or depth psychology unique when it comes to its perspective on life and happiness and even emotional intensity, do you think?

Well, one of the things we could say is that rather than try to suppress the symptoms, we have to recognize that they are already expressions of psyche’s disfavor. They are protests, if you will.

So it makes sense for me to pay attention to why they’ve come. Not ‘how quickly do I get rid of it?’ But, ‘why has it come?’ What’s causing it, and what do I need to do to move beyond it? Not necessarily solve it, but move beyond it.  As you pointed out once, it’s not that we can solve our life problems but we can grow larger than they are. There’s a big difference there. We sort of outgrow those stuck places where our behaviors are sort of grinding away in the same old, same old place. Underneath all of that, you have to respect the autonomy of the psyche. See, the whole point of depth psychology is to dialogue with the psyche.

Yes, we’re behaviors. Yes, we’re cognitive processes. Yes, we’re biological processes. But you put all that together, you still don’t have the human being. The human being is the meaning-seeking, meaning-creating organism and more people suffer from disconnects from meaning than any other single cause of human pathology. So we have to address this question of meaning in a person’s life, and we can put up with a lot of stress and hardship if we have meaning. But take that away, and life is unendurable in some way.

WHAT ARE ‘COMPLEXES’?

Imi:

Earlier you mentioned repeated behavioral patterns. Are these related to complexes?

James:

Sure, sure. A complex is a term that Jung used frequently, and I think about virtually every hour. If I don’t think about it, because I’m in one, probably. A complex is a charged cluster of history. We have them because we have history.

Imi:

A charged cluster of history.

James:

A cluster of history.

So a simple example. Let’s say I touch a hot iron as an infant and I learn, “Oh, okay. That shiny object is painful,” so I stay away from that. I might actually extend that to other shiny objects before I learn to differentiate more fully. But some part of me is there forever in some way responding out of that history to a situation like that. Now, the good news about that is it could be protective to me. On the other hand, you can see how it begins to perhaps impose itself on new life situations, where it begins to in a sense show up in other areas of one’s life. Then you realize that complexes are really autonomous. We can’t just will them away, even when we get to know that we have one. I mean, everybody has let’s say an exam anxiety or medical treatment anxiety or dentist anxiety or something like that. Those are normal-

Imi:

Is that a complex?

James:

Certainly they are, certainly. Because if the first time you ever visited a dentist you had a wonderful experience, and it was delightful to you, you’d have a positive complex. People build up apprehensions around there, again some of which is conscious and some of which is not. So all of that energy has the power to be triggered by something on the outside, or has a certain kind of energy that can rise. You know how people can be in a mood state sometimes for days on end even, and have no clue as to why they’re feeling the way they are, or not even be aware of that. 

Imi:

And that’s when they’re caught in a complex.

James:

Absolutely, and then people around them are saying, “What happened to so-and-so there?” Because they can tell the difference. So one is floating in some way in that cluster of energy. Jung defined complexes as splinter personalities. So when we fall into that, we can suddenly be very infantile, very fearful.

Imi:

A splinter personality, did you say?

James:

Splinter personality, yes. Yes, that’s Jung’s term. So we could, for example, be responding in a very infantile way. We could be fearful, or we could be very compliant. We might say, “Why did I not object yesterday when such-and-such a situation was going on,” or, “Why didn’t I speak up?” And you realize, “Well, that’s when that history said, ‘Beware. This is dangerous potentially for you, so keep your mouth shut. Hide out. Hope that it goes away.'” And then you realize later, “Well, I just undermined my own adult capacity here, my own adult standpoint,” and that’s when a complex has occurred.

Imi:

So it’s probably when we collapse in this strange shame spiral, when we do things we don’t actually congruently want to do, say things we later regret, or have a strong emotional reaction that’s not proportionate to the situation.

James:

That’s right. Yeah, that’s a key word there, proportionate. One of the signs of a complex is that the amount of energy that’s discharging is in excess of the situation’s requirements. But when you’re in it, it feels appropriate. The person says, “But I’m not angry. I’m not angry at you,” and everything they’re saying is anger, because they’re caught in the sort of righteous energy of the complex at that moment.

JUNG ON DREAMS

Imi:

I mean, if it’s by its own meaning is unconscious, how can we deal with what lies beneath our knowledge and will? The problem with the unconscious is that it’s unconscious.

James:

Well yes, that’s what I said. The problem with the unconscious is it’s unconscious. So our task is then to try to track the unconscious, from a standpoint of depth psychology. That’s why behavioralism and cognitive psychology, useful in some circumstances as they are, but don’t get at the core of what a person’s issues are. Because we have to pay attention to the feeling function. We have to pay attention to the energy systems in a person. We have to pay attention to their dreams. For example, if you reach 80 years old, you will have spent six entire years of your life dreaming, which is extraordinary, based on laboratory research. That’s an extraordinary amount of activity by the psyche, and the human psyche doesn’t waste energy. It’s serving a purpose, and if we can somehow tap into that and engage that in conversation, then we begin to find, “Well, there’s another sensibility within me, another wisdom if you will, an observant other, and it’s commenting on my life.” It would make sense to pay attention from time to time.

Imi:

Yes. I mean, this is probably not a divergence from my core topic, but I am hugely interested, how does Jung think of dreams?  I know it’s different from Freud.

James:

Sure, sure. Freud tended to see dreams as pathological products, that they were in a sense representing whatever was forbidden by day or repressed, so it had to seek its expression. Sometimes there’s truth to that. There’s no question about that. But Jung saw it as part of the developmental, self-healing system. There’s no such thing as a bad dream, because we may not from an ego standpoint like the dream, but it’s all part of psyche’s effort to work something up and out, and to deal with it. So dreams are always moving us towards greater awareness, greater assimilation of those energies, and I think inviting us into a partnership, a kind of dialogue, with our own journey, which is a larger conversation than we could have between ourselves and the external world. Because in a way, the child is close to it, remember, but the power of the world takes us away from that internal conversation. So this is about engaging in a deeper conversation around the meaning of your own life journey.

Imi:

To run the risk of oversimplifying the process, would there be a quick tip or a thing that our audience could do if they want to start paying more attention or to converse with their dreams?  I have lots of very vivid dreams, and I wake up remembering them. I know about the idea of a dream journal. You don’t just open a dictionary to know that this means this, or A means that.

James:

That’s right. That’s right.

Imi:

But I then don’t really know how to converse or use the information in the dream.

James:

Well first of all, most people say, “I don’t dream,” or, “I never remember them,” but they do. Again, sleep research tells us we average about six dreams per night. That’s a lot of activity. So you do have to have some notepad there. The first thing you do when you awaken, whether it’s the middle of the night or the morning, is to say, “What was I thinking? What was I dreaming?” I myself have often thought, “I was just thinking that.” Then I realize I was talking to someone who was now deceased, or a third-grade teacher. I went, “Oh, that was a dream.” Write it down in as much detail as you can, and then you come back to it. You’re right, the dream dictionaries usually are not that valuable. Because if you dream of your grandmother and I dream of my grandmother, they’re different grandmothers with different experiences.

Imi:

Indeed.

James:

And therefore the key is your associations. What emotional material begins to come up? As you reflect on why that particular figure or image occurred in your dream, the dreamer’s personal associations are far more important than anything the analyst has to say about it, because that’s the key to the private symbolic system of that individual. 

And the more you talk about it, because at first dreams can be frightening or puzzling or opaque or simplistic. We say, “Oh, that’s just the way I dream. I know why I dreamt that.” The more you reflect on it, you’d have to ask first of all, “Why would my psyche consider this important enough to pay attention to it and to comment on it? Because if it’s that simple, I already know that. But this is trying to tell me about, there’s more energy attached to this than you thought there was in the first place.”

And what’s fascinating, many times in analytic sessions we’ll spend our entire time on perhaps a single dream. The more we work at it, the more you can begin to see something lightening and coming to the surface, floating to the surface. In fact, that’s what the etymology of the Greek word for analysis meant, was to stir up from below, like a river bend, to see what comes to the surface. And Jung felt that one of the primary functions of dreams was compensation, meaning our conscious life pushes us one direction, and we get one-sided. We’re rewarded for that. We’re paid for that, or at least we’re adaptive in doing that.

But on the other side is the whole rest of our personality. What happens to it? It apologizes. Because one thing I didn’t quite mention before is, we take symptoms seriously because they are expressing the disfavor of the psyche. It’s not approving as to what’s happening to us from outside, or what we’re choosing and the consequences which follow from that. And the etymology of psychopathology, pathos is Greek for suffering, logos is expression, psyche, soul. So you put it together, psychopathology means the expression of the suffering of the soul.

Imi:

Oh, wow. I never put them all together like that, yes.

James:

And the minute you put like that, then you realize, “Oh, we’re dealing with this human being in an existential setting,” as you said. We have to address the meaning issues of that individual. What does it mean to be you? What does it mean that this … What is this suffering asking of you? What has brought this to you, and what are the responses that your own psyche are demanding of you? Those are different kinds of questions rather than, how can we sort of fix this, you see?

BEING A NON-CONFORMIST

Imi:

Perhaps we could come back to the idea of the true self, false self, which is very much what I want to key as the core thing of our chat. For a lot of my audience, the conflict between their conformist, society-approved self or the parent-approved self and the true self seem to be a perennial struggle. I mean, many of them probably felt very different, like a ripple from a very young age, and they often feel more passionate and sensitive than others. And yet, that side of them seem to have gone into hiding. Either it’s because of some kind of trauma in the childhood or when they were a teenager they got shamed repeatedly. And so even after many years of trying, they still struggle to reclaim their most passionate, intense self and actually feel safe in the world as they are.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from you, if I could read it. I think it’s just so liberating. It says, “To become a person does not necessarily mean to be well-adjusted, well-adapted, approved by others. It means to become who you are. We are meant to become more eccentric, more peculiar and more odd. We are not meant to fit in. We are here to be different. We are here to be individual.” And I think a lot of my audience would find a lot of solace in hearing that.

James:

Well, I hope so. Really, two of the biggest questions of the second half of life is first of all, permission. As you were suggesting, we learn early life is conditional. We have to meet the conditions. And when you meet the conditions, you’re responding to that out there rather than arising out of something that is true for you. So that’s where that wedge, that slip occurs. And when that happens, it gets deep into the point that we lose permission to feel what we’re really feeling, desire what we desire for our life, and to take action toward it.

The second task is the recovery of personal authority. Again, we had it when we were young because it was called instinct. But personal authority means at any given moment there’s a rush of messages running through us, heavy, heavy traffic inside of each of us. Some of those messages are overt and clear like, “Get to work on time. Do this. Do that,” et cetera, et cetera. Some of it is covert. It’s old messages, buried from our experience. And in there, there’s a third category of messages that are coming from the deep self, that is to say from my own natural truth. And it’s anguishing, because it is oppressed in so many ways. It’s seeking its own expression.

It’s not about narcissism or self-absorption. It’s simply about respect for the individual soul. That’s quite a different matter, and that’s a humbling process. In other words, this is not narcissistic. It’s actually humbling to do this work. What do I need to learn about myself to live more authentically? And that’s not necessarily going to make my life easier or conflict-free. It’s perhaps going to make it tougher. Maybe I’ll have to look at my relationships a bit more rigorously. Maybe I have to check some of the patterns in my life. Maybe I’ll have to face my fears and step into a new place in my life. So the personal authority involves two basic things, a kind of discernment that goes on. Sorting and sifting, sorting and sifting, on a daily basis. “Where is this coming from in me?” In other words, it doesn’t matter so much what I’m doing. It’s, “Where is it coming from inside of me?” I think it’s an-

Imi:

Can you give us an example?

James:

Well, let’s just say I’m engaged in a certain kind of behavior that I can easily rationalize as caused by the situation, or even coming from a good motive. But maybe it’s coming from codependence, fear of conflict, fear of stepping out and being exposed and vulnerable. Therefore, it’s not necessarily coming from a good place. So sorting through the traffic is task one, but then finding the courage to live it over time, that’s the hard part. Which means that one sometimes has to pull away from some of the structures and some of the relationships one’s been involved in. Not again our of selfish motive; quite the contrary. But simply saying, “My continued investment here is psychologically costly.”

Now when we do that we incur, as Jung pointed out, a certain kind of debt obligation. You then have to be accountable for what you find, and engage in yourself, because that’s what you have to bring back to the collective. In other words, I can’t be any better partner. I can’t be any better parent. I can’t be any better citizen than the person I am in relationship to myself. Wherever I’m undeveloped, fearful, codependent, shut down, living a small life, that’s what I’m bringing to others. So I have a moral obligation to bring more of a human being, a fuller human being, to all those relationships.

Which is what our contribution is to others.

THE SECOND HALF OF YOUR LIFE

Imi:

It is a really good point that it’s not about narcissism. Because I know Jung used to … And perhaps you can expand on what he meant by individuation. So I know he uses that phrase to describe a process of us reclaiming our authentic self, perhaps. And yet when people hear individuation, they confuse it with individualism.

James:

It’s kind of like teenagers trying to show how independent I am, and we all dress alike kind of thing, you know? They topped each other’s habits. It’s actually about a service, ironically, a service to Being, capital B. I don’t want to sound grandiose here, but it’s like you have to ask the question, “Why are we here?” Especially in the second half of life, after we’ve served many of our social functions. Perhaps we’ve reproduced the species. Perhaps we’ve formed relations. Perhaps we’ve engaged in a work world and so forth, so why are we still here? Then you have to ask a different question. Because the question in the first half of life that all of us confront is, “What does the world want from me? Can I mobilize enough response to meet it and deal with it?”

James:

The second half of life is, “What wants to enter the world through me?” That’s where your personhood, your talents, your interests, your enthusiasm, your capacities are called upon. But what if in your culture or your family that was not acceptable? Then you have that tremendous collision of force fields within you. That’s what produces that splitting historically that was called neurosis. And we’re all neurotic, because it has nothing to do with neurology. It has to do with being caught between competing agendas, the social claim upon us and the claim of our own nature upon us. And the more divergent they are, the deeper the wounding, the greater the pathology.

Imi:

There’s a split in us. And in fact, can we just come back to the second half of your life, which is the title of one of your books? And it’s very much what we are talking about, but what is your definition of the second half of life? Does it have to be chronological?

James:

No.

Imi:

There are lots of old souls, very, very wise young people amongst us nowadays.

James:

Sure.

Imi:

Can we be going through a midlife crisis in our 20s or 30s?

James:

Well, yes and non. First of all, I would prefer to use the word passages here.

Imi:

Passages, yeah.

James:

We go through multiple passages in our lives, and a passage occurs when you obviously transition from one stage to another. But sometimes that’s prompted by internal developmental obligations, our own nature seeking expression, and sometimes it’s brought upon us by external events. So throughout history, people have been mindful of passages. 

Traditional cultures often had rites whose purpose was to support individualism in the process. Those have pretty much disappeared, so individuals are thrown back upon themselves. This process then often has to come on, occur unconsciously and not in a very healthy way, perhaps. But what I call the second half of life is not a chronological event. It’s when you are radically obliged to start asking questions like, “Who am I apart from my roles? Who am I apart from my history? Who am I apart from my various obligations, which may be very fine obligations?” But then you begin to ask the question of meaning, and we stand then in relationship to something larger than us, to some kind of mystery. “Why am I here, in service to what? What energies am I supposed to embody and bring into this world?”

Again, that’s humbling. That’s even potentially terrifying. Jung said once in one of his very homey metaphors, “We all walk in shoes too small for us,” because stepping into our own shoes is a daunting task at times. So sometimes this will be precipitated by … Well first of all, often it occurs in midlife, chronologically, for a couple of reasons. One, by that time we will have lived for our first foray into what we’ll call adulthood, maybe the first adulthood. We may think we’ve left our parents behind, that world behind, but then we realize we’ve created a whole different set of complications. And so you now have a history to reflect upon, which an 18-year-old doesn’t yet, perhaps. But when you’re 40, you have some history.

Secondly, you’ve probably had by that time some maturation of the ego strong enough to bear it. Many years ago, I was in academia and I left it because I got tired of talking to 18-year-olds. Nothing wrong with being 18. It’s just that I realized I couldn’t have a conversation about certain kinds of matters at that stage, because it was not part of their field of experience. But if I met them at 40, there was a whole different person to talk to. And then you can say, “All right, well, I have to sort of look at this,” right? So that’s the sort of naturally occurring crisis or passage that we hit. “Why am I here when I’ve done all the right things as best I could do?”

Or, it can be precipitated by a divorce, death of a spouse, aging, illness. Sometimes one just awakens at the hour of the wolf, 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, and one looks at one’s self in terror and says, “Who in the world am I? What’s going on here?” Those are nodules. Those are moments where the individual is summoned to a very large question. “Who am I, and in service to what?” Which are healthy questions, very healthy questions. When we’re young, we want to answer those forever. “I’m going to marry the right person. I’m going to have the right career. My life’s going to unfold in this very predictable way.” You think, “Well, good luck with that.” Once in a while it happens, but most cases people will run into some bumps on that highway.

And then you have to sort of stop and say, “All right,” right? Well, this takes me back to the drawing board. That’s when people can perhaps come in with therapy, and it’s a healthy encounter because it does invite a new level of accountability. Because that’s what this is all about in the long run is, “I am accountable, even for those parts in me that are unconscious. I can’t afford to say, ‘Well, just because I wasn’t aware of it doesn’t mean I don’t have any responsibility for it.'” No, I do. When the rest of the world comes for me, I’m accountable for it.

Imi:

It’s that daunting existential dilemma of, when you have the freedom and the autonomy to choose, you also have the responsibility to bear the consequences of what you choose.

James:

Absolutely, absolutely. Sure, sure.

Imi:

And I guess because of how daunting that task is, some people would just not respond to the summons and stay asleep.

James:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Imi:

So I guess my next question is, does everyone necessarily go through a passage, or are some populations more prone to questioning and examining the meaning of their lives? Can someone just stay asleep all their life?

James:

Well, absolutely. In the 19th century, sorry, when Kierkegaard talked about a person who was shocked to find his name was in the morning obituary column of the newspaper. He hadn’t realized he’d died, because he hadn’t realized he’d been here. And yeah, there are people who dream their way through their lives and never question what’s going on. Sadly, a lot of people frankly have been defined by the powers around them. Everything from slavery to socialized roles and so forth, that sort of define who you are and limit your capacities, those are horrific examples of the impact of the external world upon the soul of a child. History is replete with that. On the other hand, there are moments when these things break through. So do we go through passages? We all do, but if a person’s asleep, that person’s not attending it. That’s why they’ll keep sort of trying to impose the understandings and the behaviors of the previous passage on a new stage of their journey, and wonder why things don’t go so well.

Imi:

Oh, I see. So they keep doing the same thing hoping for a different result.

James:

Sure, which is one of the definitions of insanity.

THE BURDEN OF OUR PARENTS’ UNLIVED LIVES

Imi:

Insanity, yeah, yeah. Well on that, which is on the confines of pressure that keeps us asleep, one of them would be our parents’ unlived lives, as Jung famously said. Our parents can make us live out their unlived lives for them. If possible, can you expand more on this and maybe give us some common examples in your many years of clinical experience?

How do people get held back by their parents’ spoken and unspoken expectations?

James:

Well first of all, think who are primary models are about how to live in this world. I mean, we’re exposed as tiny and impressionable children to these giants around us. They are our first and most intimate relationships. We will forever carry the various messages or stories that arise out of those experiences. That doesn’t mean they dominate, but they’re always going to be present. You can never ignore them.

Imi:

Ouch.

James:

So where they’re stuck, I will have a tendency to be stuck as well. Or, I’ll have to be spending my life trying to get unstuck. “Anything but like my mother,” or, “I’ll not live my father’s life.” You see, well, I’m still being defined by something other, rather than coming out of my own self.

Imi:

Absolutely.

James:

There’s that issue of not yet having permission for my own journey. So or thirdly, we’re out there trying to sort of treat the problem, solve it, without even understanding what it is we’re dealing with. It could be a life of distraction, a life of self-medication. Or if you’re really troubled, you could become a therapist and work with other people who have that same problem, you know?

Imi:

Thanks (sarcasm).

James:

Well, I mean you know, we know that in the profile of professional caregivers, whether they’re clergy or nurses or therapists or whatever, they often were very gifted and/or sensitive children in the family of origin, and they perceived and experienced on a daily basis the instability of the atmosphere in which they found themselves. They began even as children making certain adaptations. One learns to keep her mouth shut. Someone else acts out. Someone else gets the message, “I need to somehow fix this.”

Imi:

Absolutely.

James:

And so I would say probably in 90% of professional caregivers, there is a history of troubled human relationships. Now for some of them that’s their true calling, and for others they’re pushed into that because of that kind of identification with their environment. That’s one of the things that will lead out to burnout and depression within them as well.

Imi:

Because it’s not congruent to their soul? They’re out just acting out of complexity.

James:

Absolutely, absolutely. In other words, it’s a kind of almost assignment history has given me, and not as you said, congruent with the terrain of my own soul.

Imi:

Yeah, I think it’s a great reminder that trying to rebel against a parental doctrine is also a way of being controlled by it. I don’t think a lot of people think of it that way where, “I’m trying my best to never be like my mother,” is actually another way of being trapped.

James:

Absolutely. It’s almost as if a person in broad daylight is walking outside with an umbrella.

Imi:

Yes.

James:

And you don’t know it, because there’s this invisible parasol above your head. But to step out from under that is to step into your own life.

 

I can’t do that unless I realize that.

Imi:

My therapist once gave me a really witty question which was … It took some time to let it sink in … Which is, “Can you take an umbrella out when it’s raining, even when your mother told you so?”

I found that so clever, and I really resonated with it. Because I used to be that teenager who said, “I’m just going to go out and brave the rain.” Yeah, yeah.

James:

Sure, sure. Well, that speaks to the question of again, it’s not so much what I do in terms of my choices, but where is it coming from inside of me?

 

That’s the point. So to open the umbrella or not to open the umbrella? Where is that coming from? Is that a response to getting wet? Or is that somehow rebellion or service to an old complex, cluster of history, you know?

Imi:

That answers the question, how do we deal with these things that are unconscious? How do we even know that we are acting out of parental expectations?

James:

Well, that’s an excellent question. Usually when people come into therapy, it’s because there’s been some pattern that’s problematic and has gotten them into trouble with themselves and/or others, first of all. Or, they’re being haunted from within by troubling dreams or depression or whatever the case may be. Well again, that’s tangible and we can’t deal with the unconscious directly by definition. But you can say, “All right, now we have to ask why has this come, and what could be its possible motives?” And then to say, let’s say there’s a pattern in one’s life. Again, as I have suggested earlier, we don’t rise and say, “I’m going to do the same stupid things,” but we will do it because there’s a complex that has a certain autonomy of energy within it.

So we can ask ourselves, “All right, now what kind of energy or internalized message, if you will, can produce a pattern like this?” And you start exploring that, until you begin to get a feeling. Again, an opening of a dialogue with that kind of unconscious material, intrapsychically, and one begins to realize, “Well, you know it is possible to dialogue with the unconscious.” There’s something there that’s wanting to break through to us, and that’s why I said symptoms are one of the clues of the psyche expressing it’s … If I go to a doctor with a fever and a sore throat and so forth, that’s my body telling both of us something important. And that leads us to an exploration. Well, that’s true for psychological symptoms as well. Our psyche’s not against us. It’s seeking two things, our growth and our healing. Of that I am convinced.

Imi:

Yeah, and it’s always talking to us, nudging us.

James:

That’s right.

Imi:

Either in ways of bad feelings, or a migraine headache. It’s always nudging us towards authenticity, yeah.

James:

That’s right.

THE FEAR OF BEING OSTRACISED

Imi:

Just going back to that whole thing of people living their parental expectations without knowing. I think many people have a sense of it, or as their therapist nudges them to think about things in that direction they go, “Oh, yeah. Maybe my parents are a little overbearing.” But then immediately they get haunted by the sense of guilt and betrayal, as though they are doing this very, very bad thing, or some really deep-seated feeling of the fear of being ostracized, exiled, abandoned would immediately surge. They may not be able to name it that way, but from my perspective I can often see it.

 

James:

Yeah, well, what you’re describing though is the exploration of that territory alone begins to trigger those complexes. Because as a child, you’re absolutely needful of their approval and support. You don’t want to cross them, because they can be punitive or they can abandon you. It’s either way. As a child you learn, “I am utterly at the mercy of that need.” Well, even though you’re a full-fledged adult let’s say, you realize after all these years that field of energy gets activated. It’s not that you’ve done something wrong. It’s an honest question. It’s not that you’ve betrayed anything. It’s just, you’ve activated a field of anxiety. The feelings of guilt and shame and betrayal are secondary protests against the anxiety. What makes us uncomfortable is the anxiety, and the anxiety is really the primal threat of the loss of the necessary other.

This is what keeps people attached, even to very toxic relationships. You know we’ve all known people, for example, who stay in terrible relationships and we wonder why. Well, because at some level dealing with the anxiety that leaving it will generate is even worse, and so they’re terribly stuck in that situation. As reductionist as it sounds, we always have to ask ourselves, underneath all of these behaviors that we’ve identified as troubling and problematic, is a defense against anxiety. What happens if you don’t do it? And then suddenly, a world of consequences start rising and that shuts the person down. That dialogue is often so attached to those complexes. There’s been a veto power from the complex before one’s even particularly made a decision. You just don’t go there, so to speak, and that’s how we stay stuck.

Imi:

So how do they go there?

James:

Well, look. The issue of stuck places is significant. I’ve had lots of workshops around the world, and one of the questions I’ve asked people, and this is often in a journaling workshop where people would start writing a response is, “Where are you stuck?” And it usually doesn’t take … Nobody ever asks me, “What do you mean, stuck?” And people start writing about it within 60 seconds, which tells us we know so readily where we’re stuck. So then the obvious question is, “Why is it so difficult to get unstuck?” And the reason is, as I said, getting unstuck disturbs the force field of energy in the basement that you will have to face when you get unstuck. So let’s say a person has a significant problem we’ll say of overeating or self-indulgence in some way. You don’t say, “All right. Well, obviously you just don’t do that. Quit, okay?” But then the resistance comes in. Why? Because then, “What will I have to face?”

Imi:

Indeed.

James:

“What is that behavior protecting me from, loneliness? Is it protecting me from …?” Which is very understandable. We don’t judge that. We have sympathy for that, but we also realize it’s costly. Is it protecting you from conflict? What would you be doing through life if you weren’t spending your energy there, you see? Ultimately, one has to go through the anxiety to get to the other side. I think it was Winston Churchill once who said, “When you’re in the middle of a difficult forest, the only thing you can do is keep walking.” You have to go through some anxiety to get to the other side of whatever that issue is. But that has the power typically to shut people down, which is why they remain stuck.

AUTHENTIC SUFFERING

Imi:

And yet I think that’s what you call a meaningful or authentic suffering, rather than-

James:

Sure.

Imi:

The suffering you have by trying to not suffer.

James:

That’s exactly right. No, Jung said neurosis is the flight from authentic suffering,” which is as we see not sparing us from suffering. Just saying you’re suffering, it’s either going to be authentic or inauthentic. That’s the choice. Now, you don’t hear that from most schools of psychology. They’re talking about, “Let’s get rid of suffering.” Well, good luck with that. Suffering comes with the human condition, because life is difficult and then you die. Well, have a nice day. So the key is, is the suffering you’re going through psycho-spiritually speaking enlarging, or is it diminishing?

 

Every choice in your life, and every relationship, and every commitment you have—  Does this make your life larger psychologically speaking, or does it make it smaller? You usually know the difference between the two. You might be afraid of asking that question, because you may not like the answer. But the answer is being addressed by your psyche. That’s why these protests called symptoms come.

Imi:

Yeah, yeah. I do often say to people … And I didn’t say this. I read it somewhere, but depression is trying to not be sad.

James:

Sure. Well, another way of looking at depression is, “Why is my psyche autonomously withdrawing approval and support from the places where my ego and my complexes have been investing that energy?” And I have to then ask a question, “Well, where would the psyche put it?” Which I can ask you that-

Imi:

Sorry, can you say that again? So our psyche is a withdrawing energy.

James:

Yes, yes. That’s what depression is. I mean, there are different kinds of depression.

For example, there is a reactive depression at our loss. It’s only appropriate, and it’s only problematic if it interferes too long in too large a way in a person’s life. I think most of us walk around with pockets of depression in us at all times. We’re not depressed, we’re functional, but we have pockets of depression because there have been losses. There have been places where we’re at odds with ourselves. The question then is, “Why has the psyche autonomously withdrawn its approval and support for the places where I’m putting my energy, investing my energy?”

And then, you begin to realize there can be a reorientation of values. You have to ask the question, “Where would the psyche want it?” Well, the psyche ultimately wants it in terms of feeding it the necessary energy that is self-healing, as opposed to continue to sort of ratify the splits that we all carry. And then you have to ask, “Well, what would it wish my energy to be investing in?” And that’s a different kind of question, and that repositions the ego. Ego says, “I’m not necessarily the boss here. I’m responsible for the interface with the external world, but I have to sort of examine where all this stuff is coming from inside of me.”

Because when you live in service to that, it will overcome so much of that inner discord. And again, this may or may not be supported by our environment. That’s why fitting in, which is what a child learns is necessary, in later life may be too costly. You can’t afford to keep doing that, because the price of that is the price of a loss of meaning, and a loss of relationship with your own soul.

THE BREAKAWAY GUILT

Imi:

On that topic— this is such a personal and yet meaningful question to me. For many people, and from what I’ve known about you and hear some of your personal stories shared elsewhere— there are many people who are seekers at heart. For them, not breaking away from their home, their origin, where they’re from, the hometown that they’re from, it means a soul death to them and they knew it from a very young age. They have some sense of knowing that they needed to leave to forge a path of their own and to expand their consciousness. But this is really not an easy path, especially when you’re a younger person. This could be a conflict way into your 30s and 40s.

Other people may criticize them for being selfish, and they may feel guilty for leaving people behind, like leaving their parents behind, leaving their siblings behind, leaving their old friends behind. They may feel like they’re being arrogant, aloof. Is there any kind words or advice you would give to someone who feel haunted by this guilt, that I call it the break away guilt?

James:

Mm-hmm, well, think about the guilt that comes if you’ve lived in bad faith with your own soul.

We use the cliché of being on your deathbed and reflecting on your life and you ask the question, “Did I live my journey as best I could?” With all of the mistakes and screw-ups we have along the way, “Did I live my journey? Did I take the risk to try to be who I am in this world as it is, over which I have very few powers?” And we know the answer to that question almost automatically. You don’t even have to ask it. So there’s a tremendous burden if you don’t do that, but it’s also true. That’s why I said, Jung himself said, “You incur a certain kind of debt obligation when you leave,” and you have to come back into the world at some point. This is not about isolation. It’s, re-enter the world but as a more evolved person.

Now, not everybody’s going to stand there and applaud, because the purpose of a parent is in some way to love and support and give us much capacity to that child in order to live their journey, not to come back and say, “Take care of me,” for example. “I’ll take care of me, to the best of my ability, but live your journey.” 

One of the big tasks that I talked about in the last book was, we have to free our children from us. Because it’s rare that a parent doesn’t impose upon a child. “I want that child to endorse my values, have the same politics, religious values that I have, and not go too far because I may need them as I get elderly,” et cetera, et cetera.

Also, there’s understandable motives that they’re also narcissistic, and they’re not about loving a child. You can’t say that’s loving a child as the other. We have to say, “This child’s a mystery who passed through my body and my history on route to their own journey.” If I’m a good parent, I do everything I can to support that. I say to my children, who are still adults of course now, I call them each once a week, see how their lives are going. I’m an email away. They know how to get in touch with me. I’m willing to share an opinion if they want one, but normally speaking it’s basically saying, “Terrific.”

Imi:

That’s wonderful, yeah.

James:

“I’m here for you, after all these years.”

Imi:

There’s this wonderful poem by, oh Kahlil Gibran. He likens it to parents being the bow to the arrow, and the children, once they’re in the world they’re doing their own thing.

ARE CHILDREN RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR PARENTS’S HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING?

Imi:

So let me just ask a really straightforward question. Are we responsible for our parents’ happiness and well-being?

James:

Of course not, no. They are. They are.

Imi:

They are.

James:

I wouldn’t expect my children to do that. I mean, I can’t say that as a young parent I wouldn’t have had the same kind of motives too, but I’ve done everything I could to make that conscious and to mist that off of them through the years. I’m responsible for my happiness and well-being, not them. And when you see that you realize, this is the unlived life of the parent. “If I’m living my journey, why would I dump it on my children?” When I do dump it on the children it’s because I’m not living my journey. I’m not being responsible to my own soul.” So that’s an unintended confession of my abrogation of a summons to my own personhood here. So that’s why it’s so critical, and of course that sours a relationship. I mean, how many adult children look forward to seeing their parents and having conversations with them? And how many dread it, because there’s always this hidden agenda, or not always hidden agenda, that’s there?

Imi:

I mean, when I ask if we are responsible for our parents’ happiness and well-being, we laugh as though the answer is obvious. But actually, I think in many parts of the world it’s not that obvious. It’s sometimes very hard for people to draw the line between, in Chinese culture what we call filial piety or loyalty or love, or dysfunctional codependency.

James:

That’s right.

Imi:

It’s the line between love versus codependency, sometimes can be really fine in many places in the world.

James:

Sure, sure. And of course, that world had an enormous amount of social cohesion.

Imi:

Yeah.

James:

And much of it was of a time and place in which travel and information from the world was not available. But I’ve had clients from traditional cultures in the East in the past, and this has been a big internal struggle.

And in many cases where their parents are still trying to tell them, in their 30s and 40s, what basic decisions to make with their lives. I’ve said to each one of them, “This is a time when you as an adult have to make that decision.” But again, that conflict inside is tremendous, and I appreciate that. That’s a cultural complex. That’s one we get from our tribe, so to speak, and it’s very powerful. When it prevails, it will shut a person down. That’s not love of a child. That’s oppression, and when you break from it, you pay for it. But if you don’t break, you pay for it in a very different way.

Imi:

You pay even more, indeed.

James:

Even more, as we said.

JIM’S NEW BOOK

Imi:

Well, thank you so much, Jim, for this really enlightening conversation. I’m just aware of time and I want to be respectful of your offering. I know that you have got a new book coming out. We have talked a lot about the intrapsychic side of things. This new book of yours called—In-Between World?

James:

It’s Living Between Worlds.

Imi:

Living Between Worlds, I’m sorry, yes.

James:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). And subtitle is, Finding Personal Resilience in Changing Times. It’s talking about how history around us of course is changing in so many profound ways, and how does an individual find an internal compass and points of guidance within to navigate the world out there, where the old maps don’t apply anymore? And then secondly, the intrapsychic changes that we’ve been talking about. So it’s about finding guidance and continuity in times of change, whether external or internal.

Imi:

How incredibly timely.

James:

Well, it is. I didn’t know two years ago when I was writing it that what was headed our way, and including the virus and so forth. And by the way, the sequestering around the world that the virus has produced has thrown a lot of people back upon themselves in a different way. Fewer distractions, you know?

Imi:

Yeah.

James:

You’re not just getting up in the morning and running off to work, or engaged in the usual sort of socialization processes. A friend of mine said, “A lot of people are being introduced to a relationship with themselves, maybe for the first time.” I added, “You know, they’re not always going to like that encounter.” So, it’s enormous … I’m sure some people have regressed and some people have recognized, “I’m not at home with myself here. I’m by myself, and I’m not enjoying the company.” So that’s a tremendous … That’s a big recognition. It’s an invitation to personal growth, and again the development of an inner life whereby you’re never fully alone, when you have a connection to that depth within yourself.

Imi:

I was surprised by that, because when the virus hit I remember having a conversation with my therapist. I was despairing a bit and I said, “Oh, now — thinking about Maslow hierarchy of needs— no one’s going to be interested in personal development and getting in touch with their souls now. Everyone’s just busy buying tissue paper.” So hearing what you said, and potentially this could be a collective invitation for us to look in, yeah.

James:

Sure. It’s the one relationship we have from beginning to end, and if that’s a troubled relationship, all the other relationships are going to be troubled as well.

Imi:

Just for my audience, I’m going to read off one more of your quotes and then we will finish the conversation. I just really love this. It’s very similar to the one that I’ve just read. It says, “We are not here to fit in, be well-balanced or provide example for others. We are here to be eccentric, different, perhaps strange. Perhaps merely to add our small piece, our little clunky, chunky selves to the great mosaic of being. As the gods intended, we are here to become more and more ourselves.” That’s a relief. I can just be my clunky, chunky self, huh?

James:

That’s right. You don’t have to pretend, and you’re not your persona. You’re marked on a journey, beginning in mystery, ending in mystery, and along the way shrouded in mystery. So it gives you plenty to reflect upon.

Imi:

Indeed.

James:

And frankly, as I’ve often said to people, this is not about curing you. You’re not a disease. It’s about making your conversation with yourself more interesting, making your life more interesting, realising every day something large is up for grabs. If you recognise that, it’s going to be a far more interesting life than you ever imagined.

Imi:

Thank you.

James:

You’re welcome.

Imi:

It’s really beautiful. Can you tell us where to find you and to discover more of your work, especially the new book that’s coming out?

James:

Well, wherever. Book stores and Amazon and that sort of thing, and so the virus has shut down some travel at this point, but I am doing some Zoom-type programs such as this. So life goes on.

Imi:

Indeed.

James:

And I’m still seeing patients. Probably about 90% of my patients I’m seeing by Zoom or phone or whatever, so still busy, so …

Imi:

Good, and I’ll put your website link to the show notes, and the new book is called Living Between Worlds: Finding Personal Resilience in Changing Times. Fantastic.

James:

Welcome.

Imi:

Thank you so, so, so much.

James:

You’re welcome, and it’s a pleasure to meet you.

Imi:

Thanks.

James:

And thank you for the interest, and I wish you well.

Imi:

Thank you. Thank you so much.

James:

All right. Be well, Imi.

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