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James Hillman

What is Depth Psychology?

Depth psychology is the study of unconscious mental processes and motives, particularly in how it relates to psychoanalytic theory and practice.  The approach strives to bring the concept of soul into the forefront, although it is not based on any religious foundation.  The approach, founded by Carl Jung and Pierre Janet and inspired by Freud and others, uses an iceberg model to describe human consciousness.  In the model, only the tip of the whole iceberg is visible above the surface.  This represents the conscious mind, or what we notice.  The unconscious mind lurks beneath the surface and cannot be seen by the observer.

At the root of the practice is the examination of the whole psyche.  While modern psychology and psychiatry often try to split a person into thoughts, behaviors, and body chemistry, it cannot be the case that a person simply embodies the sum of these parts.  Depth psychology is an effort to take on the whole person rather than the three parts.  The interaction of the transpersonal and personal aspects of the psyche is referred to as the soul, which depth psychology strives to keep in balance.  The soul involves subjectivity, through which transpersonal aspects incorporate collective and archetypal forces at the deepest level of understanding.

When we search for meaning in our lives, we need to understand the nature of our souls.  At the heart of this soul-searching lies the crux of depth psychology, the question of, “How do we derive meaning from everyday experience?”  Rather than asking the question of whether or not we should be spiritual people, we need to ask whether we invest our energies in destructive and decidedly unspiritual aspirations, such as perfectionism, greed, addictions, and fame.  If we do, we need to focus on the mythology behind these forces, or how these forces play out in the rich tapestry of our lives.

Probing the depths of our experiences involves considering the influence of our formative experiences on our lives, and deciding not to dwell on them.  While we may have no choices in some areas of our lives, we do have choices in how we interpret events.  The psychoanalytic process helps bring the patterns existent in our interpretations of formative events to the forefront and helps us deconstruct previously unconscious processes. 

When the persistent idea or perspective is challenged, it is then that we can overcome obstacles.   Tracking the content of our dreams helps us form dialogue with ourselves and shifts focus from distractions to a deeper sense of authority.  Cultural influences, conditioned responses, and even our biology dig at our sense of personal authority, and these constrictive forces play out in our dreams. 

Once we probe into the depths of these forces, we can become at one with ourselves and obtain greater personal meaning and gravitas.  Through the process of individuation, we become able to “embrace a lifetime of full-fledged metamorphosis analogous to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly over and over again.”  Letting go of the defining characteristics that compose our identities enables us to break through our own limitations and become whole. 

So, how does depth psychology work in practice?  Some of the core techniques used include Socratic questioning, guided and eidetic imagery, and role playing future scenarios.  Socratic questioning helps people identify rational plans for action.  Guided and eidetic imagery opens up the mythos of one’s life and guides an individual through the full sensory experience of formative memories.  Feelings experienced during the process may be dealt with directly, and one is able to break out of patterns previously dealt with through repression and self-destructive behaviors.  Playing out future scenarios provides a “safe place for those in therapy to practice alternative and rational plans for action.”  The guidance of a qualified therapist is instrumental in the process, as one will emotionally benefit from his or her support and acceptance. 

People who most benefit from depth psychology therapy include those who embrace intense emotional work.  Some individuals may prefer a briefer, more solutions-focused method of treatment.  Introducing meaning to the experience with depth psychology may bring a richer experience for some, especially those who truly believe we have a psychical share in all that surrounds us, including our environment and the world in which we live.

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