Society needs to be shaken by the aspirations of those who are not responsible.
The image is to Jungian psychotherapy as thinking is to cognitive therapy. But there is a difference. In cognitive therapy, it is assumed that one of the events that leads to maladaptive functioning and symptomology is faulty thinking. Therefore, one of the tasks of the psychotherapist is to help the client examine and then change his or her thinking around certain areas.
In Jungian psychotherapy, the image is never assumed to be faulty. In Jungian therapy, the image stands on its own and can lead the therapy where it needs to go. In conducting psychotherapy with adolescents this can be even more true. Sometimes when working with adolescents and when all other methods of talk therapies, environmental changes and medications fail, the psyche produces an image that guides and rescues the adolescent from the constraints that desperate parents, probation departments, community resources and well-intentioned therapists attempt to put in place.
Jane (not her real name) was 17 years old when her parents brought her to see me. Her parents had just discovered that among other troublesome behaviors, she had been experimenting with drugs. They were shocked to make this discovery. Though her parents didn’t say it, it was clear that they were questioning their own parenting abilities and blaming themselves. Coming from a tight, extended family, the impact and feelings of shame that this new discovery had on everyone in the family was palpable.
Jane’s parents explained that until recently, Jane had been a gifted girl who did not cause them much worry while receiving straight A’s in school. After meeting with the parents first, I began individual therapy with Jane, meeting with the family as a unit occasionally.
Developmentally, Jane was at an age where she would begin to form her own identity separate from her well-intentioned but controlling parents. The immense conflict that this brought out in Jane was not to be underestimated. Jane felt deep guilt for bringing on what she perceived as shame for the family. On the other hand, she was angry and felt “controlled” by her parents and extended family. Among other strong emotions, Jane started to have thoughts and feelings of cutting on her body. This was particularly worrisome as Jane’s parents attempts to set strong limits and make environmental changes, like changing schools, were ineffective. The psychotherapy also was difficult and without clear progress.
After about six months of psychotherapy with Jane, she shared a dream. Since I work with dreams regularly with most clients, I had asked Jane previously about her dreams. She indicated that she did not usually remember them. Jane’s important dream was a short one as far as dreams go. In the dream, Jane was swimming underwater in the ocean with a mermaid who was holding her hand. Jane’s affect noticeably brightened when she told me the dream with an incredulous smile on her face.
After having this dream and discussing it, rapid healing occurred. Although we discussed the dream and the image of the mermaid, it was not my interpretation or discussion that was the catalyst for change and transformation. The catalyst for the transformation was the image of the mermaid and the container of the psychotherapy as a safe place to welcome imagery and the numinosum–an awe-inducing experience seemingly produced from beyond self. The mermaid image was autonomous, a product of the innate capacity of the psyche to produce images that have the potential to heal and transform.
In the weeks and months following this dream, Jane’s attitude toward her parents and circumstances changed. The thoughts and feelings about cutting dissipated and then went away altogether. She stopped using and defending her experimentation with drugs. And finally, she ended and gained insight into the emotionally harmful relationship that she was having with a boy her own age. The therapy ended about nine months after Jane shared the dream. The last few sessions were focused on her preparations for attending a university while she continued to hold the gains made since her mermaid dream.
Jane’s dream and imagery is an example of what can occur with adolescents in Jungian psychotherapy and when a healing image is produced from the unconscious. Next, I will look at the case of a 14 year old male, who I will call John.
John’s case is one where imagery through memories from an experience helped him to heal. John’s story was not so different from many children and adolescent who are brought to psychotherapy by foster parents or child advocates. John was bounced around from foster home to foster home for most of his life. As one could imagine, he had great difficulties attaching to new foster parents and his placements did not last long. Part of the reason for this was because of John’s behaviors that foster parents found extremely difficult to help manage and change. John had seen therapists before, many, in fact, and with disappointing results.
When I first met John, I didn’t have much confidence that the outcome of the therapy with me would be much different. From the beginning, John made all efforts imaginable to push me away too—just like he had been “pushed away” from so many failed foster home environments. I hung in there with him, although it was not easy and it tested my tolerance to the end. I tried all of the counseling strategies including family therapy with his current foster parents. Mostly though, these efforts were unsuccessful.
Then during one session John relayed an experience that he had recently while ice skating on a frozen lake. He had not skated before and talked about how he fell down over and over, but that each time he got back up, brushed himself off, and tried again. Next, he told me about the song that he had been listening to almost constantly lately. It was a new, popular song by Chumbawamba called “Tubthumping” with a refrain that went like this, “I get knocked down, but I get up again, You’re never gonna keep me down.”
And the course of psychotherapy here too changed rather quickly and in the right direction. John’s extremely challenging and oppositional behaviors in the therapy sessions decreased significantly. He started to discuss his difficulties and associated feelings that he encountered with others while at school and in the foster home.
Our therapeutic relationship and the therapy itself, was now anchored and contained with the memory and associated images from his ice skating and the song about getting knocked down but getting back up again. For John, this experience, memory and image, served as a metaphor and a symbol for John’s current phase of life and helped him to form an attachment to me and others.
Adolescence is a time when the adolescent is forming his or her own unique identify partly shaped by parents, culture, and society, but mostly shaped from within. When we clamp down too hard on the experience and image-shaping developing self within, all sorts of disasters can occur without.
As Winnicott (Frankel, 1998, p. 218) writing on adolescents said, “Society needs to be shaken by the aspirations of those who are not responsible.” The adolescent psyche will break through the rules and adult efforts of containing behavior that threatens and frightens us. We will be “shaken” sometimes by adolescent behavior but we must endure this shaking, and not only seek to suppress it (with the exception of course of violence or self-harming behavior like cutting).
We cannot always control and contain frightening adolescent behavior. Instead we need to look to the innate capacity of the adolescent psyche to heal and guide. Indeed the adolescent psyche has the capacity to shake society when it needs to be shaken. But like the healing image of the mermaid in my client’s dream, the adolescent psyche can also mend the parts of the adolescent that are broken.
Frankel, R. (1998). The Adolescent Psyche: Jungian and Winnicottian Perspectives. New York: Routledge.
© 2014, Dr. Jeff Howlin. All rights reserved.