Is insight into our personal issues enough to speed inner growth? Or do we need to follow a comprehensive program that includes practical steps or strategies?
A visitor to my website asked, “Once we understand some of the principles of depth psychology, are there practical steps we can take to overcome the loathsome condition some of us find ourselves in?” He went on to write, “Just having deeper insight doesn’t seem enough to me. It sounds kind of a vague notion.”
Many people do wonder about this. Let me respond to this question by rambling on here—or typing away—and seeing what I can come up with that might be helpful.
First of all, strategies (or practical steps) can’t really be separated from insight. Acquiring insight is the best strategy of all. And the best strategy calls for more insight. They operate as one. Moreover, life itself offers structure and practical steps. What we learn in the way of insight flows and circulates through the moment-by-moment experiences that make up daily routine.
If there’s any one good strategy, it’s to keep the insight in focus. Learn it and remember it. Insight can dissolve if we don’t capture it. We can do this by writing it down on notes or in a journal and referring back to it regularly. We then have to begin to apply it to our everyday experiences. Acquiring the insight in itself is a grand achievement. Depth psychology has a certain vagueness or obscurity about it, especially when we apply it to ourselves. It’s a complex subject, ideally fitting the complex creatures we are. We need to apply all our intelligence to bring it into focus.
Some important insights involve better understanding of our defenses and resistance. For instance, resistance produces its own rationalizations. Even someone asking about “practical steps or strategies,” while appearing to make a reasonable request for information, could be hiding behind unconscious resistance. The person’s unconscious intention might be to use the pretext of needing “steps and strategies” in order to avoid absorbing the deeper, powerful insight and thereby remain emotionally attached to, say, inner passivity. As a defense, this person could be saying, “I’m not willing or prepared to experience my passivity. The problem is I don’t have practical steps by which to proceed. If I had those steps, I would go forward.”
The knowledge of depth psychology also seems vague because our unconscious mind operates according to its own rules of logic and procedure. It’s as if we have two brains operating simultaneously, one that guides us through everyday life and the other which processes inner dynamics. At the inner level, as mentioned, our mental and emotional processes operate counter-intuitively. They defy the laws of logic and protocols of common sense. For instance, while it does make sense that we want to be loved, it doesn’t make sense that we can also want to feel rejected, abandoned, and devalued. How could we possibly want to experience these negative emotions? We begin to make sense of this question as we experience the contradiction within ourselves. We acquire the self-knowledge that uncovers how we suffer and how we keep stumbling into self-defeat. Our intelligence begins to comprehend what had previously seemed nonsensical.
In other words, our intelligence seizes hold of inner truth and uses it to transform our life for the better. This is why I don’t pay a lot of attention to practical steps or strategies. When assimilated, the knowledge by itself and the insight it produces operate in a mysterious Zen-like way to transform our lives. The real challenge is to assimilate the self-knowledge, namely the insights that reveal how we produce our unhappiness and self-defeat.
We don’t want to be running around trying to be happy. Nor do we want to scramble about trying not to be unhappy. Instead, we’re simply acquiring self-knowledge. What we learn knocks out the pillars that prop up our attachments and our old self-image. Yet, of course, the knowledge can seem quite vague when we’re early on in the process of assimilating it. We can feel stuck in no-man’s-land, where our old attachments and identifications are being discarded but where our new sense of self is yet to be sighted. A lot of people, at this point, turn around and run back into the arms of their old self. They’re not quite ready to leave that suffering waif behind.
The learning process can proceed more quickly when a person is in therapy with someone who is trained in this method. When I work with clients, I put the emphasis on teaching them knowledge concerning unconscious self-defeating dynamics. The teaching involves discussions with my clients about how these dynamics appear to be operating in their psyche. In other words, the emphasis is in helping them to acquire self-knowledge and making it possible for them to access inner truth.
Typically, my clients begin to notice after a while that their emotional and behavioral symptoms are becoming less painful and problematic. They see how much better they’re handling a given situation than they would have three months, six months, or a year earlier. Many people, I’ve come to believe, don’t have to do therapy with a professional in order to make progress. They can study the material on their own and learn how it applies to them. Still, it’s a tricky business doing it this way. It’s like learning a new language without having a tutor. You’ve got to be pretty determined to succeed. It will be more difficult if not impossible on your own if you have severe behavioral and emotional problems.
The challenge is to bring into conscious awareness what previously had been unconscious. In the process, people strengthen their intelligence. They gain “intelligence” (in the sense in which the CIA would use that word) about what were previously secret (unconscious) operations). They also gain intelligence (in the sense of elevating their wisdom and discernment) because they uncover the ways in which they had been deceiving themselves through their psychological defenses. Finally, they gain intelligence (in the sense of having more creative energy) because now the energy that went into denial, repression, and defenses is freed up for constructive and pleasurable pursuits.
Because I work at a deep level, I don’t have much to say in the way of advice. My advice is not going to liberate you from misery and self-defeat. You liberate yourself through your insight. Someone in my position, meanwhile, can help guide you in the direction of that insight.
Okay, despite what I just said, here’s some advice. I don’t recommend that anyone set goals. Life is open-ended. Let it all unfold. Your goals might be short-changing you. Just point yourself in a good direction, stroll along with a keen alertness, and be sure to check in with yourself to make sure you’re enjoying the walk. You know what—that advice is worthless. Go ahead and set goals if you want. Goals or no goals, it’s all of secondary importance compared to the value of the self-knowledge.
Okay, here’s some more advice. Write down what you’re learning. We have, as I’ve said, thick skulls that seem particularly well adapted to deflecting self-knowledge. Write down the insights that you’re fortunate enough to acquire and read them over several times every day. Now, guess what happens when I give you structure or homework like this? You’ll likely resist doing it. I don’t want to add more resistance to your already considerable deposits of it.
That said, there are practical procedures that are part of the knowledge base. In an upcoming post, I’ll provide a method (an exercise) for acquiring and assimilating important self-knowledge.