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In general, approaches to treatment that are supported in clinical psychology tend to focus on individuals in isolation from their communities, and very often do not take into account local cultural differences ~ M. Watkins & H. Shulman, Toward Psychologies of Liberation
Here and in the What a Shrink Thinks essays – I write a great deal about myths and archetypal themes, and I primarily (although not exclusively) draw on the myths and scriptures, fairy and folktales that were fed to me as my first cultural language: the Old and New Testament, The Brother’s Grimm, the Greek Gods. But I do not return to these stories over and over again because they are the only stories, or the most useful stories, or because they are inherently “universally applicable” stories (although I do believe there are likely universalizing psychological themes, “primordial images” that inform all humanity – just as we generally have the same essential organs in our bodies) But our relationship to these “organic images” varies dramatically from culture to culture, and the mythologies and values that cultures organize themselves around are often dramatically different.
I don’t tell the mythological stories that I tell because they are the best ones, or the preferred ones. I use the myths that I do because they are my myths, and because I am most equipped to understand their nuances as the culture that I was raised in organized itself around these stories.
Reading myths from other nations, other cultures are often illuminating – and can offer new ways of perceiving and differing values that Euro-American psychotherapeutic culture omits, or minimizes or represses. But, I don’t tell those tales as easily. They are not mine to interpret. I am not sure what cultural realities have risen from their foundations, and I cannot always know if the themes that I take note of, are perceived accurately by me, as I have not been raised in Russian, or Ethiopian, or Japanese culture. It is unlikely that I will understand all of its implications – and although I do make a point of surveying world mythologies, I am concerned about co-opting and distorting the archetypal themes to fit a “Western” point of view.
An example of this kind of co-option is the archetypal tales from China about the Red Thread of Fate.
So there are some universalizing components: Threads and Fate and tangled and woven threads, threads of connection, spiders spinning threads – are all “primordial images” (Jung’s first words for the archetpyes) that are often associated with the notion of “Fate.”
That being said: the Chinese tales about the red threads focus on the fateful connections between husbands and wives in a historical era of arranged marriages. From my limited and translated exposures to these tales, this is not considered a good or a happy outcome, but merely an inevitable one. No matter how you may feel about your potential marital partner, whether they hurt you or adore you, your fate is tied to theirs, neutral, and inevitable. The stories appear to me and others, to help people to face their martial fates, good, bad or indifferent, with some acceptance.
In the US, the community of Chinese adoptive parents saw in the myth, an archetypal image that resonated with them: A red thread that connects family members to each other – that means that no matter what – you were destined to “find” each other and to belong together. The archetypal image was dislodged from its cultural context: and new meaning was reassigned to it: We were “meant to be” your parents, it was certain we would find you, the red thread confirms that our family is the “right” one and that this is the life that you were supposed to live.
The universal archetypal image, of fateful “strings” is stripped away from of the Chinese origins and cultural context of The Red String, and now tells a very different story – one that serves a different cultural function of validating and enfranchising non-biological family as a source of “belonging” equivalent to families made by birth.
So, I want to be clear that I use the stories I do, because I feel they are the ones I have a better chance of understanding because of my acculturation. And I am always cautious about making any “confident” interpretation of a mythology from another culture.
The members of a single cultural group understand each other because they use the same images in their speech. Different cultural groups often misunderstand each other since their images, which to a great extent rely on their respective mythologies, differ significantly. ~ Guggenbühl-Craig, The Old Fool and the Corruption of Myth
This is important to keep in mind as therapists for lots of reasons: Many of us are going to be working cross-culturally, with clients who are first or second or third generation immigrants to our nation, who may draw on cultural reference points, and myths and values and beliefs that are very different from the practitioners. And we need to be careful both about 1) assuming a common underlying mythos that may not be present, and 2) imposing a set of culturally specific values that we may naively imagine are universal.
And “myths” are not only stories, they operate in contemporary culture as (often unexamined) collective beliefs, assumptions and values:
Like the Gods of mythology who can change into animals or trees, myths take many different shapes. They are our ideologies, idols, models or policies, visions, demands, our slogans, psychological theories and economic notions. Individual and collective myths shape the life of the individual and of nations. At the same time they expressive the individual and collective soul. ~ Guggenbühl-Craig, The Old Fool and the Corruption of Myth
Guggenbühl-Craig writes in his various books, for example, about the myths of equality, the myths of progress, the myths of marriage, the myths of helping professions, the myths of independence, the myths of creativity, the myths of old age. We might also speak of the myths of adoption, the myth of decline and the good old days, (MAGA), the myth of freedom, the myth of the pursuit of happiness.
If we look at American notions of equality for example, you will find that almost every single American, even the most extreme, assert that equality is a primary value that they hold and pursue in some form. They may experience themselves as the oppressed party who has been denied equality, or they may fight for the equality of others who they see as being treated unequally. But of course there are hundreds of thousands of ways that American culture does not actualize these values – there is profound income inequality, those who fight for their civil rights are sometimes perceived as having gained “special rights” that have some how made them “more equal.” Even to speak of communities that have access to “more equality” or “less equality” than others makes no sense.
And of course there are ways in which we are certainly not equal – some have greater skills and some less, some are smarter, some have more challenges than others, or more deficits in some area. We don’t all run as fast or finish the test at the same time. And even without institutional biases and oppressions which work against whole groups and races of people- fate and fortune still do not distribute themselves equally – some will be granted more or less opportunity, some have more or less luck. Some of us pass through massive clusters of unfathomable and cascading ill fortune while the sun never stops shining on our neighbor’s home.
But no matter our behavior or our fates – there is generally an organizing American myth of equality that all of us speak of and feel strongly about.
An incomplete myth is harmful. A balanced one, however, is a reflection of our inner life and thus enhances self realization. ~ Guggenbühl-Craig, The Old Fool and the Corruption of Myth
Different nations, cultures and cultural groups often have differing organizing values. For some cultures, respecting social and generational hierarchy is a far more salient organizing myth and assumed “equality” would be rude or even blasphemous. For some cultures “personal happiness” is not only not a central cultural value, some cultures don’t even have words for such an experience as “happiness” is defined as by the over all quality of well-being for the group or the family unit. So, imagine the capacity for destructiveness and harm when “Western” trained “mental health” practitioners who have been inculcated in the psychotherapeutic myth (for that is a myth too) begin imposing their national mythical beliefs in equality, autonomy, and happiness on to cultures who do not value those mythical constructs or who interpret them very differently.
Cross cultural work can be liberating at powerful for both participants as long as both participants’ cultural mythological schemas (including the myths of dominance and supremacy) are up for explicit examination and both participants mythologies are respected. If we consider that all of our cultural and national myths are only partial truths, then cross-cultural work has the possibility of bringing both participants a fuller picture of the world.
I have found such work to be the most illuminating therapeutic relationships of my lifetime – but only when the dynamic is one where the client is always allowed to be skeptical of how my “American-ness” or my “white-ness” or both skews my perceptions, and I am simultaneously both “aware enough” of our basic cultural differences – and also always willing to return to a state of “beginners mind” where I am receptive to being taught about what I do not know, and also to acknowledge what I can never really understand.
I wrote this essay a long time ago about being a non-adopted person who is often immersed and surrounded by adoptee culture and mythologies that I can and have learned a good deal about, but that I can never entirely understand.
So every “group” and sub group and family and region and ethnic community and nation has myths about themselves and about others – and sometimes we can find ourselves working in a defacto “cross-cultural” relationship with clients born in the exact same local and era as our own.
Psychoanalysis itself is its own mythology, and there are a variety of different mythic beliefs that we now call schools of thought: The Freudian myth, the Object-Relational Myth, the CBT myth. The disease model is its own myth, as is the myth of development. We like to imagine there are clear, universal developmental stages, and sometimes we do see children and adults move through stages of apparent and “expectable” development – but just because sometimes people live out myths and are loyal to them doesn’t mean they are unilaterally true or necessary.
In psychotherapy, there are great dangers in trying to identify “universal themes” among and between peoples and groups – and in cross cultural work– in part because it has too often been the case that this universalization has merely been the imposition of a white European/American psychological myth.
And in large part: the primary white Euro/American psychological myth as it is practiced today– is one of individualism and personal pathology.
In their text Toward Psychologies of Liberation, Watkins and Shulman, recount how medicalization and the models of personal pathology came to dominate mental health provision in parts of Europe and in the US. It was not always the case that the psychoanalytic community saw the individual as its primary arena of intervention. Many of the first psychoanalyts were Marxists, socialists and social democrats – actively involved themselves in social justice movements and saw that as a rightful extension of their mission and theories. Freud was involved in establishing free clinics. Early pychoanalysts of various schools of thought were active in establishing reproductive health care initiatives, and “education for women, schools for the poor, the kindergarten movement, school based treatment centers for children traumatized by war and poverty, settlement house psychology classes for workers, the first child guidance clinics, and suicide prevention centers.”
They paid attention to building conditions for peace and stability in Austria and Europe, put forward initiatives to help women struggle against varying forms of domination and control, and suggested architectural changes for public housing that would help build urban families’ sense of community. Their advocacy for children issued from the extensive needs of children after World War I, psychoanalytic insight into the importance of early childhood development for later psychological health, and awareness of the traumatizing effects of poverty on childhood development. ~ M. Watkins & H. Shulman, Toward Psychologies of Liberation
In other words, psychoanalytic theory and intervention took place in communities, among nations, and in social environments and not only in the psyche of an individual with a problem that had been located inside their “person.”
Watkins and Shulman and others, speculate that the horrors of World War II, and the immigration processes of many psychoanalysts caused many of them to “tone down” their more radical social justice resumes in order to negotiate naturalization processes. For those that found themselves living in the US, McCarthyism would drive such ideological affiliations even further underground. As the various psychoanalytic schools and institutes vied for prestige and for legitimacy and began to advocate for the full medicalization of the profession and the elimination of “lay analysts” – now reserved for doctors and those with graduate degrees only. Thus the medical model with its focus on individual symptoms, financial model of reimbursement, and disease model became so entrenched it was as if the psychoanalytic community had never seen social justice as part of its purview – and its theories and technologies became exclusively focused on individual treatment.
But this is what Guggenbühl-Craig would call an “incomplete myth.” In the archetypal psychologies, all archetypes have a “positive” and “negative” aspect – “light and shadow” – and any myth which divorces itself from its shadow aspect has the capacity to become destructive, even dangerous, in its attempts to eradicate the aspects of the complete myth that it most fears. The myth of equality is only a complete myth if it includes a legitimate exploration of the ways that some fates and fortunes and happinesses will always be distributed in ways that are inherently unequal. Some will live long lives. Some will die young. The myth of equality cannot truly eradicate all inequalities, all unfairnesses.
In order to make sense of these inherent unfairnesses of living – we create a new myth, the myth of superiority. Those who have had fortune are elites and deserving of it. Those who have misfortune are ne’re-do-wells who got what they deserved as well.
All myths and stories that express how I or my group is superior to others express something which takes place in my soul. What is pernicious about that? I believe mythologies of chauvinism and racism lack something: they are one-sided myths… For a mythology of group affiliation to be complete, it must include superiority and inferiority.
Each myth is harmful only if it is not counteracted by the opposing myth.~ Guggenbühl-Craig, The Old Fool and the Corruption of Myth
Of course early depth psychologists and psychoanalysts were particularly cognizant of the destructive myth of superiority, having witnessed many of their colleagues and cohort annihilated by the holocaust.
The larger point here is that as therapists we must remember that our clients are embedded in a sociopolitical matrix, and it may require as much intervention in the social environment to alleviate the stressors that plague them as labors toward helping the client summon their resilience.
And sometimes, when we cannot intervene ourselves in the environment that surrounds the client – we must at least help them locate the source of their problem, whenever it is possible and accurate to do so – outside of themselves.
I have a client who spoke about their “Trump-adjusted mood” (credit to podcaster Ana Marie Cox) – meaning that their baseline has shifted downward as a result of the socio-political anxieties of the time. What would have felt as “very anxious” before is now “okay, considering.” Of course the client wasn’t familiar with Axis 4 diagnostic critera – but there are massive environmental stressors impacting everyone in some way right now. The world has become a precarious and a paranoid one – and even if we are powerless to block the injustices that are crashing down around us like a giant’s footsteps – we can at least take as much pathology as possible off of the individual psyches that are sitting in the room with us.
Liberation psychology should illuminate the links between an individual’s psychological suffering and the social, economic, and political context in which he or she lives. ~ M. Watkins & H. Shulman, Toward Psychologies of Liberation
Or as Jungian Marie Louise von Franz might put it:
Suppose an analysand behaves outrageously in a group. If we try to make him see that this was all his fault, he is too crushed and, objectively, that would not be correct, for a part was the group shadow. Otherwise there might be too great a feeling of guilt, and there is a kind of secret norm of how much of the shadow a human being can stand. It is unhealthy not to see it, but just as unhealthy to take too much of it. One cannot function psychologically if one takes on too much…
I say all this to make clear that when we speak of the shadow there is a personal individual aspect and also a collective aspect, the group shadow. The latter naturally would in some be the sum of the shadows.. ~ Marie-Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales.
I think, that this is in large part why I, trained as a social worker, was more drawn to Jung’s theories over other psychotherapeutic models: Because it is transpersonal, systemic, about how we live, what we have in common, and what we don’t, as a species. And about what our responsibilities are with regard to enabling or individuating from our cultural and national myths.
Nevertheless, a purely personalistic psychology, by reducing everything to personal causes, tries its level best to deny the existence of archetypal motifs and even seeks to destroy them by personal analysis. I consider this a rather dangerous procedure which cannot be justified medically… Can we not see how a whole nation is reviving an archaic symbol, yes even archaic religious forms, and how this mass emotion is influencing and revolutionizing the life of the individual in a catastrophic manner?
~ C. G. Jung, The Concept of the Collective Unconscious
Jung, of course, wrote that passage referring to the rise of Nazism in Germany. But this too is an era that is revolutionizing the life of the individual in a catastrophic manner.
What does this look like in session with an individual? It means that when a client is claiming too much of the collective shadow, as von Franz said, that we must remind them that their assessment of the severity of their mood must be “adjusted” to factor in the anxieties of this unstable era. It means that we don’t let our clients take more than their share of the collective shadow.
It means that when a client is talking about how their work weighs them down, feeling worried or depressed or anxious all the time, we remind them that yes, they may be stressed because of their divorce, or and their work, and its true that if they could face the bills they have been avoiding they might feel better – but how do they think that the news and the uncertainty in the larger world may be impacting them? We remind them that many people are feeling triggered and anxious as the #Metoo movement changes the ground under their feet, that many are worried about the possibility of looming war. That the cause of their distress is not exclusively personal, it is collective. It is our national shadow casting its chill. We help them to individuate, to separate from the myth that has gripped our country: a myth of xenophobia, a myth of dominance, a myth of paranoia and a myth of superiority and power. We ask how they are feeling about the Muslim ban, if they know anyone who is impacted by the challenges to the DREAM act l, how they feel about the stories that they are hearing, and the ways their own lives may be transformed as norms and expectations and entitlements are threatened and eradicated.
The purpose is to pinpoint all shades and polarities of a particular myth of ideology, individually and collectively. ~ Guggenbühl-Craig, The Old Fool and the Corruption of Myth.
Liberation psychologies place stress on identifying, supporting, and nurturing the psychological attempts of individuals and groups alike to re-author their own sense of identity. This requires a critical analysis of oppressive power relations, including those within psychology itself. Psychologies of liberation gather together resources to help people understand possibilities for multiple layers of interpretation through which the world that has been imposed on them can be understood and reorganized. ~ M. Watkins & H. Shulman, Toward Psychologies of Liberation
I wrote here about working to include ecopsychological-minded interventions into my practices, and the work introducing of liberation psychology into psychotherapeutic work is not so different: we simply ask about the things that the myth of personalized psychotherapy leaves out: We broaden our focus, we ask about how clients are feeling about the world and the social political natural historical environment they are embedded in.
And we ask:
Who does the myth serve?
Who has it left out?
What is missing?
What might lie beyond this myth?
And we remind ourselves that psychotherapy was, at its inception, a myth that included radical practice, a practice that was inexorably connected to social justice. We find the causes and the realms of social action that we feel called to outside of the office, and we help our clients to see that a portion of their pain, maybe even a very significant portion, is generated by the environment, and we help them find the wherewithal to engage in constructive action to make their myth more complete, and the world more just.