Last time, I wrote about how becoming curious about our inner life – and helping our kids to do the same – can be helpful in managing difficult emotions. Relating creatively to our inner life brings other benefits as well. When we cultivate openness and acceptance toward our thoughts and feelings, we develop a capacity to engage life symbolically.
One of Jung’s great insights was that psychological growth requires that we separate ourselves from thoughts and feelings. Our conflicts, problems, and difficulties are a part of us, but we are not them. When we remain in identity with inner contents, we do not allow them to change and transform.
Identity versus Separation
Identity does not make consciousness possible; it is only separation, detachment, and agonizing confrontation through opposition that produce consciousness and insight (The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 9i, para 289).
This is partly why the mental health field has encouraged a shift in language when speaking about diagnosis. When we say, “I am depressed,” it gives the sense that depression defines and limits us, whereas “I have depression” underscores that depression is just an aspect of self.
“There are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own lives,” Jung wrote in his autobiography. “Thoughts [are] like animals in the forest” (Jung, 1989, p. 183). Our conscious self encounters myriad thoughts and feelings that have been spontaneously generated by the unconscious. It is indeed a bit like wandering through a forest and finding various animals there with us. It doesn’t make sense to judge the animals in the forest and determine that they shouldn’t be there. It doesn’t make sense to deny them and pretend they don’t exist. It also doesn’t make sense to overvalue their significance. The thoughts and feelings that inhabit our inner forest are unlikely to represent an ultimate truth, or to have more inherent value than something produced by conscious thought.
Taking Feelings Seriously, Not Literally
When we become too attached to a particular thought or feeling, we overvalue it, and this can lead us to respond too concretely. We fall into the fallacy of emotional reasoning, wherein we conclude that our feelings prove that something is true. This can lead to us trying to fix the immediate problem, which can in turn subtly reinforce a too concrete understanding. When this happens, exploration of our inner experience is prematurely foreclosed.
If our seven-year-old child is beside herself with terror at the thought of sleeping alone in the dark, we can acknowledge the seriousness of the feelings. We can encourage her to take them seriously, even while we help her not to take them literally. One father I knew gave his daughter a “magic pebble” to keep under her pillow that had the power to defeat any monsters. His creative, respectful intervention contrasts markedly with another family I know of who took their son to a psychologist because of their child’s nighttime fears. Unfortunately, the psychologist gave the child a diagnosis, which reified the symptom. This did not help the child to creatively meet the developmental challenge he faced.
The Symbolic Life
Responding concretely to emotional distress closes down opportunities to be curious about the symbolic element in the experience. For example, when our teenager falls into a depression after having a first love relationship end, we may feel pressure to do whatever it takes to help end his suffering, particularly if we sense he is slipping into a genuinely dark place. Before we rush to set him up with someone else or reach for a medicalized solution, we may want to remember that some suffering opens us up to our inner life, orients us toward ultimate meaning, and teaches us wisdom. If we can hold our child’s suffering as an initiatory plunge into the depths, he may be better able to experience it that way, even if we don’t explicitly speak of it in these terms.
A fairy tale image can serve to amplify the distinction between an orientation that is overly concrete, versus one that is more expansive and symbolic. The image comes from the Russian fairy tale “The Frog Princess.” In the tale, the three sons of the Tsar have all been given instructions on how to find a bride. The two older brothers find beautiful noblewomen to wed, but Ivan, the youngest son, is paired with a frog in a swamp. The two older brothers mock Ivan for his homely bride, but she displays some unusual qualities.
The sons and their brides are invited to a ball, and Ivan’s frog wife arrives in the form of a beautiful woman. At dinner, she tucks small bits of food up her sleeve. The two other brides think this is a bit strange, but not wanting to be impolite, and desiring to emulate the beautiful woman, they do likewise.
After dinner, the frog-girl dances with Ivan. As she does so, she occasionally waves arms and lets fall a bit of food. The bits of food turn into a garden with a golden pillar on which sits a tomcat singing and telling fairy tales, and a park with a lake inhabited by swans. When the other brides wave their arms to drop bits of food, bones are flung across the room that hit the tsar in the forehead.
According to Jungian analyst Marie Louise Von Franz, dancing and creating the beautiful fantasy world are…
an aspect of creating the symbolic life, which one lives by following up one’s dreams and day fantasies and the impulses which come up from the unconscious, for fantasy gives life a glow and a color which the too-rational outlook destroys. Fantasy is not just whimsical ego-nonsense but comes really from the depths; it constellates symbolic situations which give life a deeper meaning and a deeper realization….The two other figures take this too concretely (Von Franz, 1996, p. 103).
As parents, we can enrich our own lives – and those of our children – by avoiding responding to distress in a manner that is overly concrete. While of course there are times when concrete action needs to be taken, we can provide our children a more expansive sense of their inner lives by being sure to honor feelings and keep one eye on the symbolic aspect of the experience.
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Jung, C. G., & Jaffe, A. (1989). Memories, dreams, reflections. New York: Vintage Books.
Jung, C. G., Adler, G., & Hull, R. F. (2014). Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9 (Part 1). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Franz, M. V. (1996). The interpretation of fairy tales. Boston: Shambhala.
Image by Viktor Vasnetsov – Scanned from A. K. Lazuko Victor Vasnetsov, Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR, 1990, ISBN 5-7370-0107-5, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=215931