How do we understand who we are and how our life unfolds? Do we compare it to some normative scale that we need to adjust to? Or is there an intrinsic logic to the uniqueness of our experience? These questions have a huge bearing on how we see ourselves and also how we might approach psychotherapy and treatment of various kinds. If our lives are defined by their idiosyncratic nature, then we might just attempt to go deeper into our subjective experience. If there is a scale to which we need to measure ourselves, then we may need to work to adjust ourselves accordingly.
My own training as a psychotherapist has gone deeply into each of these areas and they are both rich perspectives with tremendous scholarship and precedent. On the one hand, I started out as a Jungian psychoanalyst, at least that was my early exposure, and there is a significant thrust in that philosophy towards the individuation of the human being and the contrasts to collective norms that define who we are. At the other extreme, in the area of the neurobiology and development psychology, there are certain norms of behaviour such as how we regulate our emotions and appropriate ways of relating to others that foster good enough and sustainable relationships.
In this week’s podcast, I attempt to discuss how we might think about these divergent perspectives together. It dawned on me some time ago that they are not as far apart as we might initially think. The ability to feel safe in oneself is a prerequisite to symbolize or at least to have a relationship with the contents of our mind. One can be quite disturbed and still experience symbols, but often they are overwhelming and literal and we do not have the capacity to reflect on them. It is the reflective function in the human being that is what is most evolved in us and it is what gets damaged in development trauma because the nervous system needs to be in a vigilant state most of the time.
In many ways, the capacity to individuate and be embodied in our own experience is the icing on the cake for the human being, while the establishment of a safe enough container is the bread and butter of growing up. In therapy, I find that I often may be working on both at the same time, establishing safety while at the same time, exploring symbolic content as a way of grounding the individual. In can seem quite bland to talk about neurobiology when entering the literary world of the imagination, but without a healthy enough container, there can often not be enough space to reap the fruits of that work.