Getting to Ordinary: in memory of Sonia March Nevis

Getting to Ordinary
In memory of Sonia March Nevis

Gestalt trainer, wise woman, practitioner of the art of ordinary

Rabbit

One rainy day when going to the playground was a no go, I read The Velveteen Rabbit to our five-year-old granddaughter. It had been a long time since I’d read it to my children and I liked it a lot better than she did–so much so that I’ve searched for ordinary words to say why getting to an ordinary kind of real is so important.

Do you remember the story? A velveteen rabbit was given to a Boy on Christmas. “He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white; he had real thread whiskers and his ears were lined with pink sateen.” The Boy quickly forgot about him, so he lived in the toy cupboard where, because he was “only made of velveteen, some of the more expensive toys quite snubbed him.”

The cheaply made and nameless rabbit wondered what Real was. A wise old Skin Horse whose coat had worn off explained that “Real isn’t how you are made, it’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” The lonely rabbit longed to belong to a child, to be loved, and to become Real.

“Does it hurt?” asked the rabbit. Like most of us, he longed to become Real without too much difficulty. The Skin Horse explained: “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt…It doesn’t happen all at once…You become. It takes a long time.” The plus is that “once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts forever.”

One night the rabbit was chosen to sleep with the Boy. The Boy rolled over on him, which was decidedly unpleasant, but then played with him daily. As time passed, the happy rabbit failed to notice that his velveteen fur was getting shabby and his tail was coming loose. The unique marks of love wore away manufactured perfection, and one day the Boy pronounced the rabbit Real.

It is plainly so: getting to ordinary starts with an initial awakening into a self that feels Real. Only another’s devoted attention enlarges being and brings meaning: we matter to someone. It takes two to create one who feels Real. Although I would wish everyone this magical awakening, which is supposed to get a running start in childhood, we also know that Real that depends on another cannot last–either for Rabbit or ourselves. We must achieve a separate sense of self.

In stories, this hard and necessary separation is often imaged as a farewell to the other. In this story the Boy gets sick and Rabbit, along with infected bedding, must be burned. Forlorn, mourning the never-again days with the Boy, and accepting his fate with simple sadness, Rabbit feels a real tear trickle down his dingy little face.

Tears are part of the inevitable sorrows of life. We will lose our innocence, some of our beliefs, our faith in forever, and beloved others. Tears are how we let our hearts break. When Rabbit feels utterly bereft…

…the nursery fairy appears. She transforms Rabbit from Real to real. The fairy—symbol of the discovery of an indwelling self—doesn’t create a unicorn or even an eagle, but an ordinary rabbit. He can twitch his ears, nibble good things, and find real rabbit friends. It turns out that real life is gloriously ordinary, and I hope all of us get there.

So I have to get hopping now. We’re almost out of milk, I need to pick up the mild green olives our granddaughter likes, and get winter sweaters to the dry cleaner. Biscotti at the Italian bakery, maybe a gelato (as long as I’m there), and a birthday card. It’s an ordinary day.

AUTHOR

Deborah Stewart is a Jungian Analyst on Cape Cod. She trained with the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts and the Westchester Institute for Training in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. She is a faculty member of the Philadelphia Jung Institute and sits on the board and faculty of the Gestalt International Study Center on Cape Cod. Previously, she trained as a Gestalt therapist at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. She can be reached at http://www.DeborahCStewart.com

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Sleeping Beauty: a Wake-Up Call

thimble

I have been thinking about Sleeping Beauty lately—remember her? She was never one of my favorites. I felt on early reading that she was rather a twit, stumbling upon the one and only spindle left in the entire kingdom and then pricking herself with it. Surely, at age 15, she should have developed more hand-eye coordination. This unlikely occurrence—how sharp could a spindle be, anyway?—caused every living being in castle to fall into a coma, even the flies. I mean really, SB.

As a child, I resonated to tales of ego strength: Jack, after his initial bad bargain (trading the family cow for a handful of beans), climbed the beanstalk and polished off a giant. Cinderella had the chutzpah to go to the ball and was rewarded with a prince. Hansel and Gretel roasted the horrid hag in her own oven—gotcha. SB, on the other hand, zonked out for 100 years, and was then awakened by a prince who happened to show up at just the right moment. If there was a life lesson in this story, it wasn’t apparent to me then.

But let’s get to the Evil Fairy part: EF wasn’t invited to the celebration of SB’s long-awaited royal birth, so she crashed the party and cursed SB, which turned into the fateful spindle-prick and 100 comatose years even for flies, not to mention innocent citizens. All this because SB’s parents were royally witless. In one version of the tale, EF wasn’t invited because the king and queen ran short of gold dinnerware. In another, they thought EF was dead, and didn’t bother to check.

Neither did they explain the evils of spindles to their daughter in case the burning and purging they had decreed missed a few. Or, the minute SB turned 15, assign a bevy of bodyguards to fend off any spindles that might be stalking her. Instead, the king and queen went on a trip, SB went poking around the castle—and guess what? There was a spindle right there in the castle—duh!

With everyone out cold, plant life sprang into action: a Trump-tower high hedge of thorns grew up around the castle and entrapped any would-be hero trying to get through (what a way to die). But on the exact day the hundred-year curse was up, the malevolent hedge opened to Hero Prince, who was visiting the area and was curious about the rumored castle avec princess. Of course HP found SB even though she was up in a remote tower with that terrible spindle. Everyone in the castle came back to life, now very unfashionably dressed, and HP and SB got married, code for Problem Over.

What I found frustrating about this tale was its lack of human agency, and along with it, assurance that I, like many a hero and heroine, can overcome even the most daunting difficulty. Feckless parents are a common occurrence in fairy tales, but even dummlings like Jack could finagle a way out of a situational jam. SB, however, totally checked out, only to be rescued by a prince who was mostly in the right place at the right time—no clever effort, brave feat, or lofty love.

From a Jungian viewpoint all the characters in a fairy tale can represent aspects of an individual psyche. We can recognize parts of ourselves in SB’s clueless parents, an innocent princess, and the fury of a disdained fairy. What an unappealing cast of characters—I mean characteristics.

But what I have found most irritating in this tale is its fatalism: sometimes you-know-what happens and we just have to wait in situ until a savior arrives. But no worries: when the time is right (even if it feels like a century), a hero-prince-rescuer will show up. Life and energy will then be restored without anyone having to make much effort. This is hardly a heartening message.

But wait: the fateful chain of events began when the king and queen excluded the 13th fairy. Because they were unable to engage her darkness, the shadow she represented became actively hostile. The royal couple had hoped to ensure their daughter a rosy life, but her life, and ours, must necessarily include shadow.

Conscious and unconscious must have it out with one another, a process Jung likens to that of hammer and anvil. Two sturdy opposites are required for psychic life and conscious individuation. Otherwise, as we see in the tale, collapse and stasis ensue.

The king and queen’s denial of shadow illustrates one of Jung’s famous dictums: When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate—which, as we know from the tale and from life, exacts a high price. Because everyone except the late and lucky hero falls unconscious, resolution resides outside human agency.  Redemption is left to the archetypal realm as fate.

We can, of course, mitigate fate: “We have to discover more consciousness, to extend consciousness, and the more it is extended the more we get away from the original condition.” (CW 11, p. 967) Perhaps that famous, fateful spindle can prick us into the value of ever more conscious engagement in our lives.

AUTHOR

Deborah Stewart is a Certified Jungian Analyst on Cape Cod. She is a faculty member of the Philadelphia Jung Institute and a co-creator of This Jungian Life podcast. You can reach her at http://www.deborahcstewart.com

Fairy Tales – How They Heal

swan

This article in The New York Times introduced me to a new concept – “emotional granularity.” Emotional granularity refers to the ability to feel and differentiate finely tuned emotions. It is the ability to identify that you are feeling melancholy, irritable, or teary rather than simply knowing that you feel bad.  According to the article, those who possess emotional granularity have significantly better mental and physical health outcomes. Psychologists explain that being able to identify a range of finely tuned emotions allows us access to a greater repertoire of responses to our distress. While that makes sense to me, I have another thought as well.

Naming is powerful.

When I try to break down what we actually do when we work with someone in analysis, probably 80% boils down to attempting to “feel our way into” their emotional experience, and then translate that into words or images as accurately as we can. Finding words or images that correctly describe the truth of someone’s subtle inner experience is a huge part of how therapy works.

Why? Because language can help contain strong emotions.

I remember the day before I took the oral examinations one must pass in order to become an analyst. I was incredibly anxious about what I was going to face, and I ran into a senior analyst and mentor. When I told her I was there for the exams, she looked at me sympathetically and said, “Oh! You must be scared!” That word “scared” had an immediate calming effect on me. It was much more accurate – and therefore grounding – than the word “anxious.” I was scared – very. And having it put into words instantly calmed and contained. For language to be containing, it has to be highly accurate. You have to understand the particularity of that emotion.

A process in which I use my intuition will turn up a much subtler and more idiosyncratic description of someone’s emotional experience. I am likely to use metaphors or images. These often present themselves to me in an autonomous fashion.

A neurobiologist would say that when I am using my intuition to read someone’s implicit emotional experience, I am making use of the body’s smart vagal system to understand what is going on. I get images or sensations, and this happens faster than conscious thought. I then translate this up using the language centers of the prefrontal cortex to express the experience in words and make these subtle experiences fully conscious.

For example, I might say something like the following:

“What is coming up for me is an image of someone trapped in a collapsed mine. It’s terrible to be in there alone and in the dark. When you hear someone on the other side scraping away to get to you, that makes an enormous difference. If you felt like your husband understood what you are going through, it would be a huge relief, even though you would still be going through it alone.”

When I get it right, or close to right, the whole feeling tone in the room changes. I often see bodily or facial signs of relief or relaxation happen, or hear a marked change in vocal tone just because I was able to find language or image for a subtle emotional state. I contend that translating ineffable emotional experiences into image or language is a significant factor in therapy’s effectiveness.

As it turns out, there is neurobiological research that supports this idea that putting feelings into words reduces emotional reactivity and helps us manage negative emotional experiences.

The amygdala is a key component of the limbic system, that part of the mammalian brain that generates emotion, assesses the environment for safety and survival, and regulates approach and avoidance. Our amygdala is constantly taking in information from the five senses and from our bodies and evaluating this information for threats. From our external senses, it picks up someone’s subtle facial expressions, posture, or vocal tone. From our bodies, it receives information from the visceral regions – the heart and the lungs, for example. Using this information, it makes a determination about the safety of our environment in less than 1/10th of a second, much faster than the time it takes our brains to form a conscious thought or feeling.

A recent study found that when people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they have increased activity in the amygdala, which begins to sound a threat alarm. The researchers found a significant amygdala response even when subjects were shown the emotional photographs subliminally, that is, too fast for the photos to be perceived and consciously registered. When study subjects were shown the same images and asked to label the emotion shown on the face with a word such as “scared,” or “angry,” brain imaging analysis showed a marked decrease in amygdala arousal.

“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” said Lieberman, lead author of the study, which appears in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Science.The study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another  region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateralprefrontal cortex. We use this region when thinking in words about emotional experiences. It also helps us inhibit behavior and process feelings.

So the study helps us understand better a phenomenon most of us have probably been aware of our whole lives – putting feelings into words helps us regulate and contain strong emotions. And we know from the emotional granularity research that being able to make refined distinctions in how we feel can also give us a greater range of options for managing these emotions.

If a single word like “scared” can be so effective, how much more potent a myth or fairy tale can be.

Fairy tales are a rich storehouse of psychic patterns. They provide us with an inexhaustible supply of images that catalog emotional states and life experiences with endless subtlety. Metaphor provides a powerful bridge between the amygdala and the more conscious parts of brain.

For a woman whose whole life has been characterized by feeling misunderstood, demeaned, or unseen, the words “excluded,” “unappreciated,” or “despairing” have the ability to contain aspects of her experience. But if that same person and I begin to discuss her experience in terms of the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Ugly Duckling,” we suddenly have access to a greatly enriched repertoire of language and image with which to describe her experience. The chicken in the farmhouse disparages and berates the young swan for his love of water, and because the swan has always been cut off from his own kind — his “tribe” — he doesn’t realize that he is being measured by inappropriate standards. Alone and full of despair, he is nearly frozen to death, immobilized in the ice. Many of us have surely had moments where we felt like that.

Images and language can contain strong feelings and allow us better access to our thinking functions to evaluate potential responses. But it also does one other thing.

Being able to put our inner states into complex and accurate language gives us back to ourselves. We can become an observing witness to our process and in this way know that we are having an emotional experience, not being had by one. When we begin to observe our inner weather systems without being overwhelmed by them, we are much better able to regulate and transform them.

Lisa Marchiano, LCSW is a certified Jungian analyst in private practice in Philadelphia. She blogs at http://www.theJungSoul.com.