Fairy Tales – How They Heal

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.

WHAT ARE YOU ABOUT?

In Memories, Dreams, Reflections in Chapter VI, Confrontation with the Unconscious, Jung writes of the great disorientation he experienced following his break with Freud. He explains that he lost his grounding, his very understanding of who he was and how he might practice.  In his efforts to regain his footing he paid close attention to his dreams and fantasies including memories from childhood.  He remembered playing with little building blocks with which he constructed small houses and castles.  He was impassioned by this play as a child. As he reflected upon it he experienced a great deal of emotion, which puzzled him. He concluded that these memories were still alive in him; the child was still accessible and had no doubt come to inform Jung, the grown man.  Following this and still at loose ends as a result of the break with Freud, he made the decision to return to his childhood building game.  He gathered small stones from the lake and every day weather permitting, he would go out after lunch and build; cottages, a church, a whole village.  He came to realize that as he did so his thoughts cleared and his grip on the unconscious contents of Psyche became known to him.

“Naturally, I thought about the significance of what I was doing, and asked myself, ‘Now, really, what are you about?’  You are building a small town, and doing it as if it were a rite!”  I had no answer to my question, only the inner certainty that I was on the way to discovering my own myth.  For the building game was only a beginning.  It released a stream of fantasies which I later carefully wrote down.” pp 174-75.

The question that Jung asked himself that day, “Now, really, what are you about?” has informed my analytic work with my clients for many years.  It is at the very core of my being as an analyst and in my everyday life.  There is a synchronicity associated with the quote which I will share to help you appreciate the depth of it’s meaning to me.

Near the end of my training I was struggling to find a topic for the required diploma thesis.  Jungian study, as you know, is so broad and deep; so many compelling topics one might chose. I wanted to find a topic that would seize me.  One night in the midst of my heated search, I had the following dream.

I had gone to see my supervisor.  I entered her consulting room and her sand tray miniatures were set out all about on shelves.  There was another supervisee with her so while I waited for my appointment I walked about the room selecting a few of the miniatures.  One looked like a Russian onion dome church turned upside down. Inside the dome were tiny receptacles for birthday cake sized candles, next to the onion dome was a bowl of tiny braided candles, the kind that are used in the Havdalah service in celebration of the close of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown on Saturdays.  It is that moment when the Sabbath ends and we are called to return to the mundane everyday workweek.  The candle is braided and has multiple wicks to symbolically represent the need for additional light so that one avoids staying too long in the bliss of the Sabbath.  A return to consciousness is required.

In the dream I took some of the candles and fixed them into the little receptacles.  I was puzzled by what I configured.  I didn’t understand.  At that moment, a small, old, white haired man appeared in the middle of the room and in a voice that sounded far away he spoke to me.  He said, “Sandy, what are you about?”  That was the end of the dream.

I was left with the mystery—the onion dome, the little braided candles and the haunting voice of the white haired man.  For days I repeated his question to me over and over again.  “What are you about?”  Many hours of personal analysis, active imaginations and paintings and then I had it!  The braided candles represented my dual training as an art therapist and a Jungian analyst. Two burning as one. How did they stand-alone and yet enhance each other? My thesis would be about how I combine the two disciplines.  Some weeks later, I picked up Memories, Dreams, Reflections for no reason and randomly opened it. It automatically opened to pages 174-75 and there, underlined in several bright colors, was Jung’s description of his return to his childhood game and his haunting question.  I was flabbergasted.  I honestly had no memory of having read that passage before and here I was having dreamed Jung’s very words.  “…What are you about?”

I read on, further Jung wrote, “This sort of thing has been consistent with me, and at any time in my later life when I came up against a blank wall, I painted a picture or hewed stone.  Each such experience proved to be a rite d’entrée for the ideas and works that followed hard upon it.”

The question for me is like a key that opens the door to the archetypal journey of individuation.  It is an invitation to enter the work of analysis, to open to the dance between conscious and unconscious. It is the question that creates the framework for the analytic relationship.  The guide and the seeker.  The analyst/guide has among other roles, the job of witness.  In Jung’s play with the building blocks and in my dream, the question, “What are you about?” evokes a creative response.  It makes room for the “other”. One is invited “to wonder.” I see it as a caring question.  We all want to be seen and to be met.  Here the questioner is pointedly noticing us and taking the time to ask. She is creating a space for us to come to know our self.

I invite you to spend some time with this question and see what you discover.  You will have an experience of Jung.

Author

Sandy Geller, MA, ATR-BC, LCPAT is a Jungian analyst and a Board Certified Licensed Art Therapist.  She is in private practice in Chevy Chase, MD where she sees analytic clients and does ongoing Art Therapy groups.  Sandy lectures and gives workshops about Jungian Art Therapy and Creativity.  The workshops always provide an experience of Jung and a deep connection with the symbolic. She has taught at the CG Jung Institute in Kusnacht, Switzerland, The Philadelphia Jung Institute, The Jung Society of Washington and elsewhere. She gives workshops in her home studio, as well.  Some recent classes have focused on Dream Drawing, Personal Myth and Fairytale, Personal Creation Myths and Stories. Many of her clients are artists, poets and writers stuck in their creative process.  Working intensely with dreams, art expression and the symbolic is helpful in the process of awakening the creative spirit. She can be reached at sgeller5@verizon.net.

The Delphic Oracle Finds a Voice

The Delphic Oracle Finds a Voice

“And then at the bottom of the article, after I learned about the graphic details of my own sexual assault, the article listed his swimming times.”

 This is a quote from a 22-year-old woman who was raped while unconscious. Her attacker, a former Stanford swimmer who sexually assaulted her was sentenced to only 6 months plus probation.

One night in January, 2015, two Stanford University graduate students biking across campus spotted a freshman thrusting his body on top of an unconscious, half-naked woman behind a dumpster. In March 2016, a California jury found the attacker, a former student, 20-year-old Brock Allen Turner guilty of three counts of sexual assault. Turner faced a maximum of 14 years in prison. He was sentenced to six months in county jail and probation. The judge’s defense of his light sentence was based on the premise that he didn’t want his sentence to have too serious an impact on this young man’s apparently bright and shining life.

However, at his sentencing his victim asked to be allowed to address her attacker directly. Focusing her gaze on him, she began, her statement:

“You don’t know me but you have been inside me and this is why we are here today.”

She continued detailing the severe impact his actions had on her from the time she learned that she had been assaulted by a stranger while unconscious, to the grueling trial during which Turner’s attorneys argued in the usual fashion that she had eagerly consented (while unconscious or before!).

In her passionate confrontation of her attacker, it appears she had hoped to impact his complete indifference to her suffering, and the life changing effect his actions had on her. Because the rule of law, the justice system, and the disrespectful attitude towards rape victims didn’t support and underscore her cry for a human response, it was not heeded. Her attacker remained coldly and arrogantly wedded to his perspective on his actions. He also remained the victim of society’s lack of response to the violence involved in sexual assault. Despite her being unconscious during the act, he maintained that she encouraged it.

The victim’s personal outrage was focused on the issue that even after being convicted, Turner failed to tell the truth, failed to acknowledge that he sexually assaulted her, failed to acknowledge that his act was one of violence, and above all failed to show any remorse, or any feeling for her, the woman he had assaulted. In short, he took no responsibility for his actions, adding a blood-curdling note to his absurd arrogance, an arrogance, which the judge seconded in his opinion expressed through his light sentencing, and seconded again by Turner’s father who felt the sentence was too serious a punishment for “twenty minutes of action.”

Apparently, Turner’s inability to feel the impact of his actions is supported by his father’s inability to discern the difference between sex and rape. However, Joe Biden “filled with furious anger” provided the necessary sacred counterpoint, in a public letter to this unknown woman, a woman, he calls “all women.” He began, “I do not know your name — but I know that a lot of people failed you that terrible January night and in the months that followed. I am in awe of your courage for speaking out—for so clearly naming the wrongs that were done to you and so passionately asserting your equal claim of human dignity.” “And while the justice system has spoken in your particular case, the nation is not satisfied.”

With his hand in her hand, Biden and the embodied form of the “dignified voice of women,” are attempting to revive respect for women, and correspondingly and perhaps less understood, in this narrative, respect for men. There are four victims here: a man, who is less human than perhaps he could be and at the same time refusing to be further informed; a woman he made, with malicious intent, the receptacle for his inhumanity; an Apollonian consciousness uninformed by its feminine counterpart; and above all, the soul.

The difference between sex and rape was obliterated when the chthonic Python was vanquished by the sun-hero Apollo. This powerful distinction descended back into the earth, subsumed by the things created by man’s “enlightened” consciousness alone. This is a story told by the narration of myth in the way only myth can accomplish.

So the story goes as I remember it and attempt to retell it:

In the center of the world, at a place where roads crossed, the intersection of two fault lines enter into one another, symbolizing the union of opposites, a fissure opened into the black depths of the earth. Water flowed from the Castalian spring revealed by the fissure. These waters carried the sacred understandings of the mother, the beginning of all things. This place was called Delphi (Delphhoi), the womb, and in its cave sanctuary lived a shamanic priestess called the Pythia—serpent woman. Her prophetic power came from a she-dragon in the Castalian spring, the unconscious psyche, the evanescent unconscious which she brought into the light, providing the original moment of suture between what lay in the dark and the unknown and what is illuminated by the sun, by consciousness.

The chthonic Python, Pythia was vanquished by the sun-hero Apollo. He demonized the she-serpent (as told by Homer, in his Hymn to Apollo) and separated her from the waters of the shrine whose guardian she was. He violently seized the sanctuary and created a shrine to himself. His seizure was accompanied by rape and murder and thus power, and dominance was introduced. With this conquest, the unconscious feminine descended deep into the earth and disappeared. Now, there was only one element, the bright sun, and consciousness. It is said, that the Earth, however, struck back, sending up dreams from the deep, “which revealed unto the city of mortals, the past and the future,” preventing the she-serpent’s voice from being permanently silenced. (Dempsey, 21)

With this Apollonian victory, conquest, colonization of the other replaced dialogue; hostile take-over replaced union; rape replaced conjunction—the transformation of consciousness by the unconscious.

We are now left trying to re-create this space of reflection, the space where consciousness is enlarged through its relationship with the unconscious, the space where heart and mind meet and transform one another. Every now and then we are blessed to hear the voice of the chthonic feminine again. Sometimes a man speaks it, a man who is gifted with holding the opposites, a consciousness informed by its unconscious opposite. In this case however, the perfect voice emerges, the voice of the cast aside, devalued feminine, comes back to haunt us with its numinous truth.

I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea

I understand the speech of the mute and hear the voiceless

—Delphic Oracle [Herodotus, I, 47]

Joan Golden-Alexis, Ph.D. is a Jungian psychoanalyst and psychologist in New York City. Her practice consists of individuals as well as couples. (drjgolden@earthlink.net)

Reference:
Dempsey, T, The Delphic Oracle: its early history, influence and fall

Image Credit:
Apollo killing Python, A 1581 engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I.