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Discerning What Drives Us, by James Hollis Ph.D.

Saturday, October 10, 2020 10:35 PM | Anonymous

How do we go about discerning what forces are driving us?  I think these questions may help you personalize this otherwise abstract concept.   When we consider who we are, and what we are doing, how often do we really probe why we are doing what we do?   I may think I am performing a series of good acts, however defined by our time and place and level of awareness, but maybe they are simply conditioned behaviors.   Sometimes they may be coming from co-dependent places, or fear-driven places.   When we challenge our deeper motives we find rationalizations readily available to ratify, legitimize, perpetuate those behaviors.   So, the first place to start probing what is going on in the unconscious begins here:

1. What are your patterns?  Especially those you find counter-productive to you, or possibly hurtful to others.  Assuming that what we do is “rational, logical,” based on the emotionally charged “story” inside us, what might that story be?   When and where did you acquire that story?   What is its message to you?  Does it empower you in this world or diminish you?   And what do you have to do to overthrow its sovereignty?

2. Where are you stuck?   We all have stuck places, places where we know better, intend better, act better, but the same old, same old returns.   What is that about?  Why is it so easy to identify these roadblocks and so hard to get unstuck?  If we choose to call something “stuck” then we claim to know some behavior and attendant outcome that would be better.  

What keeps us from that better behavior? The answer is always, always, fear.   The moment we begin to move on the problem, our psychological history sends up  immediate klaxon warnings: “beware, back off!”  We may not hear those warnings, but our repetitive behavior tells us that we have succumbed to the system alert. 

Only fear-based stories, or complexes, have the power to keep us stuck long after will and five step plans have exercised their futile options.   So, for example, the person who wants to stop smoking, or over-eating will have an abiding terror: “what will be there for me, what will connect me, what will soothe me, if not that?”    And that’s a very good question, and important question.  And it can only be answered by conscious addressing of that issue. 

The stuck places are evidence of shut-down protections we learned early in our lives, sort of like surge protectors that shut down the excessive energy before it destroys your computer.    We need to remember, always, that the inner machinery of the stuck places in our lives were put in place long ago and far away, most often in our early development.   These protections--that is what they are, and why they are so hard to transcend--derive from an early experience of our inadequacy in the face of the magnitude of the world around us.    In those moments, we ignore that there is an adult, us, on the scene who is perfectly capable of managing those issues directly.   They may not be easy, they may still be scary, but their engagement allows us to move into adulthood with the resources of a big person, finally.   

3. What are my avoidances?   The stuck places are avoidances, of course, but there are many more where we consciously avoid tense matters.  Only sociopaths enjoy conflict.  Most normal people don’t.   The question then is what is it I avoid, and therefore undermine my value intentions?   Let us say I don’t speak up, and let someone else’s reality dominate the decisions.   I may rationalize that as being amenable, but it is really coming from the archaic precincts of fear.   Where do I lack permission to really own my life?   Where am I waiting for someone to give it to me?   Do I want to be on the proverbial death bed and be saying, “if only…?”   Where do I need to be honest about my desires, my unspoken yearnings, curiosities, and inclinations?   What will give me the momentum to step into my life while I am still here?

4. What are my over-compensations?   By “over-compensation” we mean where do we work so hard to make something happen because our inner life is still so terrified if it does not?   Why is it I am always trying to “fix,” the other, mollify those upset, sacrifice my own well-being in service to bringing some homeostasis to the environment?  (Remember the profile of “the wounded healer” in all us).

Given large experiences in our formation, and the large stories and defenses which arose in us from them, we have three choices: repeat them in our generation, run from them, or try to fix them in some way.   If I look to my life choices, frequent strategies, is there a secret service working underground here?  Is there some reactive repetition, flight, or reparation plan that I am enacting rather than living my life as if it were a different life, with a different destination than that of all the others?   If I don’t ask questions like this, one may be sure that one’s life is being lived reactively, rather than generatively.   And one’s psyche will not be amused?

5. What are my symptoms?   What anxiety states perplex me; what depressions suck the joy out of my life; what “medications” am I employing to still the pain within?

Symptoms, remember, are psyche’s way of getting our attention, and indicating that the soul is not amused, that is, is wishing something better from us.  So what if we are afraid, and hiding out.  When will we finally decide that now is the time to shut up, suit up, show up!

6. What are your dreams telling you?   Jung said that dreams tell us the Tao of the moment—not what the ego thinks, but what is really going on within us.   If we live to 80 as I have been privileged to do, we will have spent six years of our lives dreaming, based on laboratory research into brain wave activity.   That surely suggests that nature has some serious purpose in our dream life.   Yes, it is true that our dreams help us process and metabolize the immense stimuli which flood us every day, but they also speak a mythological language.   When asked why dreams are so difficult, not clanking out tele-messages to make one choice over another, Jung said, they bespeak an ancient language of nature which our culture has forgotten.   So, as we sit with the metaphors and symbols which spontaneously rise in us each night, we begin to realize that they stir associations, sometime recognition, sometimes disquietude.  In short, we are confronted with another intelligence within us.  We can’t disown that source because it is our dream, not an implant from someone else.

 Over time, those who pay attention to their dreams--perhaps work with a therapist so trained, or not, who meditate, journal, reflect on whatever rises from below—begin to develop a deeper, more mature authority as opposed to succumbing to the messages we received from the world outside.    Following our dreams is not only the via regia to the unconscious, as Freud claimed; it is also the descent into the shadow.  But those nightly visitations are all meant in service to the soul and call upon us for healing, for balancing of life, and for growth and development. 

There is something in all of us that won’t let us get away with much.   As my friend Stephen Dunn said in a poem about knowing himself pretty well, “that’s the good news, and the bad news too.”    All depth psychological work is informative, and humbling, and challenging—no wonder so many of us avoid it.

James Hollis, Ph.D.

Jungian Analyst


  • Sunday, October 25, 2020 12:52 PM | Anonymous
    Dr. Hollis,

    These are interesting things to reflect on. I have faced many of these issues as I grow older. The question I personally have been trying to answer is why people need meaning. What gets them going, motivated, and willing to overcome the issues you address? It appears to me to often we reflect on the bad and seek outwardly for a solution. As you allude to, as does Dr. Jung from my studies, is that it is an inward journey to the self you must delve. For in you is the solution to a personal problem and for deeper meaning in life.

    I call this deeper meaning a person's 'ideal being'. It is the pinnacle of what they wish to become and use all habitual pursuits to attain this persona. From what I can understand, it is not a matter of if you have an ideal to become, but what your ideal is you must discover. I have created an a priori visual psychological model based on this premise. People of my generation seem to be losing their meaning at an exponential rate. Many have lost the connection to the intrinsic 'spiritual' value of all life. In that loss comes avoidant behavior and great fear. For in a way they choose to abandon their meaning, sending them into an interpersonal hell.

    Reading your blog post is a real pleasure because its based on a lot of material I have been reading. If you get a chance to read this and if others add to the conversation, I would love to see what is discussed.


    Nathan Lee
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