Living a Life That Matters: Can Depth Psychotherapy Help?
Everyone wants a life that is meaningful and valuable to them. The idea of “living a life that matters” rings true to nearly everyone.
Yet, how do we actually do that? What is it that is I need in my life to enable me to say, “my life matters” or “my life has value”? Very clearly, there’s great individual variation in each person’s answer to this question!
As the life cycle goes on for each of us as individuals, this question often takes on more importance. What is more, as the years go by, the question can often become more focused: what is it about my particular life, about specifically being me, that matters, and that gives my life dignity and meaning?
What Makes My Life Matter?
What exactly is it that makes me feel like my life matters? Well, pretty clearly, the answer to that question is going to vary greatly from person to person. We can talk in general terms about some key things, like love, meaningful work, and a sense of purpose, among other things. Yet, what really matters are the specifics.
If I’m going to understand what it is for me to live a life that matters, I’m going to have look in some real detail at myself, and at what it is that makes specifically my life matter. Through advertising, social media and other means, there are continual social pressures put upon us to find certain things meaningful or valuable. Our culture is always trying to tell us that this car, that vacation trip, or this mutual fund is going to take us straight to the things that really matter in life. This kind of messaging ignores individual differences between us — and if we ignore our individual characteristics, we can’t hope to find what it is that gives our own unique life value and dignity.
It’s a common experience for individuals to find that the question of what makes my life matter, or what makes life meaningful, takes on more and more importance as life goes along. (Although, as we saw in last week’s blog post, issues of meaning can be very important for people around the middle of life, or even well before that time.
Getting More Urgent in the Background
We can try to find refuge in what everyone else is doing, but it likely won’t enable us to get to the personal answers that we really need about our own unique lives. There can be a level of comforting numbness in just living a conventional life and “doing what everyone else does”. This is akin in some ways to the experience that Baudelaire calls “bathing oneself in the crowd”. Yet people who are basing their lives on convention can find it particularly painful and alarming to sense that they are just “going through the motions” in their lives.
Often, when an individual is living a life of “just going through the motions”, the unconscious mind starts to give urgent clues that this outward conformity is not reflective of who the person really is. An individual in this situation may have considerable anxiety and depression. Or, they may be subject to sudden inexplicable bouts of anger. They may also have a variety of violent and disturbing dream images. Terrifying dream images of strong, out of control angry figures, or hopelessly sad figures may appear.
Affirming The Value of Our Lives
To find the life that truly matters for us, as individuals, we’re continually drawn back to our own experiences of depth. Jung, when helping analysands to find what really matters to them, would often draw people back to their own childhood experience, and ask them what activity they enthralled them as a child in which they could completely lose themselves. It can also be very important for people to think about experiences they have had in later life that seemed charged with life and meaning. These are the experiences that humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow would refer to as “peak experiences’, while Jungians might call them “numinous”.
We also might find that the individual’s dreams overall have a great deal to say, as might the individual’s body. James Hollis tells us,
Transformation often comes to us in symbolic form. We have a dream image that perplexes, a symptom that will not go away, a relational pattern that continues to fester — each of these is a summons to ask What does the soul want of me? … this transformation has little if anything to do with the ego’s comfort or control, or the approval of others.Hollis, What Matters Most
Hollis is not using the word “soul” here in a religious way, but in the sense of the deepest and most fundamental aspect of who we are. It is acknowledgment of that part of ourselves that leads most fundamentally to living a life that matters. Depth case studies can be a vital tool in the process of connecting with those parts of our psyche.