The Importance of Self Understanding in Personal Transformation
“Therapist talk” emphasizes the importance of self understanding in personal transformation, but, what does this really mean, for you or me?
The most accurate answer is that it means different things to different types of case studiess. Both “self understanding” and “personal transformation” will mean quite different things, if you should ask, for instance: a) an existential therapist; b) a therapist who emphasizes mindfulness techniques; or, c) a cognitive behavioural therapist.
I work from a Jungian and /a-midlife-transition perspective. This framework has an expansive view of the importance of self understanding.
Self Understanding: Not the Same as Self Awareness
From this perspective, self understanding is not just identical with self awareness. Self awareness is a very good thing, of course! It’s infinitely better to be more aware of yourself, your unique characteristics and reactions rather than less aware. Yet, even with such awareness, there remains the outstanding question of what do all these things I’m aware of about myself actually mean? Into what kind of a context am I going to put all these things?
Context matters! I may be aware of a lot of things about myself, but until I can get some sense of myself and my life as a whole, these bits of self awareness may appear as scattered and meaningless details.
From a /a-midlife-transition perspective, the most important ways I understand myself are not ideas or concepts used by the ego in its never-ending search for security and control. Rather, symbols, which often emerge in dreams, artwork or in active imagination perform a unifying and contextual role in a powerful way that includes intellectual understanding, but that brings in other dimensions such as our feeling and our intuition.
Where Conscious Meets Unconscious
For /a-midlife-transition, the importance of self understanding viewed in this broad way cannot be overstated. It is truly the foundation stone for a genuinely meaningful process of personal transformation.
Symbols come from the interaction of the conscious and the unconscious minds. Jung was aware long ago of the importance of the unconscious mind, and the research results of neuroscience in more recent times have only served to confirm and underline the importance of unconscious processes to the existence of consciousness. As psychiatrist Erik D. Goodwyn puts it, citing neuroscience authorities such as Profs. Michael Gazzaniga and Antonio Damasio;
“A consciousness that rests upon a mighty edifice of unconscious processes, which do not depend upon it, but without which it would be nonfunctional [is] a view so well supported by cognitive neuroscience that one may consider it a settled matter.”
Symbols are not mired in the ego’s myopia. Hollis describes ego as “Nervous Nellie”, always trying to make things safe, easily controllable, with what Adam Phillips describes as “defensive knowingness”. Properly understood, symbols rooted in our unconscious reality show us much more expansively who we are.
The Individual’s “Experiment with His/Her Own Nature”
It is this connection with the hitherto unknown aspects of ourselves in the unconscious, which is truly transformative. As Jungian analyst Josephine Everts-Secker has it,
“Neither imagination nor individuation can be taught. Experience of psyche itself educates…. Working metaphorically / mythically creates new neural pathways more effectively than working cognitively….
How then might we nourish… ‘the experiment with one’s own nature’…?”
The answer lies in case studies that opens a person to the riches of the unconscious. Jung emphasizes that
“Richness of mind consists in mental receptivity… Real increase of personality means consciousness of an enlargement that flows from inner sources. Without psychic depth, we can never be related to the magnitude of our object.”
Are we willing to enlarge ourselves through attention to the parts of ourselves that are not immediately available to the conscious mind? It’s there that we find the reality of soul, and the journey towards wholeness.
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst