Thursday, August 13, 2009

Why I Am A Depth Psychologist, Part 1: A Tougher But More Satisfying Lens

The conversation usually goes like this:

Random Human: "What brought you to California?"

Me: "A juicy Ph.D. program."

RH: "Oh really? What were you studying?"

Me: "Depth psychology."

RH: "Huh?..."

Since it's the lens through which I view many, if not most, things, I thought I might offer up an explanation of what depth psychology is (and isn't), how I hope to integrate it into my current and future endeavors, and why I think it can change the world in a positive way.

Depth psychology is, simply put, a return to the original translation of the word
psychology. Psychology is the study of psyche, the soul (NOT, as is often presumed, noie, the mind). When Freud wrote about psychology, he wrote about Seele (the German word for soul). A wonderful little book by Bruno Bettelheim called "Freud and Man's Soul" describes in great detail how the translation of Freud's opus was coopted by the medical industry, and subsequently translated to fit a more objective, business-like, detached model. By the time you make it through the preface, you have a taste of how brutally the English translations of Freud's works butcher Freud's actual ideas, and what he hoped to accomplish with them. In fact, it is an odd irony that in one of Freud's essays, "The Question of Lay Analysis" (1926), he actually states that medical doctors are not adequately trained in psychology and, by virtue (I use that term very loosely) of their medical education, have been indoctrinated with a bias towards objective science, a bias that also dismisses somatic symptoms of psychological distress as "unreal." According to Freud, this bias makes medical professionals some of the worst candidates for performing psychoanalysis because if the client's symptomatology is dismissed as not real, then most of the work of dismissing the cause of the distress has already occurred. The irony is that, until recently, one could only receive training in psychoanalysis in the U.S. if one held an M.D.

Unfortunately, by the time Freud's essay was published in English (1948), the medical profession had already translated a good portion of his
Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Bettelheim tells us that, "Psychoanalysis becomes in
English translation something that refers and applies to others as a system of intellectual constructs. Therefore, students of psychoanalysis ... are not moved to gain access to their own unconscious and everything else within them that is most human but is nevertheless most acceptable to them" (Bettelheim, p. 6). That is to say, students educated with this distanced, detached English translation are not moved to view psychological conditions as the cries of the soul, but as the misfiring of a defective or malfunctioning brain. To read Freud in German, say those who have read his original work, is to understand that Freud was poetic, soulful, and deeply moved by his fellow humans and how we struggle to live meaningful lives.

Psychology as a discipline is beginning the work of reintroducing Soul into the study of soul. And that is where depth psychology comes in. Depth psychology not only returns to Freud's original work and a less medicalized view of the terms he used, but also in fact refers to one of Freud's analogies of the human psyche - the iceberg. Imagine traveling by ship and coming across an iceberg. Above the water you can see a certain amount of ice. That's the conscious mind. Just below the surface of the water you can see that the ice is not floating on top of the water, but that it extends downward into the water. It is not above the surface, but still accessible. Freud called that the preconscious material.

But beyond that few feet of ice that you can see just below the surface of the water lies the
other 90% of the iceberg. That portion is what Freud called the subconscious. That portion is deep and vast and, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, contains multitudes. Consider depth psychologists deep sea divers who excavate (Freud was also extremely interested in archaeology - go figure) the cracks and crevasses of these great cities of ice, of which we can actually see so little.

It is awesome and intimidating in its power, which is most likely why this perspective was captured and squished so completely by the medical establishment. If it ain't broke, as the saying goes, don't fix it. And an industry built on the premise of fixing people cannot abide that kind of competition.

And so, I find myself in a service profession with autistic children (ironically, a population with which Bettelheim worked, and for which he received a great deal of criticism). The autism industry is dominated by the very field and perspective that sucked the soul out of psychology with the (mis)translation of Freud's work in the 1930s. I hear professionals in my field dismiss, time and again, the emotional undulations of our clients as "not real." I see them disrespect a client's emotional needs with the reasoning that it is inappropriate or does not fit the behavior plan. And have rarely, if ever, seen a professional in this field, try to plumb the depths of an autistic child's soul, nor even acknowledge a well-developed soul in the first place.

I want to bring a depth perspective to this industry. There are little souls here, struggling to be heard and seen and engaged! Do I have it in me to shake the foundations of this industry the way Bettelheim's teeny little book rocked my understanding of psychology?

I am amused by the fact that the song running through my head at the moment is The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble.
If I stay there will be double....


Bettelheim, Bruno (1982)
Freud and man's soul. New York: Random House/Vintage Books.

Freud, Sigmund (1990)
The question of lay analysis (Standard edition) (originally published in 1926). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Whitman, Walt (1965) "Song of myself" in
Leaves of grass (originally published in 1855). New York: Airmont Publishing Company, Inc.

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