“When we must deal with problems, we instinctively resist trying the way that leads through obscurity and darkness. We wish to hear only of unequivocal results, and completely forget that these results can only be brought about when we have ventured into and emerged again from the darkness.” Carl Jung, C.W. v.8. The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche
From the perspective of Jungian psychology, depression is an awakening and transformative process. It is the psyche’s attempt to bring the ego, or conscious identity, into greater alignment with our deeper nature and calling in life. Sometimes the pain of depression is required to get our attention, turn us inward, and motivate us to change. Depression can open our minds and hearts to new ways of being. Like a snake shedding its skin, death of the old precedes the birth of our larger self.
When we are depressed we tend to see our depression as the problem. We just want our symptoms to go away so that we can get on with our lives as we had been living them. Sometimes we don’t stop to consider that perhaps it’s our current approach to life that is the problem. This is why dreams of death, suicidal thoughts, and morbid preoccupations are often associated with depression. Symbolically, there is something that needs to die, to be let go of, or surrendered in our life. From the perspective of the psyche, death is a symbol of transformation rather than finality.
In a fascinating research study, Dr. David Rosen, a Jungian psychiatrist, interviewed people who had survived jumps from the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridges. Such jumps are nearly always fatal, but Dr. Rosen was able to interview ten survivors. He found that each survivor underwent a transformative experience which profoundly altered the way they looked at and approached life. Whether initially agnostic or religious, all reported a much deepened sense of meaning and purpose in life. Although survivors of serious suicide attempts are at high risk of further attempts, none of his interviewees had made another attempt. Dr. Rosen theorized that each survivor had undergone a symbolic death of the ego. In other words, an outworn, or ill-fitting identity had been sacrificed, making room for a more authentic and harmonious relationship with the personality core. Rosen coined the term “egocide” to describe this process. Although the ego is not actually killed–doing so would make one the psychological equivalent of an amoeba–its identity and viewpoint are restructured. This is experienced as a death to the ego and is often symbolized as such in our dreams.
Jungian psychology interprets suicide as a literal enactment of what is meant to be a symbolic process. It is not the body that is meant to die, but an unhelpful standpoint of the ego. In most depressions there is some component of our worldview that is at odds with our larger being and destiny. Rather than contemplating suicide, depressed persons can often benefit from asking themselves the following questions: What attitudes or goals need to change, or be let go of, in my life? In what ways is my current identity or approach to life at odds with my deeper nature/calling? What is the role of (symbolic) death in my life at this time? Below are some examples of depression as an opportunity for personal growth.
A young woman becomes depressed because she realizes she does not really love the man she has pledged to marry. He has won the approval of her family, friends, and society, but not her soul. And so she struggles with the age-old dilemma of becoming her own person, or the person others would tell her to be.
A man stays at a job long after it has ceased to be challenging and meaningful to him. He reasons with himself, “The pay and benefits are good, I’ll just stick it out for another few years.” But he becomes depressed because his deeper self has another viewpoint and goal. It would rather he live his true self for less money, than squander his precious time and gifts for more.
A middle-aged woman experiences depression after the last of her children leaves home. For 25 years her role has been that of a mother and homemaker. Now she feels lost, and without the sense of purpose she once enjoyed. Her life and creativity are ready to flow in a new direction, but she will need to discover what that direction is, and let go of (or modify) her former role before she can start living again.
An introverted young boy entered life with a strongly intuitive temperament and sensitivity for spiritual and emotional matters. Although he eventually became a gifted healer, he suffered through several depressions to get there. The depressions were inevitable and perhaps necessary stages in his development and journey of self-discovery. Born to extroverted parents in a culture whose values and worldview differed significantly from his own, his efforts to find his place in the world brought much frustration. When obedient to his own nature, he felt like an oddball and a mis-fit around family and peers. Conversely, when he tried too hard to fit in, or be like others, he became cut off from his true self and the core of his being. It seemed he could not win for losing, and loneliness and depression became his childhood companions. Ironically, it was the ebb and flow of his depressive states that helped him to find his unique path and vocation. His depressions deepened his soul, his understanding of his true nature, and his empathy and compassion for other people. The ebb and flow of his depressions helped him to see life from two perspectives–that of the outer world and that of the unconscious soul. And it was his ability to live in these two worlds, bearing the tension of each without turning his back on either, that helped him to mature and become whole. Like banks to a river, his depressions guided him to his unique destiny and a broadened consciousness of life’s complexity.
In tribal societies, individuals that are able to heal themselves from depression through life-giving dialogue with the unconscious typically become the community’s healers and shamans. Having grown through their depressions–rather than around them–they gained hard-won insight into the death-rebirth process that is the foundation of psychological development. They came to understand that what the ego labels as an “illness” is usually the psyche’s attempt at a cure.
Of course, this viewpoint is not a popular one in the United States. In a country drunk with the ideology that we are each “the masters of our own destiny,” and that “we can be or accomplish whatever we might set our minds to,” it is not surprising that we attempt to manipulate and control our own psyche rather than learn from it. What many of us don’t realize is that when the psyche is frustrated in its attempts to communicate to us through one set of symptoms, it will find another way to communicate its message, and the latter cure is usually worse than the first.
1. Dallett, Janet O. Listening to the Rhino: Violence and Healing in a Scientific Age. Aequitas Books, NY 2008.
2. Rosen, David H. Transforming Depression: A Jungian Approach Using the Creative Arts. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, NY 1993.