We use the word “grounded” in many different ways. From a psychological perspective, to be grounded means that we are “down to earth” and don’t have our “head in the clouds.” There is a certain stability associated with being grounded, for the word implies a firm footing, or rootedness. When we are grounded we are able to dream big, but also appreciate the work it will take to achieve these dreams.
The myth of Icarus offers insight into the psychology of groundedness. It is the story of a young man who is being taught by his father how to fly. They wear hand-made wings composed of feathers held in place with wax. Icarus’s father sternly warns his son to not fly too close to the sun lest its heat melt the wax and destroy the wings. Icarus, however, enthralled with his new-found power, ignores his father’s warnings and flies ever higher. Predictably, his wings disintegrate and he falls to his death.
One reason why this myth has endured for so many generations is because it speaks to a recurring theme in human life. That theme involves our natural tendency, perhaps especially when young, to abuse the power that comes with a new ability or privilege. (Think of when you first got your driver’s license or were first placed in a position of authority over others.) It is not uncommon to push (or break) the limits of a new ability or freedom before we learn how to relate to it in a responsible way.
The myth of Icarus warns of the dangers of what is called “ego inflation.” Ego inflation occurs occurs when we have become overly idealistic or one-sided in our viewpoint or approach to life. It is as if we are hypnotized by our own ideas or goals to the exclusion of other perspectives. When we are so attached and feel so right (as in righteous) about our perspective, we have a tendency to be controlling or to play God in our relationships. Other people may experience us as arrogant, controlling, or closed-minded. Ego inflation is akin to being “high” and is sometimes symbolized as such in our dreams. Illicit drugs and alcohol, especially when used in a compulsive way, can be a way of running from life. This could be our outer life, or some aspect of our inner life. We can’t be grounded when we are running from life.
Another use of the term grounded relates to the idea of punishment. Children (and airplane pilots) are grounded when they break the rules. When we feel and behave as if we are above the law, above authority, we sometimes need to be brought back to earth and reminded that we are not God. We need to be re-grounded, or humbled. Of course, grounding does not always achieve this end, but this is its deeper purpose.
The need for grounding may be communicated to us through our dreams and outer life. To fall, or to dream of falling, often means that we need to come back down to earth in some way. Perhaps we are running from certain responsibilities in life, or from an important insight regarding our life. Sometimes it is because we are so focused on our own viewpoint or goals that we become closed off to everything else. Dreams of plane crashes or of being in a building or scaffolding high above the ground can also indicate a need to come back to earth.
In Jungian psychology reference is sometimes made to the “puer aeternis.” This is a Latin term meaning “the eternal boy.” Nowadays it is called the “Peter Pan syndrome.” It describes a man who is old enough to be an adult but who refuses to take on the responsibilities of an adult. Such a person tends to resist making commitments in life. They are always seeking the next adventure, the new and exciting. In this way they avoid the more difficult and less glamorous responsibilities of adult life. When the going gets tough, they get going–to some other place, career, or relationship.
One area where it is easy to become ungrounded is in our spirituality. Spiritual ideas and principles sometimes get so lofty, abstract, or one-sided that they lose touch with basic human experience. For example, we may deny our feelings or the wisdom of our instincts because we feel that “spiritual people” should not have these feelings, thoughts, or impulses. We force ourselves to conform to certain ideals or to a certain picture of perfection. Sometimes we make ourselves slaves to this picture and then demand that others conform to these ideals as well. This seems to be the nature of fundamentalism, be it religious, political, or some other kind. We become so focused on what we believe is “right,” that we forget about the importance of relationship and our shared humanity.
Carl Jung believed that the goal of human development is wholeness, not perfection. To become whole is a process of making peace with our entire self: masculine and feminine, light and dark, spiritual and material, adult and child, etc. Whereas perfection tends to elevate one aspect of the personality over another, divine over human for instance, wholeness seeks the integration and union of opposites within our personality. The path of wholeness is a grounding process for it engages our whole being and does not reject any part of our humanity. Whereas perfection embraces our ideals and aspirations, wholeness seeks the awareness and maturation of our total self. The path towards wholeness grounds us by tempering our expectations with compassion and a thoughtful recognition of our own and others’ humanness.