Depth Psychotherapy

There are many ways of studying and working with the depth of the psyche. The term psyche denotes the soul–the very substance of who we are as human beings in the world. Psyche refers to what we know about ourselves, and to what we don’t know about ourselves. Both the known and the unknown. What we know is referred to as conscious, and what we don’t know as unconscious. In reality, we are always a complicated mixture of both known and unknown.

So-called “depth psychology” and “depth psychotherapy” or “analysis” are especially interested in how the deep unconscious levels of the psyche operate. Depth psychologies argue that–contrary to popular opinion in our time–the bulk of who we are exists unconsciously. For the most part, we are unknown to ourselves, or known only partially. We tend to think that we know more than we do, and that we are in control of more than we are in control of. Yet we cannot escape the fact that the psyche resists our attempts to know and to control, and ultimately demands a sacrifice of such attempts. What we can do is listen to the symptoms, dreams, ideas, feelings, human relationships, and images that the psyche sends our way. A new, less troubled, more creative relationship to our deepest selves can then take root and begin to change our lives.

Working out psychological difficulties in therapy therefore means facing the unconscious, and listening to what it has to tell the client and the therapist. That’s the nature of the conversation in therapy. It is a conversation with the psyche that generates therapeutic changes over time.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung elaborated a depth psychology in the early and middle parts of the 20th century. Jung was a close associate of Sigmund Freud’s for a period of years. Just as his career seemed to be advancing towards its high point, Jung left Freud’s movement of psychoanalysis, and spent the rest of his career developing his own theories. The depth psychologies begin with figures such as Jung and Freud, and include many other, more recent psychologists who have changed the field of psychotherapy. Many new theorists have added to, challenged, refined, and re-imagined the psychologies of these two founders of depth psychotherapy and analysis.

Sigmund Freud, Stanley Hall, and Carl Jung, in the front, from left.

Sigmund Freud, Stanley Hall, and Carl Jung, in the front, from left.

Now we are at a crossroads in the field of depth psychology. The old divisions between differing schools of thought are becoming less and less interesting. The points of connection between the depth psychologies and psychotherapies are what hold more interest now. The reason for this is simple. All of these ways of thinking about the psyche and about therapy are attempting to understand what happens in therapy. The point of unity is the experience of therapy itself, and there are many ways of trying to understand what happens there, and how individuals undergo processes of psychological change.

The “Field” of Depth Psychotherapy

There are many ways to practice depth psychotherapy these days. One meeting point that I see between various theories is a focus on the therapeutic relationship itself. What happens in the therapy hour has a way of generating therapeutic change. That means it’s important to pay attention to what happens in the “field”–that is, the space of the relationship that exists between client and therapist, and encompasses them both in the therapeutic hour. Many contemporary depth psychotherapists recognize that what happens there is the most important therapeutic factor in getting a person’s life and development unstuck and moving.

Depth psychologies often refer to the space of the therapeutic relationship as a field–something like a field in contemporary physics. This is a space where different elements of the two individual psyches in the relationship interact on many levels. When things are going well, there is a feeling to this space of being held safely, known, and welcomed. When challenges come up, it’s safe enough to work them through in ways that create helpful changes that ripple through the client’s life and relationships.

An alchemical image of the relational field

An alchemical image of the relational field

It’s not the therapist’s interpretations and interventions (however insightful they may be, and however attached he or she may be to them) that matter most. To say that depth psychotherapy is insight-oriented therapy isn’t quite right, in this view. When a therapist makes an interpretation that meets and helps the client make sense of a felt experience that’s hard to put into words, often the therapeutic factor derives from the feeling of being understood, of being known and held by the space of this relationship, with this therapist. Insights happen, but the curative factor is not the strictly cognitive event of understanding one’s own unconscious process.

It’s more a matter of feeling known than of knowing rationally.

This is a key distinguishing factor of depth psychotherapy and analysis from other therapies. We see that therapy creates a relational field in which both conscious and unconscious processes of psychological development come into play, get unstuck, and move forward. The field of the therapy hour eventually extends outwards into the client’s life in the world as the effects of therapy manifest themselves.