A Co-Dependent Worldview

There are many misconceptions about co-dependents and co-dependent behavior. Many people still consider co-dependents to be merely “enablers” or people in relationships with addicts. But if we define a co-dependent person in such a way as to require that they be in a relationship with an addict (or with anyone) in order to qualify as “co-dependent,” that would be like defining an alcoholic as someone who is actively drinking—so that when the alcoholic is sleeping, we might rightly say he’s not an alcoholic. A co-dependent, like an addict, is identified by his mental perceptions—how he envisions his interactions, not who or what he’s interacting with in the moment.

This is not to say that if someone offers a definition of a co-dependent using a relationship model that there is no place for that. Certainly, if I were a family counselor, I would likely lean very hard toward a working definition that addressed my model of therapy in a way that would help my patients understand their roles in the situation. That’s fine. But I’m not defining “co-dependent” here in order to target a working treatment model. I’m seeking to understand a mental mindset that results in the dysfunctional relationships co-dependents gravitate toward due to a developmental disorder.

“Co-dependency is defined as a psychological disorder caused by a failure to complete one of the most important developmental tasks of early childhood, that of establishing psychological autonomy. Psychological autonomy is necessary for the development of the self, separate from parents.”
—Barry K. Weinhold, PhD, and Janae B Weinhold, PhD, co-authors, “Breaking Free of the Co-Dependency Trap.”

It is then, literally, to be blunt, a childish worldview that was never outgrown. This deals with boundaries, especially psychological boundaries, that the co-dependent has either weakened or lost. Just as a child who stubs his toe on a piece of furniture might become angry and hit (blame) the chair, so does the adult co-dependent not see the clear divide between himself and other people and things outside himself. And he sees his emotions as being at least partly dictated by people and things outside himself. He believes others have the ability to affect his emotional state, without his consent, to some degree. And to the level he accepts this, that is the level to which he is engaged in co-dependent thinking.

In order to address this problem, the following was suggested: “…to treat and heal the suffering and dysfunction of co-dependence, we first realize that we are powerless over others. We are powerless over their beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions and choices, and their behavior. But we discover that we are powerful over ourselves, our own beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions, choices, and behaviors.”

And in order to offer a useful, broad definition (not narrowed for specific treatment programs), “…we can define [co-dependence] briefly as any suffering or dysfunction that is associated with or results from focusing on the needs and behaviors of others…it may be mild to severe.”
—Charles L. Whitfield, MD, (both quotes above) from his book “Co-Dependence, Healing the Human Condition. Whitfield is certified by the American Society of Addiction Medicine and a former instructor at Rutgers Univeristy.

In other words, if I experience unpleasant or unwanted responses (“any suffering”) based on my observations of the actions of another (“associated with the behaviors of others”), that is a co-dependent perspective. And that last bit is important. This is not an “all” or “nothing” measurement. The level to which you relate to this worldview dictates the level to which you are co-dependent—mild or severe.

In the section of their book entitled “Healthy Ways to Handle Feelings,” Drs. Weinhold write, “own your feelings and take responsibility for being the source of your feelings.”

My posts are long enough, but that bears repeating: “take responsibility for being the source of your feelings.” As long as I continue to hold to a model that there are sources, other than me, for my emotional responses, I’m feeding into a mindset born of a developmental dysfunction.

“CBT treatments have received empirical support for efficient treatment of a variety of clinical and non-clinical problems, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse disorders, and psychotic disorders. It is often brief and time-limited. It is used in individual therapy as well as group settings, and the techniques are also commonly adapted for self-help applications…In cognitive oriented therapies, the objective is typically to identify and monitor thoughts, assumptions, beliefs and behaviors that are related and accompanied to debilitating negative emotions and to identify those which are dysfunctional, inaccurate, or simply unhelpful. This is done in an effort to replace or transcend them with more realistic and useful ones.”
—Wikipedia entry on “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)”

In other words, the goal is not to avoid situations where unwanted emotions arise and it is not to learn to live with these emotions and contain or suppress them. The goal is to teach people how to choose more appropriate, beneficial emotions over ones that are causing problems for them in their lives—because we can, and do, choose our emotional responses. A person suffering from anxiety disorder can actually learn to stop feeling anxious. This is achieved by heightening the person’s awareness via teaching him to monitor what is happening in his own mind, and make better choices in his reactions—including emotional reactions. We can choose appropriate or inappropriate emotional responses. However, most of us don’t really consider our mental reactions and responses. We take them for granted and let them move along without much interference unless and until something really bothers us enough to the point we need to learn how to take a more active role in controlling our mental, intrapersonal dialogues.

A quick word about avoidance: If you go to the local book store and pick up a copy of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, you will find that in treating emotional disorders, such as anxiety, avoidance is a behavior the therapist must try to interrupt. It is not uncommon for people to suffer from anxiety in particular environmental situations. In order to avoid the anxiety, the patient avoids the situation (for example, driving a car). The problem here is many-fold. The patient is heading for phobia and soon will be not just someone with anxiety disorder, but someone with anxiety disorder and a phobia of driving.

The patient is misattributing the environmental stimulus as being the catalyst for the anxiety he feels. In reality the catalyst is his misinterpretation of the environmental stimulus: He sees driving—a mundane activity—as irrationally threatening and fearsome. What he doesn’t understand is that his anxiety and fear are not brought on by driving, but are rather brought on by his mentally defective interpretation of driving. The event occurs and is nonthreatening. But the patient’s mind interprets it as a threat, and he then responds with fear, panic, and anxiety to his imagined and unjustified mental model of what is happening. So, his emotional reaction is not in response to anything outside his head. It’s a response to a distortion within his head. If the distortion can be addressed, so that he regains a more realistic perspective of driving, then he will find he can choose an emotion other than “anxious” when he drives. But he first has to be able to make a rational evaluation of the event (while he’s in the event). He has the capacity to do this, as do we all, but he does not know how to do that at the time he enters therapy.

In communication psychology and intrapersonal communication, there are two thing
s I learned that have served me extremely well in life:

1. Nobody and nothing can make me mad.
2. Emotions tell us nothing about the world outside our own minds.

This is not to say I never get angry. The key word is “make.” When I become angry, I know I must accept responsibility for the anger I emote. Choosing anger as an appropriate emotional response is not the same as being forced to be angry. Likewise, choosing anger when it is an inappropriate response is not the same as being “made” angry. As an honest person I must admit I became angry—of my own free will. I was not force or made to be angry—no matter how tempting it might be to blame others for my own lack of judgment or unwillingness to exercise self-control.

And that is very difficult for some people to grasp, because not everything in reality is intuitive. Some things are actually counterintuitive the more deeply we study them. And it is often to our detriment that our emotional reactions are not intuitively understood for a great many people.

Something good happens—someone gives me a birthday present—and I feel good. Something sad happens—my dog dies—and I feel sad. Something scary happens—I step on a snake—and I’m scared. What could be more simple? A child can make this connection, right? Well, right, a child could make this connection, but the child would be wrong to say the events were the catalyst to his emotional reaction. It is not these events that evoke these emotions. It is our mental models and interpretations that evoke these emotions. How can I know this? Because, fortunately, we sometimes have cases we can examine where our mental models don’t correspond with environmental realities. And when that happens, which one of those things (our environment or our noncorresponding interpretation) do you imagine our emotions align with?

Well, when we consider it that way, it becomes intuitive again, doesn’t it? Would anyone fail to rightly guess that our emotional reaction will align with our interpretation of the environment—and not the environment? If there is nothing to fear in my environment, but I believe there is something to fear, I will feel corresponding fear. But corresponding to what? To reality or to my interpretation?

This becomes relevant in religion when people use emotional response as an affirmation of their belief that god is interacting with them in their lives. They “feel” god—and for many people that reinforces that there really is a god “out there” beyond their minds, creating these emotional impulses. But their model is flawed and actually a prime example co-dependent thinking and misattribution.

In other words, if I hear a strange noise in my house—and I believe someone is trying to break in—I will react emotionally as if an intruder is trying to enter my home (even if it’s just a branch scraping my window). My cognitive self confronts existent reality, interprets that reality, and then relays that interpretation, which is fed into another part of the brain that kicks out an impulse—emotional or otherwise. That response then goes to my cognitive self and I must decide whether or not the response is appropriate. If I deem it appropriate, I will unleash it. If I deem it inappropriate, I will send a new message back to my brain letting it know that isn’t an acceptable response, and I will choose another. And all this can happen instantaneously. In fact, this internal dialogue is happening in each of us, nonstop, all the time—whether we pay attention to it and acknowledge it, or not. We actually can tune into it—we just generally don’t bother.

This process can take milliseconds or years to produce a change in emotional response. And in very few cases, we may not have time to cognitively assess our response at all. Something might not frighten us slowly—but, instead, very quickly. This would be an emotional “spike,” and the immediacy of it would make it difficult or impossible to process and restrain in the moment. But we are, most of us, rarely confronted in daily life with such immediate and extreme levels of emotional impulse. You might think of it as walking along normally and stumbling over a tree root. Ninety-nine percent of the time you are in immediate control of your walking. That doesn’t mean you spend your energy focusing on it and monitoring each move—but you still understand you are the one controlling your movements as you walk. You don’t have to concentrate and think about it, because you’ve done it for so long that it’s nearly automatic. But hit that tree root and you look like you have lost any and all control over your legs and body. It’s a glitch for sure, but the exception and not the rule.

We take our emotional responses and psychological control for granted. And how many times do we hear people claim outright that we can’t control how we feel, who we love, what we like, what we hate, sometimes even what we do? These are excuses to unburden ourselves of our responsibility for our own reactions—literally to not take responsibility for our very selves.

Many, many things can show us that we have the capacity to adjust our emotional responses toward things—to change how we feel about them. If we are reasonable, someone might present a good argument or evidence that contradicts something we thought we understood previously, but now realize we did not. And we decide that maybe our attitude about a particular situation is perhaps not appropriate. So, we adjust it. Who hasn’t had that experience? Just as well, we might have a sudden and impactive emotional experience or trauma that changes our view. Maybe we nearly die, and it makes us realize that we should take more joy in our lives while we’re here. And we really do enjoy life more after that. Or maybe there is no trigger. Maybe I go to a party that I felt obligated to attend. I’m committed to be there for five hours and it’s pure tedium. I’ve served two hours of my hell-party sentence sitting in a chair by myself, when I simply consider that maybe if I tried to go and meet a few people it might not be so horrible. I go out and mingle, and whether I find any interesting people or not, I find the night is at least somewhat improved over brooding in a corner for three more hours.

In all of these cases, there are common denominators. One is that I agreed to consider another view—and ultimately to adopt another view of my situation. The person who gains new information can’t say that anything outside his own mind changed. The situation is the same. The information he gained wasn’t “not there” before. He simply was unaware of it. But reality didn’t change, only his view of it broadened. He now can consider “more” of it and has a different feeling about what he’s looking at. The man who nearly died did not come back to a new wife, a new son, a new job. He simply gained a new view of it all. And the guy at the party didn’t find a way to change the party. He just changed his view of it—all on his own. He recognized that he had zero control over the party, over the people, over the refreshments, over time, but he discovered, as Whitfield pointed out, that he was powerful over himself, his own beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions, choices, and behaviors. Over himself, his actions, his attitude, he had total control. And by exercising it, he went from frustrated, angry and bored, to at least somewhat interested. He went from a co-dependent view of himself as a victim, obligated to a hateful five-hour torture session, to someone in control who was willing to take responsibility for his evening and whether or not he enjoyed it on any level.

Another common denominator in these three cases is that any of these men could have refused to agree to adopt a new attitude. I could get new and contradictory data and still hold tenaciously to my perspectives. I could nearly die, and come back and be the same complacent, joyless ass I was before. I could go to the party, wall
ow in my piss-poor mood all night, and go home thinking about how I’ll never get that evening back. It’s completely up to me. I am the only one who can control my attitude—and I can change it to a polar opposite view if I deem doing so is justified.

But whatever I do, as the Drs. Weinhold note, I must own my feelings and take responsibility for being the source of my feelings. I can’t be held accountable for everything that happens to me in life. But I can very well be held to account for every reaction express—so long as I’m enjoying a normal level of mental health.

Co-dependent attitudes are so prevalent, mainly, I would wager, due to some of the issues noted above—being so used to having near-automatic, appropriate emotional responses that we hardly notice them or feel a need to exercise restraint or control over them, and also, understandably, misattributing our emotions to things outside of our own minds, because so often, for the most part, our mental models are close enough to the Real McCoy that we don’t stop to examine whether our emotional reactions are toward the models or the reality being modeled.

According to Whitfield, “Co-dependence is the most common of all addictions: the addiction to looking elsewhere.” Whitfield acknowledges we “live in a world where nearly everyone is acting co-dependently most of the time.” In other words, this thinking, based on a developmental flaw, is extremely pervasive and common. It is so common in fact, that some co-dependence evaluation questionnaires have people answer with a scale like this one, (Almost Always = 4, Frequently = 3, Occasionally = 2, Never = 1), where the low score would be the least co-dependent attitude. Note there is no setting for “0.” In other words, nobody gets out of that test with zero level of co-dependence.

It may sound unfair, but it’s true. Examples of these evaluations appear in Weinholds’ and Whitfield’s books, and in many other places. I guess the message is that it’s simply too much to hope that a person could actually take full responsibility for himself. While I’d love to recoil, I can’t say that I don’t see a lot of this attitude in people. And I can’t say that I don’t have to police it in my own head. Road-rage anyone? But when I recognize it, I can say I don’t defend it as being beyond my control. Not controlling myself, certainly, is not the same as not being able to control myself—and not the same as not being responsible for controlling myself. I do what I do, because it’s what I chose to do—whether in the moment or after careful consideration is irrelevant. It is my reaction, and I must own it—since nobody else can. My mental and physical reactions are mine and come out of my human experience and worldview. If I can’t defend them, then I should reconsider them—in the moment or after careful consideration.

All this said, I admit fully that without religion, there would still be co-dependent people. And, actually, at least one religion, Buddhism, appears to give people props for exercising mental control and taking as much responsibility as possible for their own mental reactions. So, that said, not all religions feed into the “co-dependence trap” (as the Weinholds’ labeled it). Even Hinduism, with its self-defeating caste system and karma, contains an example in the Bhagavad-Gita of the self exercising control of emotional impulses. The process is compared to a charioteer driving a team of horses, and the analogy is meant to illustrate the value of exercising measured self-control over the mind’s impulses.

And isn’t this supposed to, somewhere, touch on religion a bit more?

With that, let’s have a word about compartmentalization. Consider Whitfield’s earlier statement, “we are powerful over ourselves, our own beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions, choices, and behaviors.” His point in a nutshell is to take responsibility for you reactions, and stop blaming others for things that should be your responsibility as part of your life. Be the captain of your own destiny! And the Weinholds’ appear to agree. Intrapersonal communication models, based on research in communication psychology, also concur, and CBT demonstrates it as a working, demonstrable model as well. So, how does one explain statements like the following from Co-dependents Anonymous’ 12 Steps? Is this funny or sad?

Step 2: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”

Step 6: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

Step 7: “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.”

Step 11: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.”

I refuse to elaborate on the discrepancy here, because to do so would be an insult to the intelligence of every reader. If you can’t see the glaring hypocrisy of these steps in a program to help people who are having trouble taking responsibility for themselves and their own lives and personal reactions—as Foxworthy might say, “You just might be” a co-dependent.

Here’s what’s even spookier. Dr. Whitfield promotes and advocates this 12-step program in his aforementioned book. The same man who says my problem is that I am not acknowledging I am the source of power over my own life, advocates letting go and letting god, by throwing me into a program where I am immediately told I must accept I am powerless—beyond whatever power god, in his mercy, is willing to grant me.

How is that any better than being powerless over myself except for whatever power someone else or my environment grants me? In any of those scenarios, I still haven’t taken responsibility, I’ve merely shifted the responsibility for my life from one source that is not me to another source that (I believe) is not me. Where exactly did I gain any power from this shift?

But as if this weren’t disturbing enough, isn’t this pretty well Western religion in a nutshell? Conservative fundamentalists preach “responsibility,” then co-dependently slough off responsibility for everything in their lives to a mental model that does not represent themselves. Again—oh, the irony. They absolutely rail against people who they perceive to not be taking responsibility for themselves, and they preach out of that same mouth, the doctrine of fully crippling, co-dependent salvation (because I just can’t rely on myself to run my own life).

But let me add one last thing. Let’s end on an atheist note. We get many letters. And for every letter we get saying X, I can promise you we get just as many saying –X. One topic particularly that I find funny is “Matt’s attitude toward callers.” Matt could get 10 e-mails a day on this subject, and I promise you that five would scold him for being too mean and nasty, and the other five would praise him for his patience and kindness toward callers (some even scold him for being too kind). Some go on to say Matt, and the rest of the hosts/cohosts are no better than fundamentalist Christians in how we pig-headedly shove our opinions down the throats of others.

How do we stack up with this question from the “Patterns and Characteristics of Codependence”?

“I attempt to convince others of what they ‘should’ think and how they ‘truly’ feel.”

Let it be known that for myself, I understand that I have no control over what someone else thinks and feels. Without their consent to dialogue, consider, and ultimately change their mind, I can do nothing to impact them or their views. The power is fully, 100%, with them. They own that realm utterly.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t invite them to dialogue, consider or change their views. Whether t
hey think they should or can or will—is not within my power. I don’t lose sleep over it. An invitation is not an attempt at coercion. Anyone can refuse—no threats or fear of reprisals. Anyone can turn the channel, not call, or not e-mail us. Anyone who interacts with us has, of their own free will, and under their own power and cognition, chosen to engage with us for whatever reason of their own. And whatever they get out of it, they own it. Whatever they feel about it, they own that as well. If someone is offended, it’s not because of something I’ve said, it’s because they maintain such fragile ego models that even words manage to make them feel threatened. Whatever, they express or send to us—they own it. None of that belongs to anyone at AE. It’s completely the sender’s.

Own yourself. Empower yourself. Live your life and don’t lose out by thinking you have anything less than total control of what you put into it—mentally and physically. Whatever you have, you can give—100%—if you choose. Or you can be a walking, talking reaction—wandering through your life feeling powerless and victimized, waiting for your sign from your partner, environment or god model, before you’ll dare to make your next move. But I’m not telling you what you “should” do. I’m just inviting you to expand your perspective to consider what you “could” do. The power is only ever yours, whether you use it or convince yourself you can give it away.

Bridging the Gap

This week, when I stopped at the library, I checked out Psychology and Religion by C. G. Jung. It is a short volume based on 1937 Terry Lectures presented at Yale.

I am nearly at the end of the book, and I am compelled to write about my impressions. It has provided me one of the most profound religious epiphanies, since the day I recognized god was a metaphor.

Jung has offered me a new perspective on an old mystery. While I can see in my past observations on religion that I have touched on similar ideas, I believe that my own observations only rippled across the surface, while Jung has gone down to fathoms I never imagined.

If I had to sum up Psychology and Religion, I would say that it is a message of bridging the gap between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Jung’s observations and speculations in this text, to a large degree, have since been fleshed out in neuroscientific research in a way that left me feeling that Jung’s intuitions were nearly prophetic.

At a time when Jung had to honestly write, “the unconscious mind [was] a mere assumption for the sake of convenience,” he was still comfortable assuming its existence.

Jung was unable to understand “who” was producing dreams, if not an unconscious aspect of human psyche. Dreams flow from our heads in unconscious states, with stories and images that are sometimes incredibly foreign to our conscious life. Physics is defied. We are surprised by plot changes. Dreams appear to be consciously observed content from something in our heads that is not consciously controlled or initiated. Something that is “me”—but that cannot be “me,” if “I” am conscious ego.

Jung found it beneficial to differentiate the conscious “me” (ego) from the subconscious entity for the purposes not only of examination, but also in working with his patients on a practical level. He used the term “self” to described the bundled package of all mind—conscious or otherwise. He used “I,” and variants of “I,” to represent ego. The subconscious aspects, then, are not what I consider to be “me,” but are still part of my “self,” according to Jung.

He admitted openly he had no idea what the subconscious was, exactly why it existed, or how it worked. “In reality I am totally unconscious of—in other words, I do not know at all—where [a voice in a dream] originates. I am not only incapable of producing the phenomena at will but I am also unable to anticipate the mental contents of [the voice]. Under such conditions it would be presumptuous to call the factor which produces the voice my mind…the fact that you perceive the voice in your dream proves nothing at all, for you can also hear the noises in the street, which you would not explain as your own.

“There is only one condition under which you might legitimately call the voice your own, namely, when you assume your conscious personality to be a part of a whole or to be a smaller circle contained in a bigger one.”

Jung’s assumption then was “human personality consists of two things: first, of consciousness and whatever this covers, and second, of an indefinitely large hinterland of unconscious psyche.” The problem for Jung was that he had no method to define the second aspect—or even to support its existence beyond his interpretations of his indirect observations. In Jung’s mind, there were only two choices: Dreams come from some unconscious aspect of our own minds, or they are put into our heads from an external source (such as the car noise). Since the human brain is a known mechanism for producing conscious thoughts and images in our heads, Jung saw no reason to look further for a source of the unconscious messages. To Jung, it was a safe assumption that whether we were aware of it or not, part of our self seemed capable of generating mental function that was, in an abstract way, detectible to our conscious minds.

Jung also expresses a keen awareness of what was known and what was conjecture. “If asked I shall surely stand by my convictions which do not go further than what I consider to be my actual knowledge. I am convinced of what I know. Everything else is hypothesis and beyond that I can leave a lot of things to the Unknown. They do not bother me. But they would begin to bother me, I am sure, if I felt that I ought to know something about them.” The context of this quote is in a discussion about religion, and specifically this passage follows directly a note dealing with religiously minded patients.

How familiar is this? How often do online apologists express, “If god didn’t make the world—then how did it get here? You don’t know!” To grasp tightly to a myth, no matter how true or untrue, how verified or unverified—is better than not knowing to these individuals. Religion presses us, then, to be uncomfortable with not knowing—uncomfortable to the point of embracing any explanation, no matter how fantastic.

If a patient had deep religious beliefs, Jung indicated he would not challenge them. He would work as a professional psychologist within the world constructed by the patient’s mind. In fact, he expresses that it is futile to attempt to do otherwise. “As long as such a defense works I shall not break it down, since I know that there must be powerful reasons why the patient has to think in such a narrow circle.”

I have admired the work inspired by Jung for some time. But I have also heard on many occasions that he was involved in a lot of woo. In reading this book, I find myself pleasantly surprised, then, by passages like this, “It would be a regrettable mistake if anybody should understand my observations to be a kind of proof of the existence of God. They prove only the existence of an archetypal image of the Deity, which to my mind is the most we can assert psychologically about God.” In other words, as far as Jung can tell, god exists as an idea.

Jung spends a considerable amount of real estate in the book to cover symbolic aspects of the number four in religious contexts. This ties into a particular case study he uses to illustrate many of his points. At first, I was completely dubious of this discussion. His client dreams of religious imagery that ties into the number four quite often. Jung provides examples of how the number four is used in the religion of the patient, who was raised Catholic, but who would have no more knowledge of ancient church writings than any layperson. Why would some Christian script from a millennia ago, talking about four, be significant? But, after reading further, I began to recognize that Jung is only looking to see if symbols, similar to those his patient is producing, subconsciously in a religious context, have been recorded by others with a similar religious context.

This ties into Jung’s idea of a Collective Unconscious, also known as the Objective Psyche. Jung differentiated between a personal unconscious and a collective unconscious. There are some experiences that impact us that are directly connected to the greater human experience. There are other experiences that impact us that are unique to us as individuals. When it comes to people, part of us is uniquely individual, and part of us is common to all humans. This is as true of human beings physically as it is mentally. Collective unconscious is that part of the unconscious mind that results from simply being a human animal, and not from individual, subjective experience or interpretation. There have been misguided attempts to promote this idea as some sort of “woo.” But it does not, for example, embody the idea that I can “remember” experiences of my great-great-grandmother. It means only that certain psychological aspects of my being are the result of my inescapable human aspects. And I necessarily share those aspects with other humans.

This is why Jung felt a need to examine antiquity to see if other Catholics shared the religious symbo
lism his patient’s subconscious mind was repeatedly thrusting into his dreams. Because Catholics share the same symbolic history in the context of similar religious upbringing, perhaps deciphering these symbols in the context of the patient’s familiar religion would help to flesh out whatever the subconscious was trying to relate to the conscious mind in the patient’s dreams.

Like Freud, Jung agreed that repression results in neurotic manifestations in the patient’s conscious existence. But he also felt that the unconscious/conscious divide exists for a reason. He held to a very evolutionary standpoint that because the divide exists, it must serve a purpose. And if there is benefit to evolving with an unconscious mind, then it would be “normal for a man to resist…the unconscious with all those tendencies and contents hitherto excluded from conscious life. They were excluded for a number of real and apparent reasons. Some are suppressed and some are repressed.” In other words, if the unconscious mind serves us, it makes sense that we would have an intuitive aversion to bringing it to our conscious awareness.

To Jung, our unconscious impulses, if left unchecked by the conscious ego, yield unhappy results. He uses mob mentality as an example of unsuppressed impulsive action and why it can be dangerous. All of us, he points out, to some degree suppress unconscious impulses that arise. This ties in with neuroscience (especially Crick and Koch), which has since illustrated that at least one function of conscious mind is to evaluate an act upon (or refuse to act upon) unconscious impulses that arise in a very mysterious fashion.

Suppression, Jung defines as a healthy, conscious inhibitor—a choice to not express an impulse. Repression, on the other hand is an unconscious or semi-conscious inhibition of an impulse. Jung expressed that from what he could tell, the conscious mind was a smaller and subordinate part of the greater mind, which again aligns with modern neuroscience. The unconscious mind initiates action, the conscious mind evaluates action. It is the gateway, the checkpoint, where impulses are either allowed to manifest or are suppressed. To Jung, a repressed impulse cannot be understood on a conscious level, because it is not impeded on any fully conscious level.

Phobia was one example that came to my own mind immediately. I have seen people both paralyzed with fear and white knuckled with fear of the most mundane situations and objects. When I’ve asked what exactly they are afraid of, the responses I get are not rational. I’m sure they honestly express their immediate feelings; but they do not adequately explain the reaction I am witnessing. The person, himself or herself, does not consciously understand why they have been overtaken with ridiculous levels of fear due only to their proximity to an extremely mundane situation or object. And yet, their unconscious mind is generating in their conscious mind overwhelming fear. Because it is not understood, it becomes difficult for the individual to rationalize the situation. So, there is no means to control the reaction. Their sense, literally, breaks down, and they become a mere vessel of full-bore fear in the face of what most of us consider to be nothing at all.

So, it does make sense that the less we understand our subjugation of our unconscious impulses, the worse their impact—the rebellion of the subconscious impulse, if I can personify it—will be to our conscious experience.

In Jung’s opinion, the Catholic religion, despite it’s reputation with Hell, was good at alleviating unconscious tension. The church was a supreme authority between man and god—which symbolizes the unconscious mind. As a Catholic, I could alleviate my plagued conscience at any time, merely by going to my local church and engaging in the ritual of confession. The church, as the ultimate authority on all things spiritual, reliably assured me that whatever I had done, I was now forgiven and all was absolved. With the rise of Protestantism, Jung was concerned that removing that authority would leave people with a doubt regarding their absolution—and a subsequent rise in neurotic manifestations. As a Protestant, there is no symbol (no priest) to tell me that I have been cured of my sin. Jung points out that with the fall of the church authority, we should expect that Protestants would be left foundering on their own—accounting for the myriad Protestant denominations. Since god is a symbol, a metaphor, of the human mind, spawned from the collective unconscious, filtered through the personal unconscious and then submitted to the conscious mind for interpretation, how could humans produce an unfractured model, without a strong central authority, such as the Catholic Church had provided from potentially as far back as the birth of the Christian religion?

Christianity, itself, Jung asserted, had broken out of a traditional religious symbolism that relied heavily on the number four. Whether there is any merit to his evaluation of the trinity as an incomplete symbol for what should be a four-part god, I cannot say. But his conclusions, whether his methods were valid in this regard or not, were astonishingly on target.

After leaving the church, I recall reading Eastern religious philosophy where the concept of god as being representative of a complete whole contrasted sharply with my Christian upbringing. In the East, there is a concept of a unity, a one complete symbol that encompasses everything. “All things are one thing” would be perhaps a good way to put it. In some Asian languages, there is the idea of “the Universe of 10,000 things,” but also the universe as a single, whole, complete unit. In Christianity, we see a divide of opposing natures. Heaven and Earth, Good and Evil, Spirit and Flesh, Male and Female. According to the Eastern views, this is unnecessarily divisive and not generally a healthy perspective. For a thing to be complete, it must encompass Heaven AND Earth, Good AND Evil, Spirit AND Flesh, Male AND Female.

In Christianity, god is the god of good. And evil is the domain outside of god’s context. Likewise, god appears to lack a feminine presence. Christianity is replete with concepts of an incomplete, and according to Jung, therefore inadequate, god symbol. Jung believed this was significant because god is a symbol meant to represent the human being’s concept of self. And clearly there are some key elements of self expunged from the Christian god symbol. If my conscious model violates my unconscious model, then I am, in effect, denying aspects of my self in a repressive, rather than suppressive way. And, Jung observed, this will create consciously manifesting problems for individuals.

The church, according to Jung’s model, has made open attempts to plug the holes in the incompleteness of their god symbol. “The Devil” has been incorporated as the embodiment of that which is not accounted for by the Christian god—those aspects of the self that are negatively interpreted by the religion. And Mary was at once held up to produce a symbol to embody the feminine aspect. Likewise, the Holy Spirit has been related to a feminine presence in the Gnostic texts. What is missing in the model should be assumed to be accounted for somewhere in the context of the greater set of symbols, according to Jung. And, whether via accuracy or accident, the model works.

According to Jung, it is dangerous for a person to reject a natural part of his or her own being. It is one thing to apply appropriate suppression of inappropriate impulses. But to foster self-loathing of those impulses is to encourage unhealthy repression and denial. Where religion encourages this, it necessarily causes harm to the self, or even the “soul” as Jung also referred to it (due to the religious context of this work).

The unconscious impulses that arise consciously in all of us contain some unflattering data about ourselves on occasion. The more comfortable with
and aware of this we are, the better for our mental health. The more we torture ourselves for being what and who were are, the worse off we become. “Freud has discovered repression as one of the main mechanisms in the making of neurosis…Suppression may cause worry, conflict and suffering, but never causes a neurosis of one of the usual patterns.” Jung explains why. “If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is steadily subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. It is, moreover, liable to burst forth in a moment of unawareness. At all events, it forms an unconscious snag, blocking the most well-meaning attempts.” Further in talking about the unconscious negatively held personality aspects (“the shadow”), Jung says, “…if such a case wants to be cured it is necessary to find a way in which man’s conscious personality and his shadow can live together.”

In other words, only by understanding and accepting the things I dislike about myself, can I hope to incorporate them into my life in an adequately controlled fashion.

Because the subconscious mind relates to the conscious mind in a highly symbolic and indirect fashion (mysteriously generated impulses we may or may not understand and surreal dreams that speak to us in our sleep), it is natural for people to be mystified, fearful and in awe. God as a symbol for the mental self, then, makes perfect sense. Ideas come to us, as if from some external source. “We,” the ego, did not generate them—and yet, there they are—as if from some other personage. In fact, Jung actually suggests that at times it might be useful to model the subconscious as a separate personality, in order to examine it as separate from the ego. Is it any wonder so many people would become confused and project it into their conscious reality as a separate personality?

Perhaps the most interesting assessment Jung offers is the idea of religion as a purified form of the unconscious symbols of the self, where myriad people over great spans of time have added to the menagerie of symbols to produce a set of current symbols that relate to the individual’s unconscious model of self in a far more powerful way than any one human’s subconscious imagery ever could. In other words, it makes sense that religion will “speak to us” and ring true, the more it accurately models the self. Think about humanity on the whole, and consider the impact this system of symbols will have on the psyche of the average Joe on the street. It has become so convincing an expression of “truth” to such a great number of average citizens, purely because it has grown into such a perfect set of symbols that model the self. It confuses many into accepting that it represents a reality that can be, or even should be, consciously understood using the rules of conscious logic. (And anyone who has dialogued with a fundamentalist Christian apologist will understand how badly that endeavor must fail.)

Bridging the gap, attempting to allow the conscious and unconscious mind to meet halfway and come to some amicable understanding, is an understandable endeavor. Meditation, employed in many cultures, is an attempt to bring the conscious mind “down” to subconscious levels. Lucid Dreaming attempts the same, as, historically, has mystic and religious hallucinogenic drug use. Fasting, going without sleep, stressing the body in order to bring the unconscious impulses to light during a conscious context, is familiar to many cultures—the religious experience or the mystic vision. Modern religion, like art, is an attempt to bring the subconscious to the realm of the conscious.

The problem is that the conscious mind has not completely cracked the code of subconscious language. We recognize many of the symbols, but we can’t seem to agree on exactly what they mean or represent. They appear to be, to some degree, open to subjective interpretation. Certainly that is the nature of symbols in general. But where we have an utterly amorphous symbol, like “god”—totally without a referent in reality—that represents a practically unknown mechanism, like the subconscious mind—how can we hope to apply any objective interpretation? All interpretations would spawn from the individual’s understanding of his or her own subconscious impulses—some of which would be collective, others of which must be personal. Endowed with broad appeal and left to subjective interpretation—it has what it takes to endure for as long as the subconscious mind remains shrouded in mystery. If Jung’s interpretations and predictions apply, I would wager that if the human unconscious is ever fully understood and explained, the Christian god will go the way of the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods.

As Jung declares, “Why have the antique gods lost their prestige and their effect upon human souls? It was because the Olympic gods had served their time and a new mystery began: God became man.”

But, what can we do if we are in the middle of a larger culture that subscribes to a religious model that fails to adequately and fully represent the “self” and that is accepted as literal truth rather than understood as symbol? Speaking of addressing any social dilemma, Jung points out “collectives are mere accumulations of individuals, their problems are also accumulations of individual problems…they are only solved by a general change of attitude. And the change does not begin with propaganda and mass meetings, or with violence. It begins with a change in individuals. It will continue as a transformation of their personal likes and dislikes, of their outlook on life and of their values, and only the accumulation of such individual changes will produce a collective solution.” The best way I know to accomplish this is to let people know you are an atheist. It’s hard to be prejudiced against atheists when your friend, son, wife, mother, coworker, is an atheist, and someone you know and like. As far as I know this is the best way to affect individual assessments.

I still have a few more pages yet to read. But I’ll wrap up for now with the quote that spawned this article. The context is in relating the experience of a patient finding resolution to a neurotic situation. Jung describes this as a “religious experience” or “conversion”—but means only positively life-altering, not “religious” in the sense of supernatural beliefs:

“If you sum up what people tell you about their experience, you can formulate it about in this way: They came to themselves, they could accept themselves, they were able to become reconciled to themselves and by this they were also reconciled to adverse circumstances and events. This is much like what was formerly expressed by saying: He has made his peace with God, he has sacrificed his own will, he has submitted himself to the will of God.”

If god is the modern symbol of the whole of man—the self, in the language of the subconscious—making peace with god and subjecting oneself to god’s will translates directly into making peace with oneself and coming to regard oneself as whole by accepting all aspects of one’s personality without self-loathing, repression, or denial.

At this point, I’m seriously considering rereading the New Testament replacing “god” with “self” to see what sorts of new meanings the text takes on. Just in Jung’s small example of the use of “god’s will,” I see entirely new, and even useful insight.

Addendum: Of course, as I wrapped the final pages, I found a provocative quote: “The philosophy of the Upanishads corresponds to a psychology that long ago recognized the relativity of the gods. This is not to be confounded with such a stupid error as atheism.” I reminded myself this was written in the 1930s, and that I have to consider the political climate and the meani
ng of “atheist” at the time Jung was presenting. In reading further, I was somewhat confounded because it is obvious to me that, judging solely from the context of this book, Jung is as much an atheist as any atheist I’ve ever met. He no more puts forward a literal god being than I would. And his statement appears to be aimed at a despiritualization that he fears will have negative effects on society. That while some individuals can do well without religious imagery, many will not stand as well on their own merits. I have no idea whether or not that prediction would bear up.

I must recognize, however, that in Jung’s view, when a patient is faced with a choice of the “devil and the deep sea,” (his religion or his neurosis), “the devil is at least somewhat heroic, but the sea is spiritual death. The well-meaning rationalist will point out that…I replace an honest neurosis by the cheat of a religious belief…I must point out that there is no question of belief, but of experience…Is there, as a matter of fact, any better truth about ultimate things than the one that helps you to live?…The thing that cures the neurosis must be as convincing as the neurosis…It must be a very real illusion…But what is the difference between a real illusion and a healing religious experience? It is merely a difference in words.”

Whatever brand of atheism Jung considered as “stupid error,” he is clearly espousing what today, to any literalist or fundamentalist Christian, would be clear, inarguably atheistic views.