The Meaning of Anxiety and Depression
From the Jungian point of view, psychological suffering is a signal that something in us needs some attention, and certain states of anxiety and depression are no exceptions. Anxiety and depression are symptoms of an underlying problem in your psyche and not the problems in and of themselves. They are a signal that your life is out of balance. Whether it’s through Jungian analysis, counseling, or psych-education, our goal is to discover the source of that imbalance.
When I speak about these things, I do so from the depths of my own life experiences. I don’t say anything just because Jung said it. Never would I encourage anyone to go down a path that I had not traveled myself.
I have learned more about myself in times of abject confusion and despair than from any others. It took me a while to understand my psychological pain from this perspective, but when I finally got it, it changed the way I saw my anxiety and depression.
If we can face our suffering consciously, rather than identifying with it, then we have an opportunity to grow from it, both psychologically and spiritually. This is what Jung meant by the above quote: we must be willing to experience legitimate suffering.
Anxiety, Depression, and Legitimate Suffering
Now, this of course begs the question, “What is legitimate suffering?” It goes something like this. If you say that you suffer from anxiety or depression and leave it at that, then you are not legitimately suffering. No doubt that you are suffering, but not from your anxiety or depression. Those are symptoms – reactions from within to a psychic illness, much like a fever is a reaction to a physical illness. And also like fever, symptoms of anxiety and depression are attempts at psychic healing.
In order to legitimately suffer, you must ask, “from where does this anxiety and depression come? Why does it come? To what purpose does it happen?” These are very deep questions and in order to find the answers, you have to dig deep – and I mean really deep. For example, if you experienced a traumatic childhood, this is only this surface of your suffering. Remember that other question Jung asked: Who am I that all this should happen to me?
When you can answer those questions, then you know from what you are truly suffering. And then from there, you must endure it. When you can do this, you will eventually tap the springs of your inner resources of healing. In short, those inner resources spring from what Jung called the archetypes.
In a letter to Vera von Lier-Schmidt Ernsthausen, 25 April 1952, Jung wrote:
I have observed, for example, that as a rule when “archetypal” contents arise spontaneously in dreams, etc., numinous and healing effects emanate from them. These are primordial psychic experiences that very often reopen a patient’s access to religious truths that have been blocked. I have also had this experience myself. . . .
Up to this point, I have talked about the meaning and purpose of anxiety and depression. Now, let’s take a look at how these mindstates can emerge.
Anxiety and Depression from the 13th Century Perspective
The 13th century poet Rumi wrote a beautiful poem called the Guest House that describes exactly what I mean:
This human being is a guest-house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Anxiety and Depression: Unwanted Guests or Heralds for Change?
Anxiety attacks and depression can come out of nowhere. One day we are fine and the next we are filled with angst and despair. There are mornings when any of us can awaken to one of Rumi’s new arrivals: it is a dark thought, a meanness, and a malice. The same visitors show up again and again in our guest houses. We can get to know them because of the nature of their qualities. By that, I mean that certain visitors – hidden aspects of our personality – have a feeling-tone that we can recognize as a kind of invader to our overall sense of well-being.
We are talking about waking up with or suddenly feeling a sense of dread, fear, worry, or some other kind of shift in our overall mood. The key is to take really take notice of it and try not to act from that mood. The more we do this, the better attuned we become to those subtle (and not subtle) shifts in our minds and bodies and the less we identify with them. Instead, we try to get to the root of the problem.
Anxiety and Depression from the Jungian Perspective of Complexes
This kind of feeling-toned guest is called a complex. The word complex is one that we throw around lightly in conversation. But a complex is anything but “light”. Complexes are often heavy and dark. Not taking them seriously leaves our ego permeable to a full-on invasion which can drag us into prolonged states of discontent or disorientation, i.e. prolonged states of misidentification with the mind’s manifestations.
Who are these unannounced, psychic visitors? From where do they come?
A lot of things can trigger a complex. For example, something simple such as a look someone gives you or an unassuming comment someone makes. They can also be triggered by something deeper like jealousy and insecurity.
According to Jung, a complex has a will of its own. The word Jung used to describe this feature of complexes was autonomous. Having autonomy means that complexes possess enough psychic energy to change our normal perspective on life, and as such, they act upon us like any other object in the world. The “beyond” from which they come is the Unconscious.
The Autonomy of Complexes
In Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Jung writes:
I recognize that there is some psychic factor active in me which eludes my conscious will in the most incredible manner. It can put extraordinary ideas into my head, induce in me into unwanted and unwelcome moods and emotions, lead me to astonishing actions…C.G. JungUnderstanding that complexes possess this kind of autonomy is one of the keys to learning how to successfully work with them. That knowledge helped me to distinguish them from me. When a complex overpowers us, we see the world through a very different lens. Something in which we normally trust becomes suspect, or, we may become particularly pessimistic, dark, cocky, or cynical. Complexes also have the power to distort our faces, as well as change the tone of our voice, both the voice we use with others and, especially, the one we use in our internal dialogue.
Identifying this other in ourselves is the first step in breaking ourselves free of complex-behavior. When we identify with the moods or thoughts associated with the complex, we are unconsciously identified with the complex. We believe our distorted perspectives about the world, about others, and about ourselves.
Again from Jung:
…identification with an autonomous complex is the essential reason why it is so difficult to understand and describe the problem… We always start with the naïve assumption that we are masters in our own house. Hence we must first accustom ourselves to the thought that, in our intimate psychic life … we live in a kind of house, which has doors and windows to the world, but that, although the objects of this world act upon us, they do not belong to us.Two Essays in Analytical Psychology
Self-Help: Working with States of Anxiety and Depression
How can we greet these moods at the door of our awareness and welcome them? How can such seemingly dark guests be approached as Guides who can clear us out for some new delight?
One should cultivate the art of conversation with oneself … without regard to our rational criticism. So long as the affect [the mood] is speaking, criticism must be withheld… Any humbug is of course quite useless.C.G. JungThe internal dialogue is an opportunity to witness some of our complexes at work. Complexes are the ones playing the character of the “the other”.
I am not talking here about the Gestalt approach of talking to a pillow. This kind of internal dialogue reaches much deeper than does having a conversation with a pillow. Imagery for this kind of dialogue – indeed the dialogue itself! – should arise spontaneously. To use something like a pillow for this kind of work doesn’t allow the image to form out of its own nature. And by that I mean that all of our psychic process and moods will express themselves in image form. This is the material of our dreams.
Now are approaching one of the reasons why learning to distinguish various mindstates and dimensions is important – we need to use them for our inner work. The stronger we become in establishing ourselves in stillness, the stronger the stimulus barrier around our ego. We can then allow our visitor to speak, as Jung says above. Very often it is trying to tell us something about ourselves of which we are unaware. In this conversation, stillness and movement interact – we are not trying to turn off the mood. We are trying to sink into it. This idea of the interaction of stillness and movement are further described in my post on Meditation for Psychological Transformation.
Dream Interpretation: Anxiety and Depression
Complexes spontaneously arise in image-form in our dreams. They can take on any number of manifestations like apartment or shopping complexes, intricate structures like mazes or labyrinths, as well as strange people coming into our home and taking over. How we respond to these images in the dream sheds light on where we stand in relationship to our complexes. Are we overpowered or empowered? If we are empowered, what gave us that energy? Was it a character in the dream that embodied an aspect of courage that we need to assimilate? In like manner, if we are disempowered, then we can be sure that that the dream is trying to bring this to our awareness. Here, at the very least, we can be grateful that we have been given a picture of a psychic situation with which we are unconsciously identified.
In sum, becoming aware of our dreams as Guides from beyond is one of the ways in which we can welcome our unannounced guests. Furthermore, we can entertain them through an active, non-judgmental, inner dialogue approached as a sort of meditation or reflection. We can then utilize the energy of our dark moods to draw us into the inner dialogue, where once again we find that the answers we seek are within us.