Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Some Facets of Depth Psychology

Originally posted on March 14, 2014

Depth psychology is my term for the complex of approaches that attend to the way that unconscious processes are a significant determinant in human behavior.  In the 20th century, Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalysis was the most prominent exemplar, even early in that century Jung and Adler broke with Freud and pursued their visions—equally partaking of the fundamental idea that much goes on of which we are not aware. But these were mainly oriented to the individual rather than the way the individual expresses the social environment and vice versa. I’ve written about this inter-penetration under the heading, “social depth psychology.”

The early pioneers didn’t even have the tools for accessing all that was there. As an analogy, I am reminded of the emergence of microbiology in the mid-19th century. The refined microscope revealed certain kinds of germs, but was not able to pick up other types (e.g., viruses, rickettsia) that are not visible with that tool. New tools have revealed much more!

In that sense, Freud and Jung and many others deserve credit for opening doors, but having entered this vast field, the point is that they not only didn’t fully explain all that was there, but they often ignored or didn’t even bother wondering about all that was there. This essay will note at least eight other more recently explored perspectives. So this essay names a number of aspects of depth psychology that should also be considered.

First, there is the phenomenon of illusion, the tendency to think along lines that follow our habits and interests as well as fairly basic neural patterns. No ulterior deep motives are needed. Even if people could be exposed to years of depth analysis as young people, they would still be prone to slipping into these illusions. Research into critical thinking, semantics, and the processes of illusion have produced hundreds of books that speak to these patterns of self-deception and rhetoric.

Second—and some of these categories overlap—there’s been a growing awareness of the impact of relationships, groups, groupthink, the influence of others, wanting to appear attractive and smart, etc.—all of which are for the most part unconscious. Saying it another way, the mind is an exquisitely social organ, highly responsive to subtle cues that relate to status, rank, numbers of other people, and nonverbal communications. Social psychology, in other words, needs to be recognized as overlapping with depth psychology. I call this arena “social depth psychology.”

Third, related to the last item only in a more general way, people pick up on the cultural worldview. We value what others value and ignore, dismiss, trivialize what “everyone knows” deserves such “marginalization.” For example, play was only for kids in the early 20th century and before, but gradually became re-cognized as a basis for playful exploration, and that in turn was a basis for creativity and innovation—most relevant in the 21st century!

Cultural influences are coming more into consciousness also because of improvements in transportation, publishing, communications, etc.,  the postmodern world is becoming far more complex and inter-cultural. As a result, we in turn are becoming more sharply aware of the relativity of many beliefs.

In addition, as liberty and other values become more widely accepted, there has been a rise in human expectations among women and various minorities, previously almost ignored or relegated to stereotyped roles (e.g., races, cultures, different sexual orientations, gender identifications, different abilities, etc.).

There’s also an expectation of more psychological awareness from other adults, from managers, parents, teachers. Gross ignorance and cruelty is less forgivable. What used to evoke murmurs of “what a jerk!” among subordinates now can get someone behaving badly fired.

Other Realms

A fourth expansion of psychology is into spirituality and religion. This realm, relegated to its own domain apart from psychology, is being literally re-cognized, re-thought, as of course deserving psychological analysis. It was taboo to question spirituality from an atheistic psychoanalytic bias, but more people are realizing that spirituality and religion are so prevalent that any comprehensive theory must include consideration of the powers of this aspect of human experience.

All this includes transpersonal psychology, the power of myth, and a deeper philosophy of life— much of which is unconscious, part of depth psychology.

A fifth dimension involves a sharper recognition of the need to take into account differences in temperament, ability and interest. There are scores of different scales here and it is not necessary to enumerate them. The point is that trying to assess temperament can be as shallow as astrology or as deep as Jungian work on psychological types.

The main point to make here is that many people have been thinking about such differences and their implications, and this should definitely affect any theorizing about psychology and sociology. Different types of people have not only different reaction patterns, but also different underlying dynamics.

A sixth dimension of people relating to psychotherapy is the socially constructed nature of life challenges. Right now it’s part of the “sick” role, covered in part by “health insurance,” a spin-off of the dominance of not just psychoanalysis, but the way it was coopted by the field of medicine in the USA in the 1930s. The problem is that although there is a blurry middle area, a great deal of why people sought analysis and psychotherapy had nothing to do with illness and everything to do with ordinary challenges of living in an era of rising expectations.

That is to say, much of what was called “neurosis” is no more an illness than “drapetomania” —a mid-19th century term coined to “medicalize” (and thereby validate the “abnormality” of) slaves who wanted to escape from slavery! Saying it another way, the implication is that if one were well-analyzed one would be free from neurosis. This is patently untrue, and psychoanalysts are certainly no testimonial for that field’s endeavors. Saying it another way, many conditions associated with neurosis are simply exaggerations of cultural tendencies and rules, not adequately tempered by not taking these rules too seriously..

A seventh dimension is the balance of illness and health, negative tendencies and positive tendencies. The whole field of “positive psychology” has been inadequately appreciated. It’s a corrective to the excessive focus on the negative, or on viewing quirks with excessive negativity. Often what is needed to correct a negative problem is to cultivate the capacity to enjoy more positive skills, resilience, counter-measures.

An eighth dimension of healing is to approach the problem through the avenues of doing rather than talking-about. Drama, the arts, anything that involves people in experiencing themselves as the agents of their own change increases the healing process. Action approaches, constructive work, feeling oneself as active, perhaps even a degree of playfulness, all adds to the positive balance alluded to in the previous paragraph.

Related to this, certain anxieties and troubles are absolutely impossible to work out rationally, existential challenges, such as the fear of death. On the other hand, people have been and are in fact coming to terms with death, hardship, loss, and so forth, not through rational talk, but through any of the arts, poetry, not having to make sense of the experience, but finding that others can empathize and validate that it doesn’t make sense. No one else can explain such things. (If you don’t believe me, imagine that you’ve been found to have a life-threatening disease and then dare to imagine further how hollow all possible things are that other offer as support—other than, Yikes!)


Psychodynamic psychology involves many avenues, and trying reduce the process to only a few of these is foolish. Admittedly we’ve done more work on some angles than others, but that’s no reason to blind ourselves to the relevance of these other facets of a truly incredibly complex problem. In medicine, new sources of disease are frequently raised, metabolic, genetic, and so forth. It’s the way the sciences advance, differentiating as it grows.

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