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The Psychotherapist’s Myths, Dreams, and Realities by Richard G. Erskine (Part 1)

This keynote speech from the Second World Congress for Psychotherapy begins with Carl Jung’s definition of myth as a vivid description of emotional experience and explores psychotherapists’ personal myths as representing their motivation to be involved in the profession. The concept of dreams provides a metaphor for understanding diverse theories and appreciating the autobiographical nature of theory. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is used to contrast Sigmund Freud’s drive theory with a relational perspective of psychotherapy that includes a respectful inquiry into the client’s phenomenological experience, history, system of coping and vulnerability. The realities of therapy call for a therapeutic involvement that is inter-subjective: a therapy that is centered on the client’s experience while also allowing for the therapist’s use of many personal attributes.


The Psychotherapist’s Myths, Dreams and Realities

When Professor Dr. Alfred Pritz asked that I give this keynote address on the theme, “Myths, Dreams and Realities”, for the 2nd World Congress of Psychotherapy, I was reminded of Carl Jung’s (1961) autobiography Memories, Dreams and Reflections. I re-read Jung’s account of his life wherein he endeavors to tell what he calls his “personal myth” (p.3). A personal myth is like an impressionistic painting: not as a camera would take a photograph, not an accurate representation of truth, but rather as a vivid description of emotional experience. Jung says, “The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my personal truth” (p. 3). It is important to “tell my personal myth,” not the accuracy of the facts. (p.3). Myth reflects a person’s phenomenological view and individual subjective expression of life, colored by affect and various developmental perspectives. It’s the story, as we live it inside our own minds, not necessarily a factual story that can be verified by someone else. Such a personal or phenomenological experience of life can only be expressed by stories. The personal myth is the stories that we tell, either to ourselves or to others. As Jung went on to say in his autobiography, “it is the interior happening”(p. 3). Our personal myth is composed of existential meaning making, our reactions, our conclusions, and our decisions that each of us make along the path of life (Erskine & Moursund, 1997).

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The Psychotherapist's Myth

Why are we psychotherapists? What subjective story do we tell ourselves about why we entered this profession? In my ongoing case consultation groups, these questions are periodically the focus of supervision. Particularly in the mid-phase of a supervisory process, we examine the psychotherapist’s unconscious motivation for being in the profession and/or for taking a particular therapeutic stance. It is important that we question why we specialize in certain “types” of clients and avoid clients with other characteristics or, why we favor a particular theory or school of psychotherapy. Sometimes I discover in the mature therapist with whom I am talking, a little boy’s or girl’s commitment to treating a depressed mother, saving an alcoholic father, or repairing his or her parent’s marriage. These motivations are often unaware because the childhood decisions have been lost to awareness: they have become unconscious. Yet these desperate childhood attempts to make an impact on early family life often affect how the therapist practices psychotherapy years later.


Dr. James Chu, President of the International Society of the Study of Dissociation, recently wrote about his naïveté entering into the profession. He said, “I felt that if I could only be good enough for my patients through exercising kind and thoughtful care, then they would respond with positive growth in healing” (p. 7, 1997). A wonderful ideal! And then he went on to talk about his clients with dissociative identity disorder and how some of them got even more fragmented with his kind, thoughtful and caring therapy; how some of them got angry and even vengeful because of the treatment he provided. His personal myth collided with the reality of what he faced with some of his patients.

Each of us is attracted to and remains in this profession based on our personal story. Sigmund Freud, in 1927, wrote about what propelled him as a young man. “In my youth I felt an overpowering need to understand something, something of the realities of the world in which we live and perhaps even to contribute something to their solution (Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture). Certainly many have benefited from his discovery of these mysteries.

Myths are like metaphors. They provide an expressive communication that emphasizes our emotional and developmental perspectives. Personal myths are what make each and every one of us unique. Personal myths are the basis of the world’s great literature, of poetry and of theatre. Personal myths are also the basis for psychotherapy theory. In telling our personal myths - our own story, we are continually revealing ourselves to ourselves, and if authentically expressed, we are revealing ourselves to others as well.


I would like to share a story – one of my personal myths:


When I was twelve years old, I would listen to a radio show on Sunday night called “Inner Sanctum”. The program usually featured scary, ghost stories or tales about creatures coming from other planets. One December night, prior to Christmas, the radio drama was about a twelve-year old boy (perhaps that’s why I identified with it), who had gone shopping to buy a Christmas present for his mother. He had a limited amount of money and he struggled to buy both a present for his mother and also to buy something for himself. He found something suitable for his mother and he felt lucky that he had money left over. He was pleased that he had extra money. He was looking in the store windows and saw a toy he wanted. However, the shops were closing, so he didn’t have an opportunity to spend the money. He planned on returning to the store after Christmas. It had started snowing. The snow was heavy and wet: the wind was increasing. He decided to ride the bus home, rather than endure the long cold walk. He went to the bus stop, which was crowded with people getting on the bus with all their Christmas presents. An old, homeless man stood at the bus stop asking each person to buy him a ticket so that he could sleep the night on the warm bus instead of being in the wet snow. Each of the adults refused to buy the old, homeless man a ticket. The little boy was perplexed. He hoped to use his remaining money to buy the cherished toy when the shop opened after Christmas. But, he also wanted someone to buy the old man a bus ticket. No one would help the homeless man. At the last moment the boy decided to buy the old man a ticket. The twelve-year-old boy got on the bus and made his way to a seat near the back. The old man was the last to get on, and when he walked down the aisle of the bus, he said in turn to each person, “bless you, bless you, and bless you”. When he got to the little boy, the old man looked him in the eye and said, “God is with you”. The homeless man proceeded to walk right through the steel structure of the bus and disappeared. The little boy was fascinated! And puzzled. A short ride later the bus passed a church that had a Christmas nativity display with baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds. When he arrived home, he ran in the house saying, “Mama, tell me, is Christ really that baby in the manger, like the one in front of the church at Christmas time? Or could he be an old man on the bus?” That story lingers in my mind and raises questions:


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