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The Psychology of Personal Growth

by Ira Progoff, Ph.D.*

In his article, Dr. Progoff explains how his theories of depth psychology can lead to personal growth, and demonstrates their implications for therapy. He then implemented these theories through the development of his Intensive Journal method, which is offered through a nationwide network of workshops under the auspices of Dialogue House Associates.

Although modern psychology began as a medical attempt to heal the sick personality, it is increasingly involved in developing techniques for drawing forth the creative capacity of man. One of the trends in psychology for the past decade has been to explore and emphasize the potentialities of human growth. There are some who now believe that this new perspective is more conducive to mental health than theories derived from the study of pathology. The resources latent in man's unconscious depths seem to have the capacity to heal as well as to create, and they open an inner awareness that brings with it a meaningful connection to life.

The new orientation in psychology has two main sources. One is the dissatisfaction of certain practitioners with the results of psychotherapy. The other is the great need of our time for guidance in the conduct of life and the hope that one day a science of psychology will be able to meet this need.

Though it has been stimulated from time to time by encouraging achievements, the task of helping the growth of personality seems to get bogged down at critical points. The essence of the difficulty is suggested in Freud's remark, in his study of Leonardo da Vinci, that the dynamics of creative activity are "psychoanalytically inaccessible to us." Some thinkers for whom Freud's insights were the starting point have concluded that, if psychoanalysis cannot gain access to man's creative depths, a different approach should be attempted; and it is the persistent probings of these men that have built the new orientation.

Within the field of psychology, the special branch that concerns itself with the relation between mental illness and the creative development of personality is depth psychology. That there is more to man than shows on the surface of his behavior has been known for centuries; it is recognized in the psychological disciplines of the ancient Chinese and the Hindus, as well as in the works of philosophers and novelists. Freud, however, interpreted the phenomena taking place below the surface of consciousness in terms of systemic concepts, which suggested definite methods of treatment. It was this structured approach that made it possible for depth psychology to become more than philosophy, the beginning of a promising science of man.

Whereas, for example, many cultures had recognized that there is a message in dreams -- had even maintained that "a dream not understood is like a letter unopened" -- Freud developed a full framework of analysis for dreams and other phenomena of the unconscious. It so happens that evidence has accumulated that other hypotheses may be more valid than Freud's where the study of dreams is concerned. But disagreement with this and other theories of his does not invalidate the foundation he built for a science of depth psychology, his demonstration that unconscious processes in the psyche are as real and as subject to law and to scientific principles of understanding as the processes of the body and other invisible processes in nature.

The Freudian system provided a primary set of working tools with which others could break new ground and carry depth psychology forward. Alfred Adler, C. G. Jung, and Otto Rank were the most creative investigators who proceeded from Freud's work, and, like him, each of them founded a special school of thought. Adler's was called individual psychology; Jung's, analytical psychology; and Rank's, relationship psychology. During the first decades of the century, each of these schools went its own way, diverging ever further from the others, but as their experience accumulated they seemed to have reached certain very similar conclusions.

The key conclusion which Adler, Jung, and Rank formed independently, on the basis of years of therapeutic practice, was the recognition that the majority of their neurotic patients had become emotionally ill because a potentiality for growth of one kind or another had been blocked and unable to express itself.

Each interpreted this observation in his characteristic way. Adler saw it in terms of the individual's need to experience a meaning in life; and he sought to replace the competitiveness of inferiority and superiority feelings with a sense of social connection. Jung saw it as a psychic imbalance created by the fact that traditional symbols have lost their authority, and he turned to the integrative power of deep dreams to provide new meanings for the individual. Otto Rank saw it as the failure of the creative will in man to break through the impediments of culture; to him, the neurotic part of modern man is, in principle, a frustrated artist.

This convergence of diverse approaches suggests that something fundamental in man has been observed; something so basic, in fact, that it leads to a reversal of the view with which depth psychology began. Freud's original theory was that the unconscious was composed primarily of wishes or memories which were so painful or undesirable that they were repressed from consciousness. The effect of such a conception was necessarily to emphasize the negative factors in personality -- what man cannot bear, what he cannot face. But the experience of Adler, Jung, Rank, and others indicated that neurosis occurs in the modern world not because of repressed fears but because something creative and meaningful is seeking unsuccessfully to express itself in the life of the individual. The frustration of potentiality is the root of neurosis. The implications of this view are large. Man is not a bundle of repressions but a bundle of possibilities, and the key to therapy lies in reactivating the process of growth.

One of the common ways in which modern persons subjectively experience neurosis is that their life energies are blocked; a useful metaphor is to compare the situation of the neurotic to a weak stream with a boulder in it, the flow of life energy being the equivalent of the stream. The traditional approach in psychoanalysis is to try to get rid of the boulder by breaking it up, "analyzing it out." Sometimes it is feasible to do this, although most psychoanalysts admit it is exceedingly difficult. But even if the analytical process is successful, even if the boulder is chipped into pebbles, the weak stream remains weak. Thus, it would seem that the crucial task is to gain access to the sources of the stream and find a means of enlarging it, of drawing enough water into it so that it becomes a river deep enough to rise over the boulder.

Modern civilization, with its emphasis on rationality and conformity has separated man from the dimension of depth in himself and has weakened his intuitive capacities. It is contact with these resources that needs now to be redeveloped. At the Institute for Research in Depth Psychology at Drew University, we are testing several approaches -- in the face-to-face dialogue relationship, in small groups, and in disciplines which the individual can follow when he is alone. We are working with ministers seeking a more dynamic religious awareness, with artists, and with persons engaged in other creative activities. I will try to indicate briefly the principles that are involved.

The reactivation of the natural process of growth is accomplished primarily by learning to participate more fully and harmoniously in the continuing flow of imagery which is the main content of the psychic processes. The term "imagery" as used here refers not only to visual imagery but to the flow of all kinds of nonconscious phenomena -- words, intimations perceived within dreams, and so on. From this perspective, the job of the psychologist is to draw the flow of the psyche onward, to generate an ever greater momentum of psychic activity and sensitivity. The feeling of an interior momentum is a feeling of meaningful life welling up within the individual. When the experience of it becomes concrete, so that the individual begins to experience the reality of this interior flow, he has achieved the essential contact and has gained access to the larger sources of the stream of life energy.

This is the context in which dreams become significant, especially those dreams that express the deeper-than-repressed level of the organic psyche. What is important, however, is not the analytical meaning of the dreams but the way in which the dreams are flowing, the rhythms in which they are moving, and the larger integrative process which they are carrying forward. My experience has often been that moments of crisis in the life of an individual stimulate the psyche to bring forth its important imagery and insights. It seems as though the whole person has been forced to engage in profound rethinking concerning his entire being. This is not a rational but an elemental, nonconscious process, which brings the past together in terms that are meaningful for the present situation, sets forth the problems and possibilities of the immediate moment of conflict, and depicts the tendencies of the future as these are inherent in the seed of the present. It becomes essential, then, that the individual learn to live in harmony with the cyclic rhythms of tension, deepening anxiety, break-through, and insight.

The insights come to consciousness in dreams and images which have the quality of the depths of the psyche from which they are drawn -- they are not literal, but symbolic. It becomes necessary, then, for this symbolism to be deciphered. Moreover, the new meaning is usually not to be found in a single dream, but in a series. A single dream may have considerable impact, but taken alone it could be misleading.

For the modern person brought up in a world of tangibles -- of machines, money, and matter-of-fact common sense -- the realm of the psyche is likely at first to appear insubstantial. But when that major hurdle has been overcome, a doorway to a new world opens. Then it becomes possible to involve oneself deeply in the inner life -- not only through dreams, but through imagery of many kinds. Religious experiences and heightened awareness of people and of art become vital components of life and give new meaning to it. At this stage, it is extremely helpful to keep a psychological journal, a record of significant inner experience, of the struggles of spiritual growth in the direction of wholeness.

An excellent example of a psychological journal is Leo Tolstoy's "My Confession." Here, Tolstoy recorded how, after achieving great fame, he asked himself, "What if I became more famous than Gogol and Pushkin and Shakespeare, what then? What would the meaning of it be?" He felt himself to be an "orphan in the universe," went through a succession of crises, and had frequent impulses to commit suicide. He tried orthodox religion, but to no avail; the traditional symbols had no meaning for him.

At this point, the process of psychic growth within Tolstoy moved to another level. He ceased to be concerned with religious dogmas and turned his attention to experiences of inner reality. Finally there came the dream with which Tolstoy concluded his confessions. Its symbolism recapitulated the story of his life, telling how in seeking a new credo he had gone from bad to worse until he found himself balanced by a single thread at a point high above the highest mountain. If he looked downward, there was only the darkness of an abyss. He did not dare to look. He said to himself, "It is only a dream; I'll get out of it." But he could not get out of the dream, just as we cannot escape from our basic human condition. Then, in the dream, a voice spoke to him and pointed out that if he would look upward steadfastly, all would be well. He did so, and though he continued to be balanced on only a single cord, there was a feeling of sureness and security and relationship. The voice in the dream said, "See that you remember," and the implication is that Tolstoy did remember and that this experience was a turning point which gave a new dimension to the later years of his life.

Tolstoy found himself in the situation that has become characteristic of modern man. Traditional symbols were no longer capable of giving meaning to his life. He therefore experienced the anxiety and the emptiness that are so prevalent today. But Tolstoy made a resolute search for meaning, and the intensity with which he did this enabled the natural processes of the psyche to function more deeply within him.

The answer that came to Tolstoy, the new religious awareness, was not deliberately contrived; it was a natural expression of the depths of his own being. Here the connection with life that gives meaning to existence is validated in terms which the person cannot deny. I would call this the psychological dimension of religion, for it is the dimension of lived individual experience in which religious feeling is discovered. This kind of religious awareness is something one can work at, discipline oneself in, and remain dedicated to throughout one's life. For it gives not one meaning, but a continuity of unfolding meanings. As we accept the psychological reality of the spirit and work with it, we develop an ever greater sensitivity to the natural capacities of knowing that are inherent in the seed of our humanity.

* Reprinted from "The Psychology of Personal Growth," Atlantic Monthly, July 1961 (Vol. 108, No. 1), pp. 102-104.

* "Intensive Journal" and "Journal Feedback" are trademarks of Jon Progoff and used under license by Dialogue House.