“I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow.”
“The psychological mode works with materials drawn from (the) conscious life—with crucial experiences, powerful emotions, suffering, passion, the stuff of human fate in general” (Jung, 1966/1975, para. 139). Mirroring numerous scenarios, poetry and psychology describe the pathways of development, connecting us and reflecting our shared dramas and feeling responses. The people presented as examples here are composites of those who brought poetry to therapy and used this means to explain their selves. Each, in a different way, is distracted, delicate, and terrified by basic and fundamental internal and external displacements. For them, the poems of Sylvia Plath, American poetess of the mid twentieth century, illustrate pivoting around similar traumas while each is grounded in their particular narratives. Resonating with her voice depicting inner and outer losses, her poetry reveals a life that repeatedly and painfully targets back to the original wounds.
Poets address the archetypal layers of the psyche through their use of symbols and images. Their depiction of the emotional life is both personal and collective, expressing the underlying currents we all feel. Some are more powerful or impactful than others. Some are more or less relevant to a particular era. Some, like Sylvia Plath, are mentioned over and over in my therapy office. She is referenced not only for her depression but also for her ability to articulate conflicting feelings and emotions as she speaks from such an impassioned place. Her words convey the gut wrenching, the dark sides, the base instincts, and confounding complexes. She describes the psychological absences causing the internal splits and the defenses as part of the struggle for meaning and soul repair that people explore in depth therapy.
Here we describe a personality configuration engaging in deception to self and others, putting on a performance and acting “as if” (Solomon, 2004, p. 639). This person who lives “as if” speaks about the emptiness within causing an automatic submersion of self. The internal fragility is hidden under persona adaptation. A facade takes over with a loss of the natural instincts while the real self remains behind, walled off and silent.
True and spontaneous expression is guarded. One must be protected. One is vulnerable. Being oneself is unacceptable. At issue is not dealing adequately with the narcissistic wounds that had to be repressed. Attachment problems bring discomfort with intimacy and commitment. One is divorced from the body due to the distorted and split self-images. The outer projections of confidence and seeming bravado belie the underlying inadequacy, judgement, criticism and harassment from within. Achievements are sought to cover the pain and losses. Reactions and emotions are experienced “as if”, at a distance and reflect an underestimation of the extent of the distress. Relentlessly critical, continually and internally attacked by unease, this person is busy attempting to remain remote so no one will discover the segmented inner world.
Typically, these people find themselves rebelling against the natural limitations and average states that come with being a person. The fantasy about life needing to be spectacular is based on what it could or should be with little knowledge about what really is. Relationships with self and others are obtuse, life avoided with emotional distancing, compulsions or perfectionistic habits. Distress occurs when the outer accomplishments that formerly shored up the personality are used up and the inner reserves collapse, as they are no longer sustainable. The center can no longer hold. As Jung stated, “The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual” (1966, p. 305).
Under it all is an inability to satisfy a deep sense of mourning and feeling unlovable. But equally, the person cannot pin down the events or the emotions associated with the pain. This is the very place where the anxiety originally could not be managed. The emotional memory is felt as intolerable for recall. An inauthentic pose and accommodation to outer demands protects the terrified and precarious self that hesitates to face the world. It takes much patience and tact in therapeutic work because the unmasking of reality can be tricky due to the extent of vulnerability, impenetrability and repression.
Sylvia Plath recognized this in her journals as she wrote the following:
God, is this all it is, the ricocheting down the corridor of laughter and tears? of self-worship and self-loathing? of glory and disgust? Frustrated? Yes. Why? Because it is impossible for me to be God–or the universal woman-and-man–or anything much…But if I am to express what I am, I must have a standard of life, a jumping-off place, a technique–to make arbitrary and temporary organization of my own personal and pathetic little chaos. I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. (Kukil, 2000, p. 45).
The divided self, likened to the “as if” personality, was the theme of many of Sylvia Plath’s poems. In them, one figure sits outside and the other as the shadow self sits inside. The competing forms need yet at the same time attempt to upstage each other. In her journal, Sylvia Plath writes about the splintering and disintegration of self and silencing of her voice: “Something deep, plunging is held back. Voice frozen” (Kukil, 2000, p. 312). Elsewhere, she wonders, “What inner decision, what inner murder or prison break must I commit if I want to speak from my true deep voice in writing…and not feel this jam-up of feeling behind a glass-damn fancy-façade of numb dumb wordage” (Kukil, 2000, p. 470). The creative and relentless quest for deepening into self can become both paralyzing and enabling.
Jung recognized the intricacies and value in the creative process as noted in the following:
I prefer to designate the creative impulse as a psychic factor similar in nature to instinct, having indeed a very close connection with the instincts, but without being identical with any one of them… it has much in common with the drive to activity and the reflective instinct. But it can also suppress them, or make them serve it to the point of the self-destruction of the individual. Creation is as much destruction as construction” (Jung, 1960/1969, par. 245).
Through her poetry and journals, Sylvia Plath translates private hurts into public images many can relate to. The carefully manicured and controlled outer self reflects her strictly internalized standards run by a rigorous course of demands for achievement. Behind an eager mask to please is stored a vortex of self-doubt marked by feelings of uncertainty, fragmentation, and the ego drive taking over. Behind the grandiosity and need for recognition lie the sorrows.
The problem is forging a coherent self from the warring fragments of her psyche. Plath set up “putting together (in her art) the complex mosaic of (her) childhood,” which required her to “capture feelings and experiences from the nebulous seething of memory and yank them out into black-and-white on the typewriter” (Kukil, 2000, p. 168).
The dark figures to which she remained tied and wanted to overcome are evident in Sylvia Plath’s following words:
Whatever the dream I unearth, by work, taxing work, and even by a kind of prayer, I am sure to find a thumbprint in the corner, a malicious detail to the right of center, a bodiless midair Cheshire cat grin, which shows the whole work to be gotten up by the genius of Johnny Panic, and him alone. He’s sly, he’s subtle, he’s sudden as thunder, but he gives himself away only too often. He simply can’t resist melodrama. Melodrama of the oldest, most obvious variety (Plath, 1978, p. 156-57).
In her journal Sylvia Plath goes on to describe a murderous self, part of her personality that tears down her confidence and makes her feel inferior. She writes often about how she must be either so good that she is perfect or she is nothing. Her way to avoid the destruction by this demon depends on manifesting one victorious accomplishment after another (Alexander, 2003, p. 209).
Especially in the later poems, Sylvia Plath’s talents manifest in her ability to flay open and expose the anguish of her soul, to portray the depths of her inner world and the losses beneath the many masks necessary to cover them. Sylvia Plath wrote, “Masks are the order of the day, and the least I can do is cultivate the illusion that I am gay, serene, not hollow and afraid” (Kukil, 2000, p. 63).
Outwardly driven by desires to be seen, to be the best and loved by everyone, inside is apprehension about showing the real self. These conflicts emerge in therapy. Sylvia Plath comments in her journal that in therapy it makes her feel “good as hell to express my hostility for my mother, frees me from the Panic Bird on my heart and my typewriter (why?)” (Kukil, 2000, p. 429).
Sylvia Plath’s search for self-knowledge resonates with many who also identify with her anguish. In her writings, she details an archetypal journey in the search for self. This entails the age-old attempts at wholeness, the path to find parts of the personality that seem lost, undeveloped, ignored, repressed and then to gradually reclaim them. Sylvia Plath poignantly writes the difficulties of all this in her journals. “Putting up pretty artificial statues. I can’t get outside myself” (Kukil, 2000, p. 507), and “The Idea of a life gets in the way of my life” (Kukil, 2000, p.508). Elsewhere, she pens, “Something freezes me from my real spirit: is it fear of failure, fear of being vulnerable” (Kukil, 2000, p. 476)
Sylvia Plath was familiar with the concepts of Jungian psychology and those of the mythologist, Robert Graves. Both consider the symbolic and the mythic as reflecting aspects of the psychological perspective. Jung stated about these images as they appear throughout time and individually. “The images of the unconscious place a great responsibility upon a man. Failure to understand them, or a shirking of ethical responsibility, deprives him of his wholeness and imposes a painful fragmentariness on his life” (1961/1989, p. 43).
Plath records in her journal:
How many times in my dreams have I met my dark marauder on the stairs, atdoor, sitting only in his coat and hat with a small smile on a park bench; already he has split into many men; even while we hope, the blind is drawn down and the people turned to shadows acting in a private room beyond our view (Kukil, 2000, p. 563).
For Plath, the discharge from such internalized negative captors does not happen in life. Their devouring aggression wins out. What begins with self-reproach circles around maliciously against her. Although she expresses desire for transformation, the conflict between rebirth and annihilation continues as she took her life at age thirty–after writing some of her most well-known poetry.
An axiom of Jungian psychology is that each phenomenon contains within itself the means by which it can be interpreted. Likewise, nature tries to re-establish balance and in the psyche we find this in the principle of synthesis. The task of therapy, self-discovery, and soul repair appears through a vast symbolism guiding the process enacted between self and other:
The psyche does not trouble itself about our categories of reality; for it, everything that works is real… In psychic life, as everywhere in our experience, all things that work are reality, regardless of the names man chooses to bestow on them. To take these realities for what they are—not foisting other names on them—that is our business. (Jung, 1954/1977, para. 111)
Martinez, a Hispanic man in his thirties says about his childhood school experience: In grade school I suffered repeated physical torment, harassment and humiliation by ruthless bullies. I did not fit their machismo culture of gangs and guns. I was incredibly vulnerable to their violent attacks and began to believe that in some cosmic way, I deserved the abuse. I developed my first suicidal thoughts in the third grade; I was nine years old. I knew I could not ever belong with people like them.
To this day, he remains wary of the macho culture of his neighborhood. This feeling transfers to the larger world and he has not yet found his place. He prefers to be unnoticed, under the radar. He even has aliases on social media so he will not be traceable. He keeps all the creative stories in his head, apprehensive to write them down as they might bring scorn or ridicule. The depression that cuts at him daily is also where he identifies with Sylvia Plath who is known for portraying the many masks and divisions to obfuscate her real self from others.
This man is highly intelligent, self-taught and does not fit with those of his background. He refuses to be like his military father, a brutal man who wants above all to fit into the American culture. Martinez is different. He is a sensitive, reflective but often overwhelmed and fearful and a stay-at-home dad. It is important to him that his children study and do well at school. He watches out for them like no one did for him.
Martinez learned to avoid. As a young teen he was a cutter, filled with negative and defeating inner dialogue, the warring voices inside loudly encouraging him to both slice at himself and to resist. He internally experiences the outer culture with its prejudice against Hispanics. One day he mentions Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Mushrooms.” He describes the poem as relating to all those, like him, who are oppressed and how they will one day rise up and declare their rights. For him, this also represents an internal rising up against the oppressive and depressive thoughts and feelings that tell him to destroy himself.
He continues to elaborate on the poem, “Mushrooms,” as demonstrating his feelings about the encroachment of the stuff crowding the house, the clouding of his vision, the imprisonment in the family rituals and traditions, the oppression of being a minority and disenfranchised. Martinez feels the pressure of the home full of people and things and the general economic entrapment. He says they are crammed together like mushrooms. The space is so tight he trips over the computer cord and he imagines all the material on the computer now erased due to his mistake. What follows are crushing self-destructive inner feelings. He struggles with the conflicting impulses to destroy and not destroy himself, the muscles want to cut and not cut.
Martinez worries about members of his family being deported. They are legal but he remains fearful and overwhelmed by the system. Thoughts reverberate that he should not be alive. He feels ridiculed for who he is and cannot follow the cultural tradition of machismo or obeisance to the parental figures who seem empty. He cannot respect them just because it is required. He is not like the other mushrooms in the box. The family and culture are containing with their requirements but also strangling to him.
Martinez is an example of what happens when the ordinary defenses fail in the face of unbearable psychic pain and anxiety. The psyche may respond by turning upon itself. From its own internal splits, a drama featuring a brutal persecutor and innocent victim is produced that encapsulates a person’s spirit. While this affect-imagery is disturbing, it serves a protective function, albeit a costly one.
As the psychological sessions progress, Martinez says he identifies with Sylvia Plath in what he calls a “darkness sitting on his shoulder.” Reading all he can about and by Sylvia Plath for years, he searches within her words for some answers for himself. He reads her works with fascination, reaching for reasons to live. He does not read her to find ways or reasons to die or kill himself. He identifies with the psychological pain she describes and her attempts to cope. And, he also identifies with hiding her true feelings, even while endeavoring to express them. He resonates with the demons plaguing her. His suicidal thoughts occur, like with Sylvia Plath, but he derives sustenance from the fact that she contemplates and works with them, as he is trying to do. He references her in therapy as she describes the darkness, the striving, and the desires for self-transformation rampant throughout her work. For a long time, reading Sylvia Plath, her works of the double and splitting identity, obfuscation, rage and her goals for change keeps him going.
Jung commented about the importance of the various forms of art and psychology, “Therein lies the social significance of art: it is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking” (1966/1975, para 130).
In her forties, Gail, a professional violinist, comes to therapy saying she does not feel adequate and cannot practice her violin as she wants. She is discouraged that her work is not up to par. She presents an impeccable appearance and charm with her long blond hair, graceful manners, and calm voice. A flair for the dramatic seems to hold people off and Gail appears preoccupied, as if inhabiting a place no one can enter. Later it comes out that this is a purposeful presentation to hide the periodic and severe depressions. She says the few friends she has are rarely allowed into her home where the remnants of smashed vases and figurines display a trail of the past and present self-destruction. She often does not really know how to care about herself, what it looks like nor does she have memories of being cared for beyond the essentials. She admits she needs a “how-to-be-a-person manual.” To make a point about the memories concerning her life, Gail brings favorite passages from the books she reads that concern women who have complicated lives and depressions. This is done as a way for her to be understood, to share her life and to have a witness to what she endures emotionally. Her favorite poet is Sylvia Plath.
Trying to get on with her life, yet caught in the repressed emotions from the past, she cannot fully enter the present. Like with Sylvia Plath, the selves have become split—one acceptable and one not. There is an innate longing for acceptance, a desiring to belong, yet feeling lonely, depersonalized and distant from herself. Without relationships she withdraws intra-psychically, deeply buried within yet basically open and raw, prickly, and sensitive. This psychological space is described as a void of futility, meaninglessness, deadness, numbness. For her it is the abyss. At the core hides the dependent needs searching for connection.
Jung wrote about facing oneself without masks and the need for existing in the mirror of the other by saying, “Whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself. The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face” (1959/1990, para.43). Indeed, as therapy precedes, Gail reveals that the presentation, which she calls the “poseur,” is to disguise an abyss of loneliness. Gail’s made-up word, “poseur,” can parallel the Jungian term “persona.” The persona as merely a pose is set up to protect a terrified and precarious self. She describes feeling unreal, sufficient only to be an understudy, second best but not a primary player. She expresses a similar struggle to Sylvia Plath in wanting to let the false self go so the real voices can emerge through her musical expression and in all aspects of her life. But, she does not know how to do this. The wounds Gail expresses, like those of Sylvia Plath, arise from early abandonments, neglect and lack of nurturing, leaving a void at the center.
Gail comments she does not want to grow up because adults appear to have no light in their eyes and are deadened by conformity to the average. She accuses herself of being a creature who harms innocent people through her power to deceive. She assumes she must be a phony who makes people love her and think she is special. Uncovering the denials that guard against her truths, the fantasies that protect, and the bonds that retain inhibiting roles are part of Gail’s tasks in therapy. About herself, she writes: “This is a woman who would live inside herself. This woman would be stone, wondering if she can be opened. Picture this woman plucking at herself like cardboard.”
She has a habit of rubbing her eyes and pushing the hair off her face. Describing herself as “half-baked,” the action seems an attempt to clear a psychological fog—or does it represent being under a spell? Her feelings and passions, even for her music, still remains incomplete and unformed.
The first dream Gail brings to therapy is the following:
I need to practice for something very important. My husband keeps coming into my room and interrupting me. I want him to leave. There is another person there, a man who is famous. Maybe a conductor? He set up a place for me where I can practice without distraction. Later someone else there tries to tell me that my playing is special, from my heart and set apart, even though my technique is sometimes lacking.
Gail resonates with the dream scene saying her husband interrupts each time she begins to practice. He also represents an inner part of her that interrupts, takes the focus away and is critical and judging. She reflects that her heart, which to her symbolizes the feminine side of her personality, comes out in her violin playing. Gail explains that the violin is usually a masculine instrument and bigger than the viola, a typically more feminine instrument and the one her husband plays. Gail says he is better at musical technique, which she aligns with the masculine. So, she plays a traditionally masculine instrument from her heart. He plays a traditionally feminine instrument from technique, or the head. This mixture can be exciting, but because both feel insecure and threatened, it is creating problems.
Some time later she dreamt, “I am looking at houses. There is a big house that is mine. My husband takes me into a room with a high ceiling, a piano, and a beautiful rose-colored tapestry. I notice there is one small seam in the tapestry that is undone.” As Gail talks about the dream, she anxiously focuses on the small tear, saying it represents the perfection she cannot attain. For her, the dream husband again accuses her of imperfections as in the comments about the tapestry. However, in the actuality of the dream it is she, not he, who notices the imperfections. Gail goes on to associate the small rip in the tapestry to the insufficient or damaged pieces of her personality. Although the rose color in the tapestry represents passion, beauty, love, and the feminine to her, obsessing on the flaw demonstrates how this way of being harms appreciation for the qualities that are indeed hers. The tapestry is also analogous to the processes typically associated with feminine creativity and is a metaphor for the interweaving process of therapy. It takes time to bring life strands together, especially those needing repair. The house in the dream, appearing like a castle with the grandeur of high ceilings, piano and tapestry symbolizes Gail herself. However, she sounds like it is unfamiliar and much space goes unused and unacknowledged.
Until this dream, Gail did not take seriously the extent of her denied self, including the relationship to her body. Gail noted in therapy about the disturbing shocks each time she realizes now and throughout her life that her body is indeed hers. Tending to resist or register the body instincts, it is not surprising that Gail describes feeling like a mannequin. Preoccupations with aging and weight keep her negatively self-absorbed. She avoids the physical, and it, like emotional exposure, is threatening to her fragile composure. It is so difficult for her to be present and vulnerable that she finds herself thinking about how much she weighs while having sex. This reflects the type of disconnection that separates a person from the most basic instincts of living. Emotions, love of self and other, energy for participating, feelings and passion become adversely affected and distorted.
Months after these therapy discussions Gail attends a music audition, where to her amazement, the conductor repeats the phrase from the first dream she brought to therapy many months previously. He said, “Your playing is special and from the heart, but your technique is sometimes lacking”. Gail, stunned at the synchronicity of the dream occurring in life, was, in fact, offered the position and accepted it. From this event, she realizes this signifies how far she has come in developing an independent self, separate from her husband and her own critical aspects. She is now able to access the desires and passions formerly suppressed.
Even later Gail dreams that she is alone onstage asking, “What will happen next?” The dream questions opens to future hope. The therapeutic discourse, in giving additional meaning to past, present, and future events enables a person to possess their abandoned and unattended potentials, to extend the capacity to think and feel and to explore life more openly. It is a process of recounting the memories, unraveling old patterns and repairing the broken personality parts.
Jung commented further about the value of poetry: “It is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking…The unsatisfied yearning of the artist reaches back to the primordial image in the unconscious which is best fitted to compensate” (1966, para. 130). The poetess Sylvia Plath and the two composite therapy examples display the disconnections and dissociations from self. Each, in different ways, enact the “as if” personality in its various forms. As these people bring the conscious and unconscious mind into a relationship with each other, they also exemplify the powerful energy in the poetic search for connection with self.
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Plath, S. (2000). The unabridged journals. K. V. Kukil (Ed.). New York, NY: Anchor. Journal
Plath, S. (1978). Johnny panic and the bible of dreams. New York: Harper and Row.
Solomon, H. (2004). “Self-creation and the limitless void of dissociation: the as if personality,” Journal of Analytical Psychology, 49, 635-656.
Susan E. Schwartz, Ph.D., Jungian analyst and clinical psychologist is a member of the International Association of Analytical Psychology and American Psychological Association. She has taught for Jungian Developing Groups in Poland and South Africa for many years and participated in various conferences.
Susan has several articles in online journals and Jungian book chapters. She has a private practice in Jungian Analytical Psychology in Paradise Valley, Arizona and her website is www.susanschwartzphd.com.