What is Depth Psychology?

Craig Chalquist, PhD


Historically, depth psychology, from a German term (Tiefenpsychologie) coined by Eugen Bleuler, has come to refer to the ongoing development of theories and therapies pioneered by Pierre Janet, William James, C. G. Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Alfred Adler. Depth psychology explores the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious and includes both psychoanalysis and Jungian psychology.

"Depth" refers to what's below the surface of psychic manifestations like behaviors, conflicts, relationships, family dynamics, dreams, even social and political events. The "what" is some deep fantasy or image system inaccessible to purely literal-minded approaches. For example, the "let's bomb them before they attack us" justification behind so much warfare reveals itself upon analysis to be a projection of one's own aggressive ambitions; the unspoken logic is "....because that's what I would do in their place." Psychoanalytically, paranoia is externalized destructiveness; mythologically it echoes the dark side of Mars or Saturn, famous eater of children. Depth psychology recognizes myth as a repository of recurrent situations.

Since its time of origin depth psychology has evolved into a listening in on what has been driven (repressed) to the margins of culture and consciousness, whether symptoms or riots, which Dr. Martin Luther King referred to as the language of the unheard. In tending that language, whether personal, cultural, archetypal, ecological, or spiritual, we bear in mind Jung's dictum as a core of our work: "The most we can do is dream the myth onwards and give it a modern dress." Jung fashioned his own version of DP for people for whom traditional ceremonies, rituals, and symbols no longer carry a numinous charge.

Broadly speaking, DP operates according to the following working assumptions:

1. All psychological activity arises from a base of fantasy or image (Freud's "primary process").
2. The mind is an arena or interplay of dynamic, passionate forces connected to a somatic base.
3. The psyche is a process--one could say: a verb rather than a noun--that is partly conscious and partly unconscious. The unconscious in turn contains repressed experiences and other personal-level issues in its “upper” layers and “transpersonal” (i.e. collective, non-I, archetypal) forces in its depths.
4. The psyche is irreducible to either neurochemistry or some “higher” spiritual reality: it is a “third” between matter and spirit that must be taken on its own terms. This principle of the psyche's reality is known as “psychic objectivity” (Jung). (Archetypalists, who represent an offshoot of classical Jungian psychology, refer to the psyche’s in-between quality as “liminal” or “imaginal.”)
Because the psyche constitutes its own realm of experience, it must be studied with methods that take its autonomy into account. Interpretation of symbols and symptoms, active imagination, dream analysis, and depth-oriented studies of culture and myth are a few examples.
5. The psyche spontaneously generates mythico-religious symbolism and is therefore spiritual as well as instinctive in nature. An implication of this is that the choice of whether to be a spiritual person or not doesn't exist; the only question is exactly where we put our spirituality: do we live it consciously or unknowingly invest it in nonspiritual aspirations (perfectionism, addictions, greed, fame) that eventually possess us by virtue of their ignored but frightfully potent numinous power?
6. Symptoms represent important unconscious messages to oneself and should be managed—if necessary, through psychotherapy or pharmacology or both—but not indiscriminately silenced. (“The gods have become diseases,” as Jung wrote.) Symptom is one way by which the psyche tells us that we're not listening to its deeper voices.
7. There is a “seat of meaningful experience” (Corbett) where the psyche’s personal and transpersonal poles meet; this seat is referred to as soul. Hillman refers to it as an imaginative deepening of events into experiences. One of depth psychology’s aims is to bring discussion of soul back into psychology. (See the work of Hillman, Moore, Sardello, and Watkins.)
8. Soul is considered a subjectivity that extends everywhere; everything has a “within,” as Schopenhauer and Teilhard de Chardin believed. The depth practitioner enriches the depths by being a witness to this subjectivity.
9. Depth psychology rejects as philosophically archaic the absolute Cartesian split between self and other and instead posits a shifting interactive field of subjective and objective activities. A projection, for instance, is seen as dancing imaginally in the space between the “sender” and the “receiver” of it.
10. An implication of interactivity is that “objective” research when applied to the psyche is limited and even fictionalized by the fact that we change whatever we study. Whereas empirical investigation uncovers only those facets of the psyche that are easily quantified, depth psychology deconstructs this would-be empiricism by envisioning the psyche studying itself as a “hall of mirrors” (Romanyshyn) in which a consciousness sensitized to its own relativity participates in perpetually reflected realities.
11. Traditional depth-psychological thought carried all the sexist misinformation and cultural biases of the nineteenth century. The depth psychology of today critiques the equation of gender with sex, dispenses with theoretical constructs that reinforce old stereotypes about women and men (e.g., mothers as the primary source of psychopathology; women = passively yin and men = actively yang, etc.), and investigates the psyche in its personal, biological, cultural, and archetypal context.
12. All minds, all lives, are ultimately embedded in some sort of myth-making. Mythology is not a series of old explanations for natural events; it is rather the richness and wisdom of humanity played out in a wondrous symbolical storytelling.
13. Personal symptoms, conflicts, and stucknesses contain a mythic or transpersonal/archetypal core that when interpreted can reintroduce the client to the meaning of his struggles (e.g., the pain of leaving home can be reimagined as the ageless adventure of the wanderer setting out into the unknown). The danger in tending only to the transpersonal is inflation of the ego (e.g., pie-in-the-sky New Ageism and "spiritual bypass"); the danger in reductively focusing only on the personal is narcissistic devaluation of spiritual experiences.
14. Depth psychology arose as movements of liberation swept the globe. It counteracts what Diane Taylor calls "percepticide" and what Robert J. Lifton identifies as "psychic numbing" by tending to what the colonial-hierarchical ego represses, ignores, and numbs itself from contacting: inner and outer voices and images and movements from beyond the mainstream consciousness. From this perspective healing is a form of decolonization (see Lorenz and Watkins, "Individuation, Seeing-through, and Liberation").
15. Because we have a psychical share in all that surrounds us, we are sane and whole only to the degree that we care for our environment and tend responsibly to the world in which we live.

See also the Glossary of Jungian Terms and the Glossary of Freudian Terms.