Bringing a Mythological Perspective to Clinical Practice

Clinical psychologist and author David Feinstein discusses in his article Bringing a Mythological Perspective to Clinical Practice (1990) possible clinical uses of mythology. As a psychologist-in-training and a lover-of-all-things-literary, I found the combination of psychology and mythology quite satisfying. In the project The Power of Myth, mythologist and lecturer Joseph Campbell, states that a myth is a metaphor for what lies behind the physical world (Campbell, 1988). Feinstein states that psychotherapists should develop an awareness of the mythology within which they operate and help clients understand the personal myths that shape their reality and behavior. He also claims that the rate of social change results in a lack of coherence in the culture’s mythology; and this, in turn, forces us to think and act for ourselves in new ways. By understanding our underlying myths, we become able to influence patterns in our lives that once seemed to be predetermined and went unquestioned.

Feinstein and his colleague, psychologist and author, Stanley Krippner, suggest seven principles for the processes by which they believe personal myths develop (Feinstein & Krippner, 1988a; Feinstein & Krippner, 1988b):

Stage one: To emerge from the mythic structure in which one has been psychologically embedded, and to move to another integrated set of guiding images and premises, is a natural and periodic phase of individual development. Circumstances and roles in life change; this means that personal myths that were appropriate at a certain stage in our lives may be dysfunctional or limiting in another.

Stage two: Personal conflictsboth in one’s inner life and external circumstancesare natural markers of these times of transition. In this stage, we want to notice the different new structures that the psyche is generating, usually through dreams or other windows into our unconscious processes. However, our psychic defenses may prevent us from noticing features that are in dissonance with our dominant myth. The author suggests that “In maintaining a mythology that is failing, people generally experience an increasing degree of conflict that colors their feelings, thoughts, actions, dreams, fantasies, and the circumstances they draw to themselves. To treat such difficulties as markers of transition, rather than simply to resist them, allows a mobilization for understanding and beginning to resolve underlying mythic conflict.” (Feinstein, 1990).

Stage three: On one side of the underlying mythic conflict will be a self-limiting myth, rooted in past experience, that is best understood in terms of its constructive purposes in the individual’s history. We want to understand how the myth developed, so we can see the ways in which it helped us in the past as well as the ways in which it isn’t in the present.

Stage four: On the other side of the conflict will be an emerging counter-myth that serves as a force toward expanding the individual’s perceptions, self-concept, worldview, and awareness of options in the very areas the old myth was limiting them. In this stage, parts of us that the old myth was “suppressing” are able to be manifested. According to the author, the counter-myth is made of the accumulation of life experiences as well as of a reservoir of unconscious primal impulses and archetypal materials.

Stage five: While this conflict may be painful and disruptive, a natural, though often unconscious, mobilization toward a resolution will also be occurring, ultimately yielding a new mythic image. In this stage, there is a struggle, mainly outside of our awareness, between two self myths; consciously, people tend to identify with one of the myths more than with the other. The goal is that at some points, symbols of transformation emerge, and the mythic resolution occurs.

Stage six: During this process, previously unresolved mythic conflicts will tend to re-emergewith the potential of either interfering with the resolution of the current developmental task or opening the way to deeper levels of resolution in the person’s mythology. Some people were not able to go through a developmental task and their self myth got fixated on that level. These clients can be then guided through an emotionally corrective rite of passage so that they can reach an expanded personal myth.

Stage seven: Reconciling newly conceived personal myths with existing beliefs, goals, and life-style becomes a vital task in the individual’s on-going development.

In this transitional period, people are caught between two realities – one that is familiar but no longer functional and one that is new and unable to provide reliable guidance. By naming this process with clients, and working together, therapists can help clients move through this transition.

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