What Is Depth Psychology?


By Craig Chalquist, M.S.

Animae Mundi Colendae Gratia
(“For the Sake of Tending the Soul of the World”)
–school motto, Pacifica Graduate Institute

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 C. G. Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Alfred Adler.  The modern version of this tripod is:

  • Psychoanalytic (includes object relations and Kohut’s Self Psychology)
  • Adlerian (from Adler’s Individual Psychology)
  • Jungian (includes Jung’s Analytical Psychology and Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology)

I would also emphasize the influence of transpersonal psychology (which itself includes humanistic and Far Eastern currents), although not all depth-oriented practitioners would agree, and existentialism, which has worked its way into the psychotherapy world primarily via Rollo May and his protege Stephen Diamond.

Broadly speaking, depth psychology operates according to the following working assumptions:

  • 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.
  • 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 is known as “psychic objectivity” (Jung, Edinger).  (Archetypalists, who represent an offshoot of classical Jungian psychology, refer to the psyche’s in-between quality as “liminal” or “imaginal.”)
  • The psyche spontaneously generates mythico-religious symbolism and is therefore spiritual as well as instinctive in nature. A clinical 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?
  • 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.
  • There is a “seat of meaningful experience” (Corbett) where the psyche’s personal and transpersonal poles meet; this seat is referred to as soul.  One of depth psychology’s aims is to bring discussion of soul back into psychology.  (See the work of Hillman, Moore, Sardello, and Watkins.)
  • Soulfulness (my way of putting it) is considered a subjectivity that extends everywhere; everything has a “within,” as Schopenhauer and Teilhard de Chardin believed.  The depth practitioner’s mission is to enrich the depth of life by being a witness to this subjectivity.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 (because there are indeed two sexes, but in some cultures as many as seven genders), 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. 
  • 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. No story, no myth, and no humanness either.
  • For the depth practitioner, goals of health or wholeness have less significance than the cultivation of soulfulness (or “eudaimonism,” as Stephen Diamond terms the conscious relationship to the daimonic life within).  What may be risky, painful, confusing, or even disastrous for a person’s conscious life might well be enriching to that person’s soul.
  • 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); the danger in reductively focusing only on the personal is narcissistic devaluation of spiritual experiences.
  • Work on the personal level is a prelude to work on the transpersonal level; for that reason, one must undergo various sorts of psychological initiations into adulthood—ideally, with the help of wiser and more mature adults–in order to attain the maturity to stand later encounters with those numinous (Otto), or highly charged, manifestations of the transpersonal psyche which in aboriginal cultures have always been considered signs of normality and vitality.
  • 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.
This entry was posted in Depth Psychology, Psychology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What Is Depth Psychology?

  1. rsb80 says:

    If this post was interesting to you, I’ve recently launched a depth psychology blog:


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