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Why do we do the opposite of what we say we want?

Therapy often starts with a puzzle or a mystery to solve. Someone says they want to meet a partner and yet never goes out. An unwanted habit continues despite numerous attempts to change. Jung believed that human beings seek purpose and growth, but this is perilous, involving pain. He called the process of becoming individuation. He saw change as involving a symbolic solution. Symbol means the bringing of two things together. A symbol encapsulates the psychological situation, and this process can start in therapy. Someone may continually dream of an animal for example that expresses aspects of their character that are difficult to manage.

Jung’s model of the psyche is of a dynamic, self-regulating system that contains energy which flows between two poles. The more tension there is between them, the more energy Jung and Freud parted ways partly because they did not agree on the essential nature of this energy. Freud saw it as sexual whereas for Jung it was neutral and directed purposively towards self-realisation. Jung called the principle of every force eventually encountering its opposite, “enantiodrama”. He explained how psychological development comes through holding the tension in opposing forces of emotion. The conscious perspective may conceal an unconscious opposite seeking to be heard and assimilated. He wrote, ‘this lack of parallelism is not just accidental or purposeless but is due to the fact that the unconscious behaves in a compensatory or complementary manner’. So the mystery or therapeutic problem is a symptom that has communicative meaning.

In therapy it can take time to really understand the central dilemma. The ‘problem’ or symptom of distress may have been a way you have survived. If you grew up in a volatile home, despite wanting a relationship, you may carry a deep belief that isolation is safest. This internal conflict could lead to agoraphobia. You can get rid of the symptoms, but the psyche would have to find another way to resolve the tension between needing safety and connection. Films, music and images often help us to find ways of expressing these dilemmas. Your therapist can help you discover creative, personalised solutions to inherent conflicts that live inside all of us.

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