What is Depth Psychology?

Updated: Feb 29


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There are many approaches to psychotherapy that focus on what we know about ourselves. We may sit across from our therapist and list memories, thoughts, emotions, and personal limitations that cause us suffering with the hope of troubleshooting accordingly. By reporting that information to our therapists, we can reframe our thinking and develop new skills and behaviors that will positively impact our engagement in the world.


Those approaches are related to cognition or behavior and can be effective. But sometimes modifying thought processes and behaviors isn't enough to create long-lasting impacts. I liken this experience to weed-whacking. You can remove a pesky weed from your line of sight with a quick clip of the part of it you can see, but until you address its root, it's likely to grow back.


Depth psychology, put simply, is a therapeutic framework concerned with that root.


Exploring What's Unconscious

The unconscious contains content and processes which operate beyond our conscious awareness. There are thoughts, emotions, memories, and perceptions that we know we have and can identify and label. And then there are thoughts, emotions, memories, and perceptions that live in our psyche which we have no idea are there.


While Eugen Bleuler, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Zürich coined the phrase "depth psychology" in the early 1900s, it is Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung whom we most associate it with now.


Freud and Jung where among the first to find therapeutic uses for uncovering the dynamics that exist between that which is known to us, and that which is not. The idea is that those dynamics can dictate our behavior, our world view, our self-image, and therefore, the fruitfulness of our lives. This makes the exploration of the unconscious a worthy one.


Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate. - Carl Jung

Freud more commonly used the term "subconscious," which he described as content living on a lower level of the psyche. Jung more commonly used the term "unconscious" as he believed it wasn't about this content's "location" within the psyche or how far down it was hidden, but rather the process of it never having come to be in the first place. Unconscious material, for Jung, has gestated but is not yet born, therefore unconscious.


According to Jung, there are two manifestations of unconscious material, individual and collective. The individual unconscious is content unknown to us based on our personal life experiences. The collective unconscious is unknown content that is inborn to us and that we share with all humans. In our collective unconscious we hold images, information, and meaning that we were never consciously taught. This deepens how the principles and narratives of culture influence our psyche.


Applications of Depth Psychology

Applying depth psychology in therapy is a slower process than many other forms of therapy. Depth work is not a hunt. We are not foraging for intel or demanding revelations from our soul. The point is not to initiate an investigation into the hidden parts of ourselves but rather to invite and explore this information with a willingness to surrender to it. To investigate is to operate from the ego -- our conscious self -- thereby rendering any hopes of control in this process counter-intuitive.


Depth psychotherapy then utilizes dreams, images, spontaneity, creativity, somatic attunement, and metaphor to allow for genuine expressions of the psyche to be revealed. It is then that its significance can be explored. The process of depth psychotherapy is to learn the language of the unconscious and recognize the dynamics that exist between unconscious material and conscious behavior.


Through a depth psychological lens, healing is considered to be the revelation of repressed, denied, ignored, or rejected content, the exploration of its meaning, and the integration of its gifts into the conscious self which allows for an alchemical process to emerge. In other words, the unknown material becomes known, and through understanding its meaning, we transform.


A Feminine Approach to Therapy

Through the lens of masculine and feminine (remember, not about gender but universal archetypal energies present in us all, discoverable via our collective unconscious), depth psychology would be considered a feminine approach to therapy. This is because it is not focused on the ego or conscious mind; it is not linear, structured, measurable, rational, or concerned with action. Instead it is focused on what emerges when we are present and still, what's hidden in our creations, what images or feelings arise when we dream, and what we experience when we are not focused on a particular outcome.


For those reasons, depth psychology doesn't come with quite the same evidenced-based seal of approval that cognitive and behavioral -- masculine-oriented -- approaches to therapy have. Additionally, because western culture prefers the qualities of the masculine -- things we can measure, evaluate, hold, and consume -- cultural biases can create discomfort with the unknowns associated with depth psychology.


Efficacy of Depth Psychology

But that's not to say the efficacy of depth psychology is without research and support. Studies show that while depth therapy requires longer-term attention than behavior modification, it can create a larger and longer-lasting impacts than behavioral interventions alone. This is because of that alchemical process; rather than changing our outfit, we're changing our form altogether. That takes some time to accomplish, but the positive changes associated with it are more likely to remain.


If you're interested in taking this approach to your own therapeutic exploration, you can learn more about the services I offer which are rooted in depth psychology in Los Angeles.

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