From the Inside Out

I sat down to write about one topic for this blog post, and I found myself almost immediately going in a related but ultimately different direction. So rather than forcing this post to be about Topic A, I am going to let it be about Topic B, which is, of course, entirely in keeping with the spirit of this blog and this specific blog post as you’ll see.

Believe it or not, my starting point for both topics is Sigmund Freud. Freud is the father of depth psychology – the psychology of the human unconscious. What operates unseen beneath our consciousness and how it influences us fascinated him. (Lest you fear that I am going to launch into the specifics of Freud’s ideas, I am not. There are others who can do that far better than I can, including Christine Downing and Bruno Bettelheim, two highly accomplished and insightful scholars I have found enlightening. I do, however, want to be clear about two things regarding Freud’s theories. First, his work is the foundation of modern psychotherapy – all theories and approaches since have been some extension of, variation on, or reaction to his original efforts to understand the inner world of human beings. Second, he is frequently mistranslated, misrepresented, and misunderstood. For many people, he and his ideas have become little more than cliché, which is a true loss.)

thumb|A sculptor's impression of the sofa in u...

Freud’s psychoanalytic couch in the Freud Museum in London (Photo source: This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

What I am interested in talking about today is the general way that Freud approached his work and what that means for us, here and now, in this blog and in our daily lives. Most simply, Freud developed his ideas by working from the inside out. Rather than trying to fit or adjust already formed ideas and theories to his patients, he allowed his work to be entirely guided and shaped by his patients. He suspended all his preconceptions about what might or might not be true, all expectations of professional colleagues and society, and he trusted EVERYTHING that was coming up out of his patients’ inner worlds as absolutely important and meaningful. He found that this approach, even though it didn’t fit with the accepted ideas of his day, was ultimately healing for his patients. Allowing them to give voice to whatever they were thinking and feeling gradually untangled their inner knots.*

What is truly amazing about his work is how this approach that he took with psychotherapy is also the approach he used in developing his theory of psychotherapy. Just like he allowed each patient’s material to uniquely inform and shape his or her treatment, he allowed the cumulative material of all his patients to shape his theories. Completely. He remained open to the truth of the human psyche no matter what. He repeatedly scrapped specific ideas and admitted mistakes – all based entirely on this nebulous, mysterious underworld of the human mind that had never been explored in this way by anyone before him. When you look at it this way – that he didn’t just talk the talk, that he walked the walk – his ruthlessly consistent use of this method is nothing short of heroic. He repeatedly staked his entire career and reputation on what he found as he went.


How many of us can say we do this? How willing are you, how willing am I, to let our inner compass be our guide? This is usually easier when it’s something we find “acceptable.” It is harder when it’s something that we believe there is a rule about – we shouldn’t do that, feel that, say that, this isn’t possible, that’s not possible. Or, conversely, we must do this, feel this, say this, this must happen, that must happen. Over a lifetime of such rules, we become knotted up inside just like Freud’s patients, living within an artificial, suffocating structure.

Living from the inside out is a risk. Sometimes it’s a small risk, like when I decided to follow some inner voice that wanted to write about this topic today instead of my original topic. Sometimes it’s a huge one, like Freud’s career-altering and world-changing decision (actually, it was more of a call, an irresistible urge) to follow his patients where they led. When we commit to listening to our inner urgings, we voluntarily enter into the unknown. We will be in the dark sometimes. We will make mistakes. It is where the rubber meets the road. And it is also how we start, bit by bit, to find our way. It is how I find my unique way. It is how you find yours.

What makes it both hard and easy, oddly enough, is that you have to rechoose it, recommit to it, over and over again. It’s hard every time because you know you are committing yet again to an unknown path and because the stakes get higher – the more you choose it, the more you know you have to choose it. It’s also a bit easier every time for the same reason: you know you have to choose it. To live any other way is to live as a partial, false self.

As I write this, I realize this might seem like a different version of my post about leaning into it. In some ways, it is – many of my posts up to this point have circled around the experience of trusting our deeper selves. After all, that is at the heart of this blog. And yet this post also feels different to me – maybe it’s my own way of continuing to lean into it. Another angle on it. Looking at the story of someone else to find the inspiration and courage to keep living from the inside out. Again. Today.

* (Added on 5/19/12) This is why Freud’s psychotherapy (which I want to say again is the foundation for modern psychotherapy) was often called “the talking cure.” He allowed his patients to give voice to all their experiences, including those things about themselves they felt were unacceptable and had, therefore, stuffed down into the darkness of the unconscious (a process Freud called “repression”). Up until that time, the contents of the human unconscious had largely been expressed through people’s symptoms that resulted from repression and through humanity’s creations, including art, myth, and symbols, which, both then and now, play a significant role in the theory and practice of depth psychology.

© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2012.

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