We humans do not come into this world as a blank slate or an empty vessel. We emerge from the womb with a set of predestined needs, desires, and expectations that are paradoxically both universal and also unique to each individual. Carl Jung, in his depth exploration of the psyche, considered the biology of instincts to be of obvious importance, but he also posited other layers to our experience, especially in considering the behaviors, traits, hopes & dreams (either un-lived or realized) of those who raised us. Sensing there was more to the human experience than what the reductionistic tendencies of science has to offer us, Jung emphasized that the relationship we share with our mothers, fathers, and caregivers who, in the most ideal of circumstances, nurture us through our early life, is imbued with an essence that is beyond biology, beyond “nature vs. nurture”. He considered this dynamic to be numinous, or of a spiritual nature. Our parents and caregivers are, indeed, human, but if we stop there, we run the risk of reducing them and the outcome of our relationship to what Jung called a “nothing but…” – as in, nothing but subject to a series of simplistic explanations. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth and it is my humble opinion that we miss an opportunity to know ourselves deeply through this analysis as well as to relate to those for whom we care in a much more conscious, connected way.
For many years, I have listened to and connected with people as they explore these core and primary relationships and the myriad ways in which they have influenced, informed, expanded, and/or contracted their sense of worthiness, trust, and self-efficacy. Once, when my mother told her mom that she had gone to see a therapist (full disclosure, she went because of her difficulties dealing with me), my grandmother asked, “OK, what did they say I did wrong?” Her anxiety was warranted, because in therapy we do explore these early relationships, though not to blame anyone, but to understand both self and other. I once worked with a man in his 80s whose mother had died long ago and upon asking him about his mother, he looked over both his shoulders scanning the space behind him checking to make sure she was not there to hear him talk about her. Apparently, the anxiety goes both ways. The process of psychotherapy exposes these early dynamics, reflects on the experience, queries how these dynamics inform our current life, and places the responsibility back onto the individual seeking new depth awareness and consciousness about their life and current circumstances. Someone recently reminded me of a quote from Jung, I’ll paraphrase here: The first half of our life is biography, the second half is an opportunity to live autobiographically.
The patterns that most frequently populate the psychotherapist’s office, including the psychotherapeutics I receive when it is I on the proverbial couch, are those of the father and mother. These patterns are not only rooted in the relationship between the individual “on the couch” and their personal mother(s), father(s), or caregivers; they also reveal a deeper, more archetypal dynamic shared within one’s relationship to, what Jungian analyst Erich Neuman referred to as The Great Mother and The Great Father. Recall that not one of us is born with a blank slate, so we all come equipped with a basic blueprint of needs and a few ways to get those needs met. Take crying for example: feed me, clean me, rock me, soothe me, play with me and connect with me, or else I will cry, says the infant. These needs are innate and come with the price of admission to this wild dance that we call life. The ways that these needs are identified, acknowledged, understood, and responded to will later manifest and contribute to one’s sense of self-worth, trust in self and the world, and sense of self-efficacy. Take the need to express one’s self as an example. If that need to express is met with empathy, understanding, and a desire to explore it, then voilá, one’s personal experience maps onto their archetypal needs. Thus, the recipient of this reflecting is likely to readily understand both themselves and the world, relate to others with care and compassion, and communicate strong boundaries when feeling the need to do so. Although the opposite is also true. If an individual’s personal mother(s), father(s), or caregiver could not meet the need or they were overwhelming in the way they met it, a bundle of energy coalescence around this need creating what Jung called a mother or father complex. He defined this as, and I’ll paraphrase here: an emotionally toned bundle of intrapsychic energies that has a defined feeling tone. He also referred to these as splinter personalities, noting that when our needs are overwhelmed or neglected, a wound is often created. Paracelsus, the ancient physician once remarked that the dose is the poison. “Sola dosis facit venenum,” psychologically, this can be summarized to mean that anything can be the poison or the cure, depending on the time of administration and the dose. In popular, modern terms, we refer to these bundles of energy as triggers. When someone says that they are triggered, I imagine what is happening is that a part of their history, in particular their woundedness related to their history with these mother/father dynamics (which are not all of the complexes but certainly take the M.V.P. of complexes) constellates between their inner world and the outer world, and BOOM, a reaction of some sort. Again, not all of our wounds can be located within the mother/father dynamic, but they tend to take up quite a bit of inner world real estate.
Discerning the differences between mothering and fathering may seem to be quite a simple task, but upon a deeper reflection one may quickly realize doing so is not so easy (spoiler alert: it’s not just about biology or genital anatomy). To pull on that thread, one just might unravel a tangle of perspectives ranging from anthropological, sociological, biological, statistical, and religious, to psychological as well. Of course, when exploring all meaningful concepts, the lines between them begin to blur, and quite frankly the endeavor can quickly become confusing and opaque. On the biological level the question of differences between the mother and father are rather able to be reduced to the image of the sperm and the egg (I recall the intro scene to the film, Look Who’s Talking). The many sperm (masculine principle) playful yet competing as each individual in that mass of millions races to be the one, for the one egg (feminine principle). She sits with the presence and wisdom of the ages, as if she is confident in her knowledge of the miraculous forces and powers dormant within her. He races, playfully bumping into each competitor, a creative and generative journey – individual competition, but with a collective and shared purpose. Only one will make it, and she will see to this as she closes off to the others once he arrives. What a beautiful miracle, one that provides such rich metaphor and symbolism for the other levels of inquiry. But the next step I will make here is both part of the magic and part of the confusion – if we investigate with curiosity and discernment, it seems that we can unhook aspects of our experience from the biological container as the exclusive carrier of meaning making. After all, we humans, and all of nature for that matter, are not able to be simplified to any one layer of reality. Humans are biological, psychological, social and spiritual animals. Both animal and divine. Singular and collective. Subject and object. Therefore, and despite the complexity of this multiplicity, when I think about the word father, several specific images come to mind.
Take a moment to do that yourself…imagine the word father and see what comes to mind. What do you feel in your body? Where do you brace, where do you relax? What images or ideas do you associate with the father? Maybe what comes to mind is a personal father, or maybe fathering, in general. Perhaps you think of rules and being disciplined, perhaps you connect to a sense of freedom and adventure. In any case, think of three associations to the father. Don’t edit and try not to shift or judge yourself for anything that emerges from your query.
For me they are: authority, playfulness, and ritual. If I keep following this image I encounter memories of coaches (father coaches were a blessing for some of us; a curse for others – in my case a blessing because my father did not behave like an asshole), leaders of cub scouts (my father was the pack leader, again, thankfully not an asshole, but he did demonstrate some fairly incredible magic tricks), yet as my perceived authority he could simply give me “the look.” I still recall that look a few times. You know, the one that makes a defiant child think twice about what comes next. Write down your associations and carry them with you as you experience the various complexes that populate your life. When you do feel triggered, emotional, tense, or some sensation or perception that feels exaggerated, investigate. Reference these associations with father and get curious about where in your history this emotionally toned complex first formed. For example, if a child were fathered without a sense of playfulness, that individual may find that later in life when they encounter spontaneity, adventure, and purposelessness, they judge the moment as pointless or frivolous. Another person, who experienced a lack of a fathering presence, may find themselves seeking work that is routine and predictable, or may seek a partner who is stable or rigid. All this to say that our early relationships influence our future choices.
Various myths portray the father as spirit or air, often imagined as a wind, read the creation myths of the Greeks, Christians, and others as a reference. One common motif of these myths is that Mother Earth (feminine/matter) and Father sky (masculine/spirit) somehow merge or interact and thus humanity is formed. Of course, there are many more forms to this narrative, but let’s just keep it simple for now. And take a moment to understand how incredibly limiting this story line is when taken literally, and not symbolically (i.e. that these narratives are about the ways in which males or females should behave). Basically, fathering has long been associated with an ordering principle, one that separates, and is commonly identified as a logos (logic) principle. While mothering is more associated with a nurturing principle, identified as eros (connection). This was never more apparent to me than when one of my early professors lectured about rites of passage for young boys in tribal communities. The shortest version of this theme is that the mothers would hold onto their children while the fathers would snatch them from their arms to take them out into the wilderness and initiate them into manhood through a series of ordeals and trials. The boys would emerge, if they passed the test, as men. They would then learn the ethics and morals of the tribe as a full initiate. The father, or rather the fathering principle, separates, delineates, organizes, inseminates, and initiates.
Below is an image that can pull most of the above together. To the left you will find words and phrases that represent humans who were raised without father energy or influence. To the right you will find words and phrases representative of an individual who was raised with an overwhelming, overbearing father figure. In the center are words showing what healthy father energy can help instill in those for whom they care.
Of course, fathers also nurture and connect, and mothers also order and separate, but when we speak of mothering and fathering in this way we are bringing a relatability to the forces and needs that inform, influence, and create our assumptions and expectations about the world.
Is the world safe and predictable, or chaotic and not to be trusted?
Does a voice haunt you and judge your worthiness, or encourage you to be bold?
Pay attention to the inner voices of your daily life as they likely are rooted in your early life, and that thread might just lead to interactions that you experienced with your father(s), mother(s), and caregivers. This query, as my wife once wisely stated, may help you observe your history so that you have a choice as to whether you would like to continue to live that history out.