Thursday, September 7, 2017

Our Struggle for Identity

by Nancy Carter Pennington & Lawrence H. Staples

The struggle for identity and the enduring challenge of disentangling it from our parents’ remains with us all our lives. And the fairy tale, Snow White, seems to us to capture the complex dynamic that is at the root of the problem. Snow White’s mother cannot mirror Snow White; she can only see herself. The mother is so starved herself for mirroring that she can’t feed her daughter. And so the deficit of mirroring passes from generation to generation. Many of us are both parents and children and have a sense not only of our own shortfall in the receipt of mirroring but also our own difficulty in providing it sufficiently to our children. It seems like a kind of vicious circle that nature possibly intends.

In our experience, it seems to us that the greater our deficit is in the receipt of mirroring the more powerfully drawn we are to creative work. We believe the reason we are drawn to it is that creative work is probably the most unfailingly accurate mirror of our selves. The process of finding our identity is never ending and, at best, asymptotic. We never quite get there. But the process is so essential to us and is so interesting that it is worth the effort.

As therapists, we know that one of the difficulties in disentangling ourselves from our parents’ identity is that we have some qualities that are identical to theirs and we need them. We have other qualities that are unique to us. But our complete identity seems to be a mixture of them and us. That is particularly true of some qualities we detest in our parents that we have in our shadows. Jung wrote somewhere that the negative mother or father complex is detected when a patient says: ”Anything but like him or her.” We know that some of the detested qualities of our parents may be ones we very much need to survive.

All of this has made us wonder if the difficulty parents have in mirroring children isn’t a more general human problem in which no one can really accurately see someone else. We think of what happens with an artist, say like Cezanne. He looks at a landscape but he really doesn’t see it like the accuracy of a photo. Something of himself is projected onto it and interferes with it being seen as it is. It’s as if our biggest job is to see ourselves rather than others. Nature, by projecting ourselves on to everything and everyone, forces us to see our selves by making it virtually impossible for us to see anything or anyone that doesn’t reflect our selves. If we accuse a girlfriend or boyfriend or parent of not seeing us, we suspect that the only really honest answer they could give is: “You are right. I can’t see anyone totally free of a reflected image of myself.” We yearn futilely to get something from parents and others that they simply may be unable to give. That’s why we have to find a way, like doing creative work, to see ourselves.

Of course, we can’t be sure that what we’ve just said is true. The whole issue of identity is so filled with mystery that we likely will never understand it completely. And part of that mystery is, we suspect, that to completely see ourselves is to see God. And ancient wisdom says that to see God is to die. And that is why we need mirrors, as Perseus did, to see our selves indirectly and safely in reflection. The difference between seeing our selves directly and indirectly is the difference between seeing a horrible accident in a movie or actually being in one. Creative work actually produces our own movies where we can see our selves safely as a reflected image rather than directly, which we couldn’t survive. In the end, if seeing our selves is seeing God, it is also seeing Medusa, if we believe God is a totality that contains all. So, the fear of seeing our selves is as great, possibly, as the desire to see our selves. We spend our lives struggling with the conflict between a great fear, on the one hand, and a profoundly yearning desire on the other. It is, perhaps, the crucible in which we make the thing we call our selves.

Nancy Carter Pennington, MSW, Psychotherapist, co-author with Lawrence H. Staples of Our Creative Fingerprint and The Guilt Cure.

Lawrence H. Staples, PhD., Zurich trained Jungian Analyst, retired. Author of: The Creative Soul: Art and the Quest for WholenessGuilt with a Twist: The Promethean Way; co-author with Nancy Pennington of The Guilt Cure and Our Creative Fingerprint.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The 'Primum Non Nocere' Principle

Nancy Carter Pennington & Lawrence H. Staples

If you like fiction, you might try the obituary page. While it’s not great fiction, it definitely is fiction, although it lacks drama. Clearly missing are many of the literary elements that produce dramatic impact: contradictions, point and counterpoint, the play of opposites, and change of pace, to name a few. Instead, obituaries tend to be linear and one-sidedly positive. Rarely revealed are the dark and shadowy sides of the decedent. After the initial glow of a gushing obituary has faded, we may begin to feel some discomfort. We may begin to compare the radiant claims of virtue and good character revealed publicly in the obituary with what we know privately about ourselves, what we conceal inside. We see that our private view of what’s inside us doesn’t compare very favorably with the very public lauding of another’s sterling qualities, the polished part they showed the outside world. Of course, we can only guess at what the interior truth about their lives may have been. But if we assume they were really anything like their obituary claims, we may feel bad about ourselves, perhaps even depressed.

There is a very powerful taboo against criticizing the deceased. We remember a patient whose mother called to let him know his paternal grandmother had died. His mother talked about what a wonderful person his grandmother, her mother-in-law, had been. At some point, our patient stopped his mother and said, “Mom, stop it. You know grandmother could be a real bitch and often treated you like dirt. Are you forgetting when she called you ‘K street trash’ to your face or accused you of being the hussy who married dad for money and security?” His mother couldn’t bring herself to criticize his grandmother except to add, “Well, maybe she wasn’t perfect.”

Our patient’s conversation with his mother exemplifies the taboo. To speak ill of the dead feels somehow blasphemous. It violates some more-or-less unconscious, sacred boundary. We worry we’ll be punished, as if we’d taken God’s name in vain.

We can wonder why talking about someone’s dark side in an obituary is so taboo. After all, they are dead. Perhaps the answer has something to do with our need to love and be loved. For example, if an important challenge of love is being able to accept and tolerate others as they are and ourselves as we are, perhaps the death of another allows us to love in ways we couldn’t when the other person was alive. And, since we also have similar dark qualities, our willingness to overlook someone’s faults after their death could help edge us along the road to accepting ourselves.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Our Creative Fingerprint

Our Creative Fingerprint

by Nancy Carter Pennington and Lawrence H. Staples

Publication Date January 6, 2017

Creative work is the handmaiden of self-discovery. No matter where our creative work starts or what path it follows--with a word, with a note, with a brushstroke--it eventually, with repeated effort, returns us home to the very source of our beings. We are never more true to ourselves than when we are creating something. Inexorably, what we create reflects ourselves as profoundly, faithfully and uniquely as our fingerprints. Each single thing we create, no matter when or under what conditions it was produced, will bear trace deposits of ourselves, a creative fingerprint sufficient to identify us and show who we are just as our physical fingerprints do.

For those who know how to interpret them, our creative fingerprints are as unerring as our physical fingerprints in identifying us. Our creations are self-portraits. We cannot escape ourselves no matter how hard we may try. In all art, there is an underlying voice that cannot be completely hidden or extinguished. In the end, our creative work can reflect only one thing: ourselves.

Topics explored in Our Creative Fingerprint include: Creativity and Inner Truth--part of which examines seven paintings by Frida Kahlo, Divine Discontent: The Inner Urge to Create, Transformation: Cleaning Our Psychic Augean Stables, and Creativity and Rebirth.

Nancy Carter Pennington received her MSW from The University of Maryland. For more than 30 years, Nancy has had the privilege of working with clients on a range of issues: phobias, OCD, grief, depression, obsessive thinking, guilt, and relationships.

Lawrence Staples has a Ph.D. in psychology; his special areas of interest are the problems of midlife, guilt, and creativity. Dr. Staples is a diplomate of the C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich, Switzerland, and also holds AB and MBA degrees from Harvard. In addition to Guilt with a Twist: The Promethean Way, Lawrence is author of the top-selling book The Creative Soul: Art and the Quest for Wholeness and co-author, with Nancy Carter Pennington, of The Guilt Cure.
Publisher: Fisher King Press (January 6, 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1771690402
ISBN-13: 978-1771690409

Monday, September 14, 2015

Guilt Linked to Depression, Anxiety, Substance Abuse

(Masaccio Fresco image from the 
Cappella Brancacci, Santa Maria 
del Carmine,  Firenze, Italia
provided via Wikimedia Commons  
[Public domain].)
'Unconscious Guilt' - not conscious guilt, not the guilt we feel, understand, and knowingly claim - but 'Unconscious Guilt' is a major cause of depression and anxiety. If you are a professional who is treating a client for depression, anxiety, and/or substance abuse, unconscious guilt may be at the root of their problem. Helping your clients find the source of unconscious guilt, and helping them to interpret its meaning may very well be what brings about a lasting change in their struggle to overcome depression, anxiety, and/or substance abuse. The Guilt Cure prescribes a homeopathic approach to uncovering unconscious guilt and treating anxiety and depression in the sense that it does not require prescribed allopathic medications that only mask or deaden symptoms and foster unnecessary substance abuse and addictions. If you are a professional therapist, councilor, clergy person, social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, or if you suffer from any of these symptoms and would like to learn more about The Guilt Cure by Nancy Carter Pennington and Lawrence H. Staples, you can read a free sample (Google Preview Button) at the publisher website:

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Denial, Guilt, and the Mental Health System

Guilt’s negative aspects go beyond its deterrence to psychological growth and development. It also affects our mental health and wellbeing. It can make us sick. Guilt is a major cause of depression, anxiety, paranoia and suicide. It is also a significant factor in less common ailments such as hypochondriasis, and other somatoform disorders. This view is not widely held among medical and mental health professionals, despite the fact that they encounter and deal with guilt daily in their practices. In the case of depression, biological and chemical imbalances or psychological factors like loss, grief and failure are emphasized. In our experience, however, these conventional viewpoints both overlook and underestimate guilt’s causal role in these serious disturbances. We have become increasingly conscious not only of the important causal role of guilt in these major psychological disorders but also of the damage it generally inflicts on our mental health and wellbeing. 

Long before The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders had been conceived, Lady Macbeth’s guilt-induced decline into mental disorder and suicide dramatically and accurately portrayed at the extreme the psychological damage that guilt can inflict on the human psyche. Despite Shakespeare’s vivid and accurate portrayal of the dangerous consequences of guilt, and despite commonsensical grounds for belief that the bard got it right, standard and conventional diagnostic criteria often overlook and underestimate the role of guilt in some of our most frequently encountered psychological difficulties. We can see this blind spot in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This important manual, used worldwide by psychiatrists and psychologists to help them diagnose psychological problems, mentions guilt as a diagnostic criterion only in major depressive episodes, depressive personality disorders, and dysthymia, the latter of which being only recently added to the manual. The insignificance of guilt in the manual’s diagnostic scheme is also suggested by the fact that the word guilt is not even in the index. Nor is it listed as a contributing factor to anxiety. Guilt is certainly not generally perceived as a cause of any mental disorder. However, as therapists we can’t avoid the truth that the mere fact of diagnosing someone with a mental disorder induces guilt. Even the need to come to therapy is itself a source of guilt.

One cannot help but wonder why the manual does not stress the importance of guilt, because clerics and therapists have been seeing and dealing with guilt, one way or another, for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Perhaps guilt’s role in mental disorders is muted because it has been viewed primarily as a religious construct. Or perhaps guilt is viewed just as a normal feeling, like grief or disappointment. Or, perhaps they view guilt primarily as a positive factor demonstrating the presence of normal conscience. Finally, they may feel guilt is mainly deserved. Normal or not, deserved or not, guilt is a potentially dangerous feeling that is a ubiquitous threat to our mental health and wellbeing. While we cannot fully explain the virtual absence of guilt’s role in the official pantheon of mental disorders, we do know it is a serious threat to mental health.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Guilt and Gold - The Sacred and the Profane

At a deep, inner level the sacred and the profane are united by an underlying reality that acknowledges their interdependence and the truth that one has no meaning without the other. Without the contrast provided by the profane we could not become conscious of the sacred. We hide our sins for the same reason that we hide and keep out of sight what is most valuable so that thieves will not break in and steal our treasure.

When we become conscious of how sacred our sins are, we can bring them into the light and share their sacredness and their worth. Sharing secrets is an act of intimacy. The sharing connects us to others and is a major cure for loneliness. Folks in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) learned that a long time ago.

Jung said that the shadow, where we hide our sins in secret, is 90% pure gold. The sins we commit eventually catapult us onto a path that leads us to psychological as well as spiritual development. The path leads us to our self, a Jungian term for the totality of our being and a psychological construct for god within. Lawrence H. Staples, Guilt with a Twist, pg 34.

Friday, April 18, 2014

At Your Finger Tips: The Guilt Cure

Late in his life, Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, had a stunning insight about the nature of guilt. His insight reaches deep into humanity’s collective psychic experience, and reveals a mystery that challenges our conventional views. In Jung’s last book, Mysterium Coniunctionis, which he finished seven years before his death in 1961, he wrote, “that the opposites are the ineradicable and indispensable precondition of all psychic life, so much so that life itself is guilt.” C.G.Jung, Collected Works (CW) Volume 14, par. 206.

"If life itself is guilt, and life comes from God, then guilt must also come from God. And from his terrible deeds, we have grounds for suspecting that God is indeed guilty and that guilt may be as necessary for God’s life as it is for ours. God, or our idea of God, often appears to be strikingly similar to parents and other earthly authorities. And vice-versa." Pennington and Staples, The Guilt Cure, pg 1.