The Grand Promise of Transformation

The Grand Promise of Transformation

transfəˈmeɪʃ(ə)n, noun, a marked change in form, nature, or appearance.

There is a major paradox in the personal growth movement. A critical fault line running down its centre. We are sold and often tempted by promises of transformation, but, critically, what we most want is to be authentic.

Do you want to transform?

If you do, it is worth thinking about what you trying to change.

  • Your nature?
  • Who you are?
  • How you live in this world?
  • Do you want to be better?
  • Do you desire to change somehow to fit in or succeed?
  • To be in control?
  • To transcend yourself?
  • To somehow move away from who you are?

What we are sold and promised by personal growth programmes, workshops and gurus is transformation. Not just any transformation mind you, but transformation into a more authentic version of ourselves. This is paradoxical. To be authentic, I.e. to be yourself, has as a necessary condition, not being something other than yourself.

Consider, what your transformation would look like? What exactly is the goal here? A more authentic or better version of yourself? This is a contradiction in terms. If you desire to be different, how can you embrace being more authentic? Surely if you are chasing transformation, you are unhappy with yourself, somehow dissatisfied with who you are. So, becoming more of who you are is not going to fix this problem, maybe it will even exaggerate it. And herein lies the problem.

There is a great line from Alvey Kulina,[1] in the cable series, Kingdom,[2] that expresses this idea rather well. Alvey is a retired MMA fighter who trains up and coming fighters and mentors them through the minefield of MMA and their challenging lives. Alvey himself, as you might imagine, is an imperfect soul. A flawed anti-hero, wrestling with his own demons. An interesting feature of the narrative technique is that we frequently get to witness Alvey in his analytical session with his psychoanalyst, [3] reflecting on the vicissitudes of life and the curved contours of his psychology. It is in this setting at the start of one of the episodes in season two[4], that Alvey says,

Half of me’s a criminal, and the other half… Just hasn’t gotten caught. I’m tired. I’m out of blood. I’m gonna fuck this up. That’s who I am. I could stop drinking, yeah. Confront myself, my demons. But at some point, me and everybody else has to realize I can’t get a fucking brain transplant. Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I led some people to believe that I was gonna change. I’m not. I can’t. I won’t.

Whilst, admittedly, there is something tragic in this admission by Alvey, simultaneously, it also expresses something undeniably true. The greatest impediment to psychological health, “authenticity”, and ultimately individuation is self-deceit. The grand promise of the personal growth movement and the transformation imperative is that it is going to fix you, to change you, to transform you. Newsflash – it isn’t!

The eureka moment in the process of becoming conscious, is when we finally let go of the fiction that has both sustained and trapped us these many years of our adult lives.[5] This is a fiction most of us are intimately acquainted with. The specifics vary, but the structure is remarkably consistent, in Jungian terms, archetypal. An expression of perennial dissatisfaction. It goes something like this.

One day I will change (insert variable characteristic here).

To this idea, let me quote Saleem Farah[6], “The possible starts today, the impossible tomorrow.”

Transformation requires a movement away from yourself, to become more acceptable, adapted and reasonable you must fit into society and follow its rules. It is often easier to follow someone else or an institutions’ rules.[7] You don’t have to reflect on what is right or wrong for you. You don’t have to make decisions that have some impact on who you are. It is like living with your parents for your whole life. No pressure as to how you are going to eat or live, just follow the rules of the house and you are safe, secure, looked after. So maybe this is how you feel and that is okay.

The journey towards authenticity is not for everyone.

Let’s look at what it would mean to be authentic.

What we know from psychoanalysis is that the ego identity is a defense constructed in reaction to trauma, shame, vulnerability and inadequacy. It is a provisional personality, carefully constructed to hide and compensate for that about yourself you deem most shameful or vulnerable. We show the world the face we think it wants to see or that we have to in order to survive and thrive.

As inauthentic and dishonest as this may be, we usually convince ourselves of the sincerity of the mask we don, in order to make our way in the world.  Mostly we can convince ourselves, at least for extended periods of time (sometimes decades) that this is who we really are. The unconscious though is typically not invested in this fiction, it retains an image of who you were before you convinced everyone how nice and polite and reasonable and functional and adapted you are. This deeper truth that resides in your unconscious or soul, if you will, visits you in dreams and fantasies initially. Later, if resolutely ignored, it returns as the symptom.[8] This is the neurosis, the self-sabotaging behaviour, the inability to relate meaningfully, the incapacity to experience joy or meaning, chronic melancholy, depression and a host of other symptoms, including physical ailments and disease.

Although this provisional personality can be and often is highly functional for a time, time, in the final analysis, is against it. There usually comes a point, sooner or later, when the pretence is up. One can only convince oneself and others for so long, before the fiction runs out of steam, or in psychological terms, libido. Trying to be that which you are not is a movement away from your essential self. At a certain point in this act, we find ourselves alienated, lost and sad. We don’t know who we are and this causes us anxiety and depression.

Many people are afraid to look inwards and to learn to know and ultimately love themselves. If your whole life you have been chastised for being different, or have been shamed for your behaviour, the idea of self-appreciation is far-fetched and almost impossible to imagine.

Behind this provisional personality is the authentic self. Even the word, “authentic” has become, unfortunately, a cliché. To speak plainly,[9] an honest self. In Jungian psychology, we speak of becoming conscious or, more specifically, of making conscious what was previously unconscious. Becoming conscious, simply means becoming honest. It really is no more complex than that. The challenge that psychoanalysis presents us with is that honesty is far more changeling than it sounds. The idea of an unconscious self, introduces deception into our psychology. A part of ourselves, of our identity, beliefs, values and desires is hidden from us. We are given to self-deception; and as night follows day the deception of others.[10] Psychoanalysis, and more specifically in this context, Jungian psychology, offers a way out of this deceptive fiction.

You have a temper, you get irritated, you want things perhaps you shouldn’t. These characteristics and desires are qualities that possibly you don’t like in yourself, that you judge as faults in need of remedy. They are, nevertheless, authentic, what you feel, believe and experience, if you are honest with yourself.  You feel emotions that confuse you. You scare yourself sometimes with your secret thoughts. You are ashamed and embarrassed about who you are. Yet these are the things that separate you from others, make you who you are, make you unique. Everything about you that differs from the norm is authentic. It is in this difference that you as an individual exist, outside of any faceless statistical aggregate. Authenticity is about being honest with yourself about who you are, where you are going, what drives you, what you do not like, what enchants you, what you love. It is your unique perspective. It is your psychic fingerprint.

In the Jungian system, when we use the word “transformation”, it means something very specific. It is an inwards spiral, facilitating the movement towards your soul; your essential self. This does facilitate an inner evolution, on occasion even revolution, but, critically, not into something other than who you are and always were. Jung said, it is better to be whole than to be perfect, and that is the crux of Jungian work. To move inwards, change the way you relate to yourself, develop compassion and empathy for yourself, recognise your humanity, to learn to understand yourself and appreciate your unique individuality, are the objectives of the Jungian system. This movement towards a life that most authentically, appropriately and honestly symbolises your soul in the world, cultivating an attitude of love and understanding towards yourself and a corresponding shift in your attitude towards others, is the Jungian Opus and the focus of our work at The Centre for Applied Jungian Studies.

Until we speak again,

Anja and Stephen

[1] Charismatically acted by Frank Grillo
[2] Kingdom (previously titled Navy St.) is an American drama television series created by Byron Balasco. The series premiered on October 8, 2014 on the Audience Network.[1] It stars Frank Grillo, Kiele Sanchez, Matt Lauria, Jonathan Tucker, Nick Jonas and Joanna Going. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_(U.S._TV_series)
[3] Possibly borrowed from The Sopranos.
[4] Season 2, episode 8, ‘Smoker’.
[5] “Fiction has the structure of a truth: More-than-material subjectivity isn’t a false, fictional epiphenomenon since it literally (re)structures the very being of the individual (as Lacan puts it subsequently in this 1946 text, there is a “law of our becoming” commanding one to “Become such as you are” – that is to say, false virtual identifications become true actual identities through fiction remaking true being in its own image). Lacan goes on to maintain that an intimate rapport conjoins madness and freedom: Both madness and freedom are possibilities for a human being due to “the permanent virtuality of a gap opened up in his essence.” Adrian Johnston, ‘The Symptom’, online journal for Lacan.com, http://www.lacan.com/symptom8_articles/johnston8.html
[6] Saleem Farah (1932 – 2002)
[7] In Freudian terms, the Superego.
[8] The return of the repressed. (Freud)
[9] As Daniel Plainview would put it.
[10] This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.

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Comments (16)

  • Tayne Reply

    I loved this. Thank you

    June 22, 2017 at 20:27
  • Colin Cairns Reply

    A pertinent reminder of how significant “authenticity” can be in our lives.

    June 22, 2017 at 23:05
  • Ray Uzwyshyn Reply

    Great article, Anja! Much to reflect on and really enjoyed reading this.

    June 22, 2017 at 23:45
  • Al Farthing Reply

    Excellent –a really superb vision of what might be —

    June 23, 2017 at 00:02
  • Markus Juva Reply

    Nice article, thank you very much for it.

    Just wanted to say, that “transformation” and “authenticity” wont necessary go against each other. As Jung spoke about Kundalini and its awakening, one could say, that with this awakening “you transform to become your authentic Self”. With the Kundalini awakening you get enlightened enough to witness the ego and super-ego, mis-identify with them and identify with the true, authentic Self.

    Through the practice of Sahaja Yoga I have experienced this, and many of my friends and associates, too. Jung also spoke about collective consciousness, and through this experience one can become aware of it collectively.

    If you want to read more about it, you can see from here:

    http://www.austinsahajayoga.org/carl_jung.html

    http://www.freemeditation.com

    All the best,

    Markus

    June 23, 2017 at 02:02
  • Julio Rivera Reply

    As a devoted follower of the ayahuasca path of self healing, I find this article fascinating because I can clearly see how powerful this medicine is in getting you closer and faster to the desired state described in the last paragraph. Ayahuasca healing work is basically Jung in steroids. Thank you Mother Ayahuasca !

    June 23, 2017 at 06:17
  • Elizabeth Reply

    Beautiful expressed wisdom. Thank you .

    June 23, 2017 at 08:10
  • Siddharth Reply

    It was really good.

    June 23, 2017 at 08:49
  • Ange Reply

    This is beautiful and totally describes, explains and alleviates
    my inner confllict. Thank you

    June 23, 2017 at 13:57
  • Karl Reply

    Discovering Jung, in the form of “Man and his Symbols”, pulled me back from the bring of suicide when I was in my mid- 20s. However, I am now in my mid 50s and still find myself “..alienated, lost and sad”. I feel like an empty husk wandering through a meaningless world. I have meditated on and off for years, kept dream journals, done mindfulness training and CBT…and although these have kept me from severe depression…seemingly they have not remedied the “…the self-sabotaging behaviour, the inability to relate meaningfully, the incapacity to experience joy or meaning”. I feel increasingly desperate as I get older and feel like time to find real meaning, purpose and joy in my life is running out.

    June 27, 2017 at 02:26
  • RICHARD E DE-SAFERE Reply

    Thank you tough Im feeling shaken…

    June 27, 2017 at 05:49
  • David Reply

    It kind of gave me a headache. I’m left with the impression it isn’t razor sharp on the relationship between authenticity, self-alienation, and transformation.

    June 27, 2017 at 05:54
  • David Gardener Reply

    I detect a blind spot in this article.

    I don’t disagree with the main point of the author that one’s greatest advantage is to become honest with oneself and develop self acceptance just as we are.

    The blind spot is the implication that appends the self acceptance with a silent implication that “… and this is all I’ll ever be.”

    It is not a blind alley to seek transformation.

    As the article begins it defines this quest for transformation as a pursuit of trying to attain some kind of normality to gain acceptance by others who are also trying to pass for normal.

    I agree, that is not the right trajectory if one wants to achieve an integrated state of individuation.

    But what about transformation of the self to gain integrity with ones own value system and morals?

    First comes self acceptance as one is but I reject the notion that that is all I will ever be. I CAN create a more aligned version of myself and it is the unending pursuit of self editing that gives my life meaning. I may have defects but that doesn’t mean I am stuck with them forever. I am a work in progress and I can create a more conscious and moral me that I’ve yet to experience.

    We are a product of our own beliefs and we have the ability to change our beliefs about self and experience a more satisfying version of ourselves if we so choose.

    Honest self acceptance of where we are is important but it only implies “thus far”, not “all all I ever have the chance of becoming.”

    June 27, 2017 at 11:30
  • Stephanie Reply

    Loved this really well written and succinct, thank you.

    June 27, 2017 at 12:26
  • Bill Moats Reply

    A hard hitting commentary on the so-called transformative process. For many years I danced around various tribes associated with these themes and spent thousands for workshops, trainings and yes, Jungian Analysis! However, at the so-called… end of the day, I find myself at the proverbial abyss.

    Is the abyss authenticity? Is is transformation, or some other condition of consciousness?

    We attempt to define this state of inner and outer tension by writing books, articles, making videos and movies, holding countless seminars and developing models for thinking and behaving that somehow purport to lead to a “new” sense of awareness that offers the possibility of making choices that for many reasons we would on could not have made prior to consuming some or all of these enlightened tidbits of wisdom.

    You may by now detect a note of cynicism in this response. Yes, here again we have a condition of being, thinking and behaving that some would say all of the previously listed efforts at self discovery might have invited a metamorphosis from, for example cynicism to criticism.

    But where is the allowance for creativity or playfulness or even the absurd? Such a serious topic surely deserves our best effort to flex all of our intellectual muscles, no?

    June 27, 2017 at 15:24
  • Linda Hawkins Reply

    Hell yeah! Say it like it is. Great share. Thank you.

    July 4, 2017 at 04:43

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