Assagioli presents the history of psychotherapy and its importance for the healing of psychological conflicts and presents the outline of his clinical theory of psychosynthesis.
By Dr. Roberto Assagioli, From the journal RADIESTESIA, July-September 1950, derived from the Assagioli Archive in Florence, Doc. #23111. Original Title: Bio-psicodinamica e Psicoterapia. Translated and Edited With Notes by Jan Kuniholm
Our valued collaborator Dr. Roberto Assagioli has for some years been developing the concepts and applications of a new science, bio-psychodynamics, in which the principles, laws and techniques of energetics and physical dynamics, especially electrical dynamics, are extended to biological, psychological and spiritual life.
Such a science does not have to be created ex novo (from scratch). There are already a number of contributions by various authors (such as Janet, Freud, Jung, A. Bailey, De Sanctis and Assagioli himself) on certain aspects of psychodynamics, such as “psychic potential,” mental level oscillations, psychological polarity, transformations and sublimations of psychic energies, etc.;[i] but the coordination and systematization of these contributions into an organic science is lacking so far.
Dr. Assagioli has promised to give our journal an article in which the first lines of a bio-psychodynamics will be set forth. But — since a good part of the facts on which he bases this study are drawn from the direct experience of his psychotherapeutic activity with patients, as well as that of other psychotherapists — he considers it appropriate, for the better understanding of what he will expound, to have that study preceded by the following article, in which a clear “panorama” of the methods used by modern scientific psychotherapy is offered. — Editor, Radiestesia.
Psychological methods of treatment — while they constitute effective, and the many cases irreplaceable, weapons against numerous diseases — in their rapid and varied development also reflect the profound changes that have taken place in the field of culture since the last decades of the last century. So their knowledge may be of interest to anyone who wants to discern “the signs of the times,” even apart from the practical value of those methods.
The basis on which psychotherapy is founded consists in the growing recognition of the very strong influence of moral life on physical life. This influence had always been more or less admitted, but its extent and depth had not hitherto been discovered, and it had not been used methodically and scientifically for healing purposes.
In the period of the last century, when materialism prevailed, that influence was neglected, if not denied, to accentuate instead the dependence of the psyche on the body. But more open-minded positivist physicians who were free of preconceptions were led by their own observations of the sick, first to recognize that influence, and then to make use of it. Thus the French psychiatrist Charcot,[ii] already around 1860, went so far as to title one of his papers La foi qui guérit.[iii] The slightly later studies of another French physician, Pierre Janet,[iv] in L’automatisme psychologique,[v] revealed the importance of the unconscious as a conduit of psychic influences on the body, and confirmed and extended Charcot’s somewhat simpler investigations and applications. Similar studies were being done, at about the same time, in England and elsewhere.
Before briefly expounding the development and respective value of the various methods of psychic treatment, it should be made clear that psychotherapy should be differentiated into two different branches, according to the different fields of action in which it can be explicated.
First there is general psychotherapy, which can and should be applied in every illness, since, given the actions and reactions that continually take place between body and psyche, there is a psychological factor in every illness (the mere fact of falling ill constitutes a small or large psychic trauma).
An American surgeon, who had directed a Red Cross hospital during the Balkan wars (1912-1913), in which Serbs and Bulgarians had been victors and vanquished, assured me that he had found that the wounds of the victors regularly healed faster than those of the vanquished. The state of mind, whether elevated or depressed through sleep, appetite and organic regeneration, significantly affected the healing processes. Another American surgeon systematically uses psychotherapy in his clinic, having psychotherapeutic preparation done before surgeries, and psychotherapeutic care after them; through that preparation he was able to greatly reduce the dosage of anesthetics needed.
All the greater then can be — and in fact is — the action of psychotherapy in diseases where the neuro-psychic factor is greater and more directly determinant (dyspepsia, spastic constipation, enterocolitis, pseudoappendicitis and “abdominal symptoms,” neuralgia, cardiac neurosis, nervous asthma, functional paralysis, etc. ), and generally in all long-course diseases in which mental or emotional depression, worry or impatience exacerbate or “fix” symptoms and often produce new ones. Of course, this “General Psychotherapy” does not exclude proper cures of all kinds; on the contrary, it promotes and enhances their effectiveness. Therefore, psychological treatment methods applicable to general medicine should be known, appreciated and used by all physicians who realize that they are treating human beings and not just “bodies.” Otherwise, as Dubois[vi] wittily put it, there would only be a “différence de clientèle” between them and veterinarians!
On the other hand, special psychotherapy is aimed at the treatment of specifically nervous and psychological disorders: anxious states, phobias, obsessive ideas, depressive states, excitability and impulsiveness, abulia and inability to act, etc. These have rare and complex causes [that are usually] unknown to the sufferer himself, since they are produced by contrasts and conflicts that largely originate and take place in that dark region of the psyche of which we are unaware, which has been called the “unconscious.”
Psychotherapy of these maladies requires adequate psychopathological culture, difficult training, and special individual training of the physician. It is a delicate work of great responsibility, and must therefore be reserved for competent specialists.
The methods of psychotherapy have grown in number, and have been refined with the rapid progress of this branch of the healing art. The first method used by scientific psychotherapy was hypnotism, and with it Pierre Janet in France, Forel[vii] in Switzerland, Braid[viii] in England, Morton Prince[ix] in America, and others, achieved excellent results. Soon, however, its limitations appeared (it makes the patient too dependent, and does not eliminate the causes of ills). Moreover, it was found that suggestion in the waking state was often just as effective, without presenting the limitations and (at least some of) the drawbacks of hypnotism. This method, supported and popularized especially by Nancy’s Bernheim,[x] has since become widely used. Curative suggestion should be understood in a different sense from [the misconceptions] often attributed to the word, which make it almost synonymous with deception and illusion. It can be defined as the set of procedures by which:
- one elicits the ideas, images, feelings and impulses that tend toward the desired goals.
- one encourages their penetration and action in the unconscious, so that they then spontaneously produce the corresponding physical and psychic states.
A further advance was the shift from suggestion to autosuggestion; that is, the aim was to make the patient capable, through appropriate teaching and training, of influencing himself on his unconscious and thus influencing his moral and physical conditions.
This method, which was extensively popularized in simplified form by Emile Coué,[xi] an empiricist full of fervor and humanitarian sense, was refined and placed on a firm scientific basis by Baudouin,[xii] whose book Psychologie de la Suggestion et de l’Autosuggestion (Neuchâtel, Delachaux & Niestlé)[xiii] is highly recommended.
Even more decisively Dubois, of Bern, addressed the conscious part of the patient through the method of persuasion.[xiv] By this the patient is helped to free himself from fears and other harmful emotions, to discipline his sensitivity and exaggerated reactions, to correct his erroneous attitudes, and thus to eliminate some of the causes of his ills.
The methods mentioned above can in many cases be very usefully associated with active re-education of impaired or paralyzed functions. Patients often indulge in discouragement and thus inertia; they often shy away from exertion, and therefore passively suffer their ailments. In such cases active re-education, taught and directed by the doctor, can succeed very beneficially. For example, by this simple procedure I have been able to heal several soldiers who had been suffering from mutism for two or three years as a result of shock suffered in war.
There are, however, a large number of patients in whom the methods indicated so far are insufficient to produce healing. These sufferers suffer from disorders that have obscure and complex origins that lurk in the shadows of the unconscious, and thus require careful and profound exploration. The main method for such investigation is the much-discussed psychoanalysis.
The contrasts and misunderstandings that exist regarding psychoanalysis depend to a great extent on the confusion that is generally made between the psychoanalytic method, which is a technique of psychic investigation and therapy, and the psychoanalytic doctrine elaborated by Freud,[xv] composed of interpretations, hypotheses and theories of widely varying value, some ingenious and acceptable, others patently excessive and one-sided; and some which display a complete misunderstanding of the higher aspects of human nature, and which are therefore dangerous and harmful.
It is not possible on this occasion to delve into a discussion of those theories, no matter how important and vital the issues they cover; we must limit ourselves to a few mentions of psychoanalytic technique.
Psychoanalysis can be regarded as a derivation and development of a method of psychotherapy used by the Viennese physician Breuer,[xvi] the cathartic method, which consisted in making the patient recall, under hypnosis, psychic traumas and forgotten impressions that are repressed in the unconscious, and then in discharging by appropriate effort the strong emotions connected with those impressions.
Freud replaced hypnosis with the method of “free associations;” that is, the patient’s exposure of every thought, image, memory or other state of mind that spontaneously occurs to him, eliminating all inhibition and criticism. To this he added the analysis of dreams (again by means of free associations), the elimination of the patient’s psychic “resistances,” and the interpretation of the psychic material thus collected. This technique was later developed by Jung,[xvii] who used the method of associations provoked by a series of stimulus-words, and later by the method of spontaneous drawing by the patient.
The discharge of repressed psychic forces in the unconscious, the elimination of “resistances,” and the psychological clarification that results, are beneficial and in many cases lead to the disappearance of even serious disorders.
But — apart from the abuses, exaggerations and errors to which it can give rise — practice has shown that psychoanalysis (even when implemented in the best possible way) is still insufficient to heal a large number of patients who need something more and different. In fact, it often happens that, through psychoanalysis, a patient becomes clearly aware of the various psychic forms existing within him (instincts, passions, tendencies, feelings, ideas, aspirations and ideals) and the conflicts that occur among them, but then does not have the ability and energy to master and direct those forces, and to settle their conflicts.
It is therefore necessary for the physician to direct and assist him in this work by the use of a method — or rather a coordinated complex of various methods — which have been grouped under the name of psychosynthesis. Psychosynthesis includes the following stages (which, however, in treatment do not follow one another in a rigidly systematic way, but can often be carried out, to some extent, simultaneously):
1. – Integral knowledge of the personality of the patient.
This includes the exploration also of the “higher unconscious” or superconscious, by which one discovers the deepest and truest callings, the higher elements of the soul that urgently need to manifest themselves, and which are not infrequently rejected due to misunderstanding, preconceptions or fear. This is the recognition of the spiritual aspects of the human soul. A good contribution to this was made by Jung, who, with this and other valuable contributions, expanded the field and increased the effectiveness of psychotherapy.[xviii]
2. – Mastery of the various elements that make up the personality.
The main method by which the patient can be helped to acquire such dominion is to train him to “objectify,” so to speak, the elements of his psyche, and to look at them from above. It is based on a general principle of psychic life, according to which “We are dominated by everything with which our “I” or self identifies. We can master everything from which we disidentify.”
3. – Self-realization.
Formation of the “ideal model” to be implemented. The patient thus liberated, at least partially, can be helped to acquire clear self-awareness, to create an accurate image of a healed, harmonious and efficient self.
4. – Personality reconstruction.
This can be called the “psychosynthesis” in the strict sense, and is implemented in turn in various stages:
- Utilization of physical and psychic energies through their channeling and harmless, or rather, useful and fruitful expression. This often requires, however, a work of transmutation and sublimation of some of these energies, especially the sexual and combative ones. But there are appropriate psychological techniques that facilitate such “transformations,” which have interesting analogies with those of electrical energy.[xix]
- Development of the patient’s deficient elements, either by autosuggestion and creative affirmation or by methodical training.
- Coordination and subordination of the various physio-psycho-spiritual elements in a proper hierarchy of values, resulting in the formation of a firm and harmonious personality.
By means of psychosynthesis, healing of the most complex and profound ills, which involve the whole personality and do not yield to other, more limited cures, is achieved better than by other methods. Among these are some which cause severe suffering in those affected, and which also sometimes constitute a social danger. I allude especially to the various psychosexual disorders and deviations (functional impotence, frigidity, acquired sexual inversion, and deviance of various kinds).[xx]
All of this concerns the patient taken in isolation; but in reality one must also consider his environment and the vital relationships he or she has with other people. In fact, in many cases the most bitter conflicts that have resulted in the most severe symptoms are not so much the inner ones as those that have arisen between the patient and other people (often those in the family), or between him or her and certain environmental and social conditions. This was highlighted well by Alfred Adler, who based his method of psychotherapy primarily on correcting the instinct of domination (“will to power”), and educating the patient in how to establish right relations with other people and the community.
Such work — which may be called “inter-individual psychosynthesis” — is the natural complement of individual psychosynthesis, and is especially necessary in the present time, which is full of conflicts and difficult adjustments between individuals and human groups, so that it acquires great social importance.
From what has been said — albeit too briefly — I hope it is clear that psychotherapy has a much greater value and function than is generally believed, not only by the public but also by physicians, especially in Italy. While offering valuable means for the healing of ills that are among the most widespread and tormenting, it can contribute effectively to the collective healing of humanity and to the advent of a better and more harmonious civilization. Therefore, psychotherapy deserves to be increasingly appreciated, disseminated and applied.
[i] Transformation and sublimation of sexual energies (Review of Applied Psychology No. , 1911) – Transformation and sublimation of combative energies – The psychology of ideas-forces and psychagogy (Review of Applied Psychology, No. 5, 1919). —Original Editor’s Note.
[ii] Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), French neurologist and professor, “founder of modern neurology,” best known today for his work on hypnosis and hysteria. —Ed.
[iii] French: “Faith that Heals.” —Tr.
[iv] Pierre Marie Felix Janet (1859-1947), pioneering French psychologist, physician, philosopher and psychotherapist. —Ed.
[v] French: “Psychological automatism.” —Tr.
[vi] Paul Charles Dubois (1848-1918) was a Swiss neuropathologist. —Ed.
[vii] Auguste-Henri Forel (1848-1931), was a Swiss neuroanatomist and psychiatrist, known for his investigations into the human brain; he was a co-founder of the neuron theory. —Ed.
[viii] James Braid (1795-1860) Scottish surgeon, philosopher and scientist, was a pioneer of hypnotism and hypnotherapy. —Ed.
[ix] Morton Prince (1854-1929) was an American physician who helped establish psychology as a clinical and academic discipline. —Ed.
[x] Hippolyte Bernheim (1840-1919) a French physician and neurologist, was known for his theory of suggestibility in relation to hypnotism. École de Nancy (The Nancy School) was a French hypnosis-centered school of psychotherapy, which was opposed to the Paris School of Charcot. —Ed.
[xii] Charles Baudouin (1893-1963) was a French psychoanalyst. —Ed.
[xiii] Suggestion and Autosuggestion: A Psychological and Pedagogical Study based upon the Investigations Made b y the New Nancy School (1922). —Ed.
[xiv] “Persuasion therapy” is considered by some to be early form of rational or cognitive therapy.—Ed.
[xv] Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an Austrian neurologist who founded psychoanalysis and formed a school of therapy and theory which many younger psychoanalysts such as Jung, Adler and Assagioli eventually rejected. —Ed.
[xvi] Josef Breuer (1842-1925) was an Austrian physician who made discoveries in neurophysiology, and whose “talking cure” formed the basis of psychoanalysis as developed by Sigmund Freud. Breuer appreciated Freud’s contributions to psychoanalysis but did not agree with Freud’s “absolute and exclusive formulations.”—Ed.
[xvii] C.G. Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist who for a time joined in Freud’s psychoanalysis, but left the Freudian group and the Psychoanalytical Association, forming his own version which he called analytical psychology. —Ed.
[xviii] Here are some of his significant expressions: “To be ‘normal’ is the ideal aim . . . for all those who are still below the general level of adaptation. But for people of more than average ability . . . the moral compulsion to be nothing but normal signifies the bed of Procrustes — deadly and insupportable boredom, a hell of sterility and hopelessness. Consequently there are just as many people who become neurotic because they are merely normal, as there are people who are neurotic because they cannot become normal.”(The problem of the unconscious in modern psychology, Turin, Einaudi 1942 p. 25). This theme was developed in my essay: Spiritual Development and Nervous Diseases (Rome, Institute of Psychosynthesis, 1933). —Author’s Note. This translation is taken from The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, complete digital edition, V.1-19, Edited and Translated by G. Adler and R.C.F. Hull. —Tr.
[xix] This is the theoretical and practical field of bio-psychodynamics.—Author’s Note.
[xx] According to the APA Dictionary, “Sexual inversion” is “an old name for same-sex behavior or orientation or assumption of the role of the opposite sex,” which would have been the usage current when this essay was written. “Sexual deviance” is any sexual behavior, such as paraphilia, that is regarded as significantly different from the standards established by a culture.—Ed.