Emily’s Paper: An Archetypal Exploration of a Painful Symptom

Concrete, medically diagnosed illness … is not only a clinical event.  It is also, if not first and foremost, a psychological event whose physical aspects require a psychological examination. … Everything matters to soul and expresses its fantasies, whether ideas in the head or bones in the body…. The components of any illness–affected organ or system, causal agent, style of disease process–all have their significances in the language of pathologizing fantasy as well as that of pathological facts.  – James Hillman

10557189_10152163740116441_9004527298024650714_n[This is a version of a paper I did fifteen or so years ago for a class at Pacifica. It’s a story amplified by material from James Hillman’s writings (you can check out the bibliography at the end if you want). The story itself is worth reading—I’ve got that in bold italics. You can read just that part, but if you want more of of the background, read the parts in between. Long, but fun to read!]

Archetypal psychology, as James Hillman talks about it, introduces a different way of thinking about our lives and about psyche.  Rather than just looking at an image, an event, or a symbol, Hillman suggests we approach it by means of imagination, and look for the deeper, wider, richer meanings.  Each thing is given an importance beyond what is seen on the surface.  “The archetypal perspective offers the advantage of organizing into clusters or constellations a host of events from different areas of life.” No longer is behavior just behavior, distinct from our style of consciousness; no longer is our consciousness distinct from our images.  Rather, each “category” enriches the others, and we begin to sense, or imagine, the depth of psyche.

It’s a Friday evening, and I’m visiting with an unusually intuitive friend of mine, someone who knows me well and whom I trust.  We’re talking about a job interview I had this afternoon—it looks like within a couple of weeks I’ll have a part-time job that will help pay my school and travel expenses, plus give me much-needed health insurance.  This is an exciting turn of events. 

This particular night, however, I am in tremendous pain from a several-year-old injury to my lingual nerve. It usually affects just my tongue, but tonight the entire side of my face is throbbing.   My friend says, “Interesting that it’s so much worse today.  Could there be a connection with the job thing?” 

The pain is incredible. Oh great, I think to myself, I sure hope there’s no connection—I’ve been looking for this kind of job for months!  But I have too much experience with this kind of synchronicity to discount the possibility. “Well, maybe, but I sure don’t know what it might be.  It hurts too much to think.  Any suggestions?”

My friend is quiet for a minute, tuning in.  Finally she says, “You’re not listening to your body.  Hmmm—this is interesting: I get the sense that somebody in there has some stories to tell.  Wonder what that’s about?” 

 The pain is on the left side; I try to pay attention to the left side of my body, but nothing comes to me at first.

Pathologizing: falling apart.  In Revisioning Psychology, Hillman  introduces four major functions that give the practice of archetypal psychology a way of moving toward meaning.  One of these functions he calls pathologizing. He suggests that we begin to look at psychological illness in a different light: as an activity of, a communication from, the psyche, and not as an illness that needs to be cured.  He uses the term pathologizing, which he defines as “the psyche’s autonomous ability to create illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering in any aspect of its behavior and to experience and imagine life through this deformed and afflicted perspective.”  In this way psyche speaks to us and affirms its own existence separate from ego.

The medical model used by Western culture has tended to treat mental and physical illness as breakdowns in the smooth functioning of the mind and body, and therefore something to be fixed and made to work “normally” again.  But Hillman suggests that pathologizing is normal, natural, and indeed indispensable: “The psyche does not exist without pathologizing.”  If we dismiss our pathologies as mere breakdowns, we deny our soul its voice.  If we medicate the symptom away, or “fix” it surgically, we silence psyche and banish it to the realm of the meaningless.  And in my experience, if we ignore psyche’s attempts to communicate with us via a symptom by getting rid of it, the message simply reappears in another place, another form, in our body or mind.  Our soul will be heard.  “Until the soul has got what it wants, it must fall ill again.”

As I’m trying to listen to the pain, I recall the last class session, and how Hillman suggests that we “host” our symptoms.  So instead of wanting this pain to go away, I should just witness it?  Ha!  That Hillman has never had pain like this!  Damn right I want it to go away!  But rats, I do know better: I can sense at some level that if I will it away, or “cure” it with medicines or surgery, it will just reappear in a different form somewhere else. There’s a larger message here, and it must be a big one (or one I don’t want to hear!) to need a pain this huge.

Personifying.  Hillman’s second technique is personifying: he suggests that we look at our symptoms archetypally, taking interior events and putting them outside of ourselves, making their contents alive, animate, personal, and maybe even divine.  The phenomena are to be seen as beings with their own life and intentionality.  “We” are multiple; “our” psyche may consist of more than one psychological being.  Those other beings we “imagine” inside ourselves are alive, are in fact “as they present themselves.”  By allowing this personifying, we may encounter anima, or soul.

Hillman also stresses the importance of imagination, particularly in terms of acknowledging the many personalities, or “personified agencies.”  He suggests an introspection that arises not from rationality or from ego, but rather one that seeks to interact and converse with these imaginal beings on their own terms–at the level of soul.  But this kind of introspection has been explicitly belittled in our Western culture: “The denial of daimones and their exorcism has been part and parcel of Christian psychology, leaving the Western psyche with few means but the hallucinations of insanity for recognizing daimonic reality.  … Introspection’s course and limits were set by a consciousness that insisted on unity.”  And the consequence of this denial is that psyche is left “…bereft of all persons but the ego, the controller who becomes super-ego.”

Later in the evening, home in bed, I finally begin to hear something. I become aware of a sound within myself somewhere.  Is this the pain speaking?  I can hear no words, but the anger is palpable.  It looks/feels kind of wraithlike, but spiky.  I get nothing clearer than that.  Anger—rage—heat.  And it’s loud—a wordless clamoring for attention that has the squeaky timbre of a grackle’s cry but seems to exist in sound-dimensions at the very edges of my perception. Hmmm.  I’m not at all sure what to do with that, and it’s too painful (literally!) to listen.

But there’s another sound—a child’s voice—and it’s in a rage, shrieking in anger, and maybe fear.  Who is this?  I approach cautiously.  She—it’s a girl, maybe six or seven—becomes aware of my presence and turns to me in a fury.  Child she may be, but she has the vocabulary of a sailor.  I’ve never been called such outrageous names in my life!  What on earth have I done to deserve this?

It takes a while, but she settles down and begins to talk to me.  She doesn’t trust me, doesn’t like me, but is willing to talk if I’m willing to listen.  Still crying, she says, “I’m not going back to jail!  I won’t go!”  Jail?  Seems she’s angry and frightened about having me go back to work, which she equates with a prison sentence.  Not very reasonable, if you ask me—oops, another mistake—she heard that.  We’re back to name-calling again.  Oh man, I’m going to sleep.  Go away, little girl, and maybe we’ll talk tomorrow when you’re in a better mood.  Ouch!

Psychologizing, or seeing through. Hillman calls his third technique psychologizing.  Idea and action are not separate, he suggests, though we have been taught that ideas are mental while action is of the body.  In fact, psychological ideas are the way soul orients itself in its world.  Our modern souls suffer from too few ideas.  “A psyche without sufficient ideas becomes in need of persons, unable to distinguish between persons and the ideas they embody.  In its victimization it looks for masters.” We devalue our own imaginings, our own deep psychological ideas, and take on the myths that our culture teaches us.  We devalue ideas themselves, which “…leads to unreflecting action…. Then we borrow alien perspectives, regarding ourselves as consumers, computers, or apes.”

The next morning I reach out gingerly; she’s still there.  Her name is Emily, she says, and she’d like to talk with me.  “All right,” I say.  “Let’s just hang around together and get to know each other.”  She still doesn’t trust me, but seems willing to give it a try.

Over the next couple of days Emily and I get acquainted.  Her favorite place is in the garden. “That’s where the magic is.”  Now I remember her from years ago, showing me how the fairies make their dresses out of flower petals and spider silk.  My parents used to tell me I was being silly, that I’d never grow up and amount to anything if I hung on to those crazy ideas.  Gradually, I began to shut Emily out and eventually forgot her altogether.  No wonder she doesn’t trust me! And when I shut her out, it seems, I also forgot a lot of important things.  She’s right—all my jobs, my “career choices,” really have seemed like prison, in a way. 

I’m a little afraid of Emily now, because she seems to be the one in charge of the pain in my tongue and jaw.  She says she’s sorry about my tongue—“I poked it with a stick, but I poked it too hard and now it’s sore.”  That’s just great.  And there’s more, I can tell by her shifty manner—but that’s all she wants to say about it right now.  She’s all excited about going outside.

Dehumanizing or soul-making.  In describing the fourth method of archetypal psychological practice, Hillman suggests that we try to see the world through more-than-human eyes.  The human body is contained within soul, not the other way around; we neither contain our soul nor define it.  Psyche is boundless.  But Hillman argues that body, too, is boundless: “body is also a subtle body–a fantasy system of complexes, symptoms, tastes, … pathologized images, trapped insights….” Furthermore, what we believe to be our self, the ego, is actually only one among a host of characters.  The concepts of group dynamics apply to our psyches as well as to our business meetings!

Gods and daimones abound in Hillman’s psychology.  “Archetypal psychology envisions the fundamental ideas of the psyche to be expressions of persons—Hero, Nymph, Mother, Senex, Child, Trickster, Amazon, Puer, and many other[s]….”  It’s by keeping these archetypal roles in mind that we can become aware of the larger significance of our actions.  If we lose touch with these “root metaphors,” we tend to get stuck in patterns, often destructive, that we don’t understand.  It is critically important in this type of psychological thinking that we look for the archetypes present in each moment.  Who is speaking?  What is the story being enacted here?

She is a child, no doubt about that.  Most of the things I’ve been accustomed to worrying about are of no interest at all to her—she just wants to play.  “But Emily, honey, I’m a grownup and I have to do some of these other things.  Can we do some of them together?”  She’s doubtful.  We try vacuuming the floor, and make a game of sucking up the bad dirt.  It’s fun—which is an amazing thing in itself.

But I have a paper to write, and I doubt that Emily has much use for research papers.  Aha—a brainstorm: “Emily, would you like to be in my paper?”  Immediately, she starts jumping up and down, yelling “goody goody!”  I guess that’s a yes.

“So, Emily, what archetype are you representing?  The Child, I suppose.”

“I’m not an archetype.  I’m Emily.”

“Yes, but according to Hillman, since you’re part of my psyche, or I’m part of our psyche, you probably are some archetype, or some god or goddess, or something like that.  I can’t think of any child-gods in mythology.  I looked up the Child archetype, but it didn’t seem to fit—you don’t seem so innocent and powerless to me sometimes.  Hey, quit squirming and pay attention a second, OK?” I’m learning a lot about children—archetypal, imaginal, or otherwise.  One of the most surprising and frustrating things about Emily is how short her attention span is—fifteen minutes is about all she can manage.  So we head back outside to water the flowers some more.

Reading life backwards.  Hillman uses the image of Picasso’s le jeune peintre, done the year before the artist died, to explicate an idea that Hillman takes from Henry Corbin:  “we must ‘read things back to their origins and principle, their archetype…. One must carry sensible forms back to imaginative forms and then rise to still higher meanings….’”  Psyche creates symptoms, which we can then look at, dialogue with, until we get back to the more fundamental image and so understand them on a deeper level.

While we’re playing in the water, I try again.  “So, Emily, help me out with this, will you?  You’re insisting you’re just Emily, but if Corbin is right, and Hillman, then there’s a higher meaning, right?”

“Everybody has a kid in them, don’t they?”

“Yes, I suppose so.  So are you saying … are you getting at the Child archetype that we were talking about before?”

“Yes.  But I’m not that archetype thing—I’m Emily, just me.  Somebody else has a different little kid inside.  That archetype thing doesn’t mean we’re not kids—we’re not some big cloudy thing, you know.  We’re just kids.”

“Oh!  I get it now!  That ‘big cloudy thing’ is kind of like the higher category, or the form, or something ‘the idea of a child’—the archetype.” Hmmm.

 But this thing with the pain….  Let’s see….  “I think I understand now what was going on when this pain started: there I was, in the dentist’s chair, and you were there too, Emily, scared out of your mind because this guy was gonna stick big needles into us and drill on our teeth and gosh knows what else.  And the whole time I (the one you keep calling Tomlinson, the one who thinks she’s in charge) was there saying to myself, ‘it will be just fine.  I’m not scared at all.  No, I don’t need to be scared, because I know everything happens just the way it needs to; I co-create the reality I need.’  New Age mind-over-matter stuff.  Not that it isn’t true, but not the way I thought it was true.  And then the dentist sticks the needle in, way back in, and you’re terrified and want to cry or bite him or both, and Tomlinson is sitting there in total denial.  Even when the tip of the needle actually pokes the nerve itself, Tomlinson just says, ‘Well, at least we know you hit the right spot, so it will be perfect.’  Yeah, right.  Perfect.”

Symptom as a way to soul.  One of Hillman’s most important themes is the necessity for us to move away from our egocentric preoccupation with our own symptoms as happening to us and begin to look to what they say about soul in the truer, larger sense.  We need to look at soul in the world, soul in things, not just our “own” psyche and our own lives.  What do our symptoms say about our communities, our culture, the way we exist with and within the world itself?  Hillman writes, “You could … say what I am reaching for … is shifting the idea of depth from the psychology of the inner person to a psychology of things, a depth psychology of extraversion.” It’s not just about us.

Hmmm.  So let’s look at this experience.  What was going on?  Anaesthesia.  Helps with denial.  Let’s not feel the pain, shall we?  Let’s not feel the fear.  Let’s not feel depression, or joy, for that matter.  A little lidocaine, a little Prozac, and it will all be just fine. 

Emily agrees.  “Yeah, that’s really stupid.  I was really mad at you that time.  You’re always doing that, pretending not to be scared or mad or sad—and then you just ignore me, no matter how much I cry or yell.  So I poked you with that long stick, really hard.”

“OK, Emily, I understand that part.  I promise I won’t ignore you like that again.  But that all happened a long time ago.  This pain has flared up several times since then—and why did you poke me so hard the other day?  Why are you upset about the job?  Can’t we make it not like a prison somehow?  And besides, we have to eat, you know!  Grownups sometimes have to do stuff that isn’t fun.”

“I won’t go back there!  I want to play!  I won’t go back!” The pain in my tongue suddenly stabs me.

“So then you’re just gonna keep poking me?  So now every time you don’t get your way you’re gonna poke me?  Jeez, Emily, that’s not very nice!  That really pisses me off!  Little girls aren’t supposed to be so mean—what’s the matter with you?  Wish I could put you on Prozac, or Ritalin, or something and make you behave!”  There, now I’ve done it.  She’s in tears again.  Oh man, that kid frustrates the heck out of me.  I’m going back outside—maybe she’ll settle down.  I have to finish this paper.

A couple of hours later I try again.  “So Emily, Hillman is always saying that we need to look at how things move out into the world, not just stay stuck in our own personal stuff.  Can we talk about that?”

“You already know about it.  You already talked about not feeling things and never having fun—and remember that magazine I showed you about the kids and the playground?  It’s just like that–you made me go to my room and then you forgot about me because Tomlinson had to be in charge.  And I’m too much trouble.  You just want to do all those boring things that don’t make any sense and aren’t any fun.  I don’t care about them.  You figure it out. This paper isn’t fun any more—you go finish it yourself.”

And off she stomps.  Magazine?  Playgrounds?  Oh yeah—I had forgotten about that.  Time Magazine, a week or so ago:

“Where have all the swing sets gone?” asks Laird Harrison in a 2001 Time Magazine article.  Our society, he suggests, is obsessed with control, and one of the manifestations is the regulation of playground equipment for our children.  New federal guidelines that mandate very strict safety standards for swing sets, slides, wheelchair ramps, and climbing structures have caused the conversion or elimination of the plain metal swings and jungle gyms most of us grew up with.  The modern version in the United States tends to be plain-vanilla, non-challenging; safer, yes, but “dumbed down.”  In Laird’s view, these new playgrounds may actually create new problems: among other things, they don’t have that element of danger that might help children learn that some of their own behaviors may in fact be dangerous.  Life on this planet entails certain risks.  And kids, suggests Laird, need to learn that lesson early.

When it comes to our children, society’s obsession with control definitely has a shadow side.  Hillman and Ventura (1992) suggest that our society is preoccupied with innocence, with a false view of the archetypal Child as innocent, powerless, wounded, and in need of nurturing and healing.  We’re also preoccupied with making things safe and comfortable for our children and ourselves as well.  One alarming trend is the enormous increase in children taking Ritalin for “ADD” (Attention Deficit Disorder) or the newer version, “ADHD” (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).  Hillman (1983) suggests, and I and others would agree (see, for example, Reed, 1996), that in many of these cases the children are being drugged in order to make their behaviors more “manageable,” that is, easier for us to control.

Hillman fears that by medicating the manifestations of the child’s psyche we are denying him or her the very experiences that are necessary for the manifestation of the oak contained within the acorn (Hillman 1983).  Children are by their very nature unpredictable, manipulative, joyful, heroic, self-centered, vulnerable, powerful, and powerless.  They are not easy, not controllable or predictable.  And at some level our society hates that.  In effect, our acceptance of more and more medication for the young seems to say that we would rather give the child Ritalin and send her to her room than deal with her; but by doing that, we run the risk of silencing her soul as well.

Well, I guess Emily was right—we had already talked about what takes my personal experience out of the sphere of my own private life and into the world.  I—“Tomlinson,” the product of my culture—have been preoccupied with control, structure, earning instead of learning.  I had forgotten Emily, locked her in her room and forgotten her, until she poked me with her stick.  I had forgotten the pure sensual enjoyment of life, the danger, the unpredictability, the childlike joy of it all.  Maybe, like Hillman said, I needed this pathology, this pain, to shake myself loose.  And maybe now, armed with the recollection of all the qualities of childhood, not just the pure and innocent ones, I can put some of the joie de vivre and tongue-in-cheek playfulness back into my work in the world.  And maybe I can learn to stop trying to control everything.  We’ll see.  Emily and I obviously have a lot more stories to explore together—I still don’t understand this pain completely, and I think she can help me–or at least introduce me to someone who can.  And I’m almost afraid to find out what the other side of my body has to say!




Harrison, L. (2001, May 14). Where have all the swing sets gone? Time Magazine, 157, F11-F12.

Hillman, J. (1975). Re-visioning psychology. New York: Harper & Row.

Hillman, J. (1983). Healing Fiction. New York: Spring.

Hillman, J. (1989). A Blue Fire. New York: Harper Perennial.

Hillman, J. (1996). The soul’s code: In search of character and calling. New York: Warner Books.

Hillman, J., and Ventura, M. (1992). We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Reed, J. (1996). Ritalin: Not the First-or Only-Choice for Active Children with Academic and Social Problems. Virginia Institute for Developmental Disabilities. Virginia Commonwealth University. Retrieved May 16, 2001, from the World Wide Web/2 October 2016: http://www.ldonline.org/article/5989/







2 thoughts on “Emily’s Paper: An Archetypal Exploration of a Painful Symptom

  1. Mai van Run says:

    I love your posts, Kay!
    You are going to write a book, right? What will it be about? Or is that perhaps too hard a question to answer in a few words ;-)?

    Having a dialogue with your ‘inner child’ is very powerful. I had a very special experience in that respect during my Silent Retreat in Spain last April. There was one specific day where I felt totally desperate, lost and empty inside. One of the coaches gave me the assignment of writing a letter to my inner little girl (especially telling her what I admired in her) which has been a very liberating experience until this day.
    (B.t.w. I used to be called ‘Mai’ when I was little 😉 ).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s