Gurdjieff, Freud, Jung, Therapy, and the “Chief Feature”

George Gurdjieff, mystic teacher of the first half of the last century, taught that each of us has a “chief feature,” which can only be shown to him by someone else.  Gurdjieff pointed to the chief feature of his students by how he treated them in various situations, and by situations he put them into in which their chief feature would come to the fore in ways that they would have to acknowledge and deal with.  Sometimes people couldn’t stand to see themselves so exposed, and left.


Of course, while we may have one chief feature at a time, we can certainly have different chief features over time; which highlights the need for periodic self-encounter.


Something like this happens in therapy, where, as I like to say, “Everyone needs someone else to hold up the mirror.”  In therapy, too, the client may leave, seeing her own reflection in the mirror and blaming it on the therapist.  Of course, it’s up to the therapist to be a good-enough mirror; we have to “polish our mirrors” in order to reflect out clients back to themselves without distorting the image too much with our own stuff.  The Sufi wisefool figure Mulla Nasrudin demonstrates what can happen.  One day he stopped to pick up a fragment of a metal mirror by the side of the road, thinking it might be something valuable.  Looking into it, he saw his own reflection, and threw it away; exclaiming,  “How ugly, no wonder someone threw it away!”  Was the mirror too distorting, or was Nasrudin too repulsed by his own reflection to recognize himself?


As far as I know, Freud never had a relationship with anyone in which his chief features were pointed out to him.  He claimed to have conducted the first psychoanalysis on himself, but “everyone needs someone else to hold up the mirror.”  Psychoanalysis has suffered, ever since, from the unacknowledged chief features of its principle founder, among them reserving to himself the role of arbiter of ultimate truth, and conflating “psycho-analysis” the treatment procedure with “psychoanalysis” the culture in which his role as supreme arbiter of truth was embedded.  Jung wasn’t in therapy either, as far as I know, but his relationships with women would have provided mirrors; particularly with the brilliant and powerful Sabina Spielrein, and also with his later mistress Toni Wolff and his wife Emma; powerful women in their own right.  Freud never had a relationship with a woman as strong as any of these, as far as the historical record tells us.

It All Goes Together

The current fashion in diagnostic practice is to isolate the emotional from the personal, and both of these from the spiritual or meaning-of-life.  Mostly, the personal and spiritual/meaning-of life issues are ignored, and the focus is mainly on the emotional.  So, for example, a patient may be diagnosed as depressed or bipolar, without further elaboration of their personality functioning or their spiritual or meaning-of-life issues.  We see this in medication advertisements on television, and in the way that diagnosis is usually done.


In fact, while diagnosing people in this way may be better than nothing, because it might lead to treatment decisions that might help with the emotional parts of disorders, it falls far short of a more comprehensive approach to understanding and treating human beings in distress.  In order to understand a human being more completely, we need to understand her/his emotional (“affective”) functioning, personality functioning, and spiritual or meaning-of-life orientation and issues.  And we need to place this understanding within the context of two stories:  the story of the person’s life, and the story of the situation or problem that brought them into counseling/therapy.


Now, understanding these issues doesn’t mean that they must be completely understood; that would be the work of a lifetime.  They just have to be understood well enough for treatment to take place.  And gathering this information, this “data,” is itself part of the treatment, for it encourages the patient/client into sustained reflection on her/his life and self, and builds rapport between counselor/therapist and client/patient.


Talent, Sensitivity, and Work On Oneself

Those with extraordinary talent and sensitivity might be in greater need of self-work than others, in order for the interaction of the world with their talent and sensitivity not to become too unmanageable. Some of that can be done in therapy, but only some. The whole idea of work on oneself as something one is engaged in over a large part of a lifetime hasn’t really caught on yet. Sadly.

Review of “Hanging By A Twig: Understanding and Counseling Adults with Learning Disabilities and ADD,” by Carol Wren, with Psychotherapeutic Commentary by Jay Einhorn

(Reviewed by Delores S. Doherty, MD, FRCPC, St. John’s Newfoundland, in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2006, 15, 95-6)

This book could not have come into my experience at a better time.  My patients are growing up, and lo and behold, they are still disabled!

Hanging by a Twig is the way one disabled adult described her life, i.e., just hanging on and always precariously.  Mary’s story is told in chapter 2, intermingled with information on the historical context of our current understanding of learning disabilities, learning styles, cognitive strengths and weaknesses.  Each chapter in this book is built around the story of an adult with specific learning issues.  Carol Wren moves us through the stated purpose of the chapter while Jay Einhorn gives us a psychotherapeutic commentary on the issues described.  Together they take us through development of self, coherence of self, adult skill set, self-esteem, addiction, and other co-morbidities, looking at the issue and its impact on the individual.

The pervasive nature of these impairments of cognition on the overall functioning of the individual becomes very evident as we read these real life stories.  In addition, the challenges for doing therapy with these people, who are intrinsically at heightened risk for personality distortions, jumps from the pages.  The authors make clear the need to help these adults understand their own strengths and limitations.  Then they are better able to make informed choices in regard to further education and career, to seek appropriate supports for themselves, and to begin to consider the impact of their disabilities might make on personal relationships.

As a group involved with children and adolescents, I believe that we also have an obligation to attempt to help our adult colleagues understand that these individuals suffer.

This book is a resource that we can recommend with enthusiasm.  It is well written and provides clear descriptions of a number of possible scenarios as well as suggestions for management.  I will be encouraging those I know who counsel adults with residual developmental concerns to read and learn from Hanging by a Twig.  I have already recommended it to our local chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association.  It is an excellent resource and an enjoyable reading experience.

(published by Norton and Co., New York, 2000)