Psychologist and Jungian analyst in Barcelona and online.

9 December, 2021

Obsessive Disorder from a symbolic perspective

When we are asked what psychological line we follow at IPITIA, the centre I direct, to treat OCD, we always answer that it is an eclectic and integrative line, an analytical-experiential method, in which there are conceptual elements of Jungian theory, because that is my training, but they are not the only ones, the bio-psycho-social theory of Th. Millon or ethology itself, -study of animal behaviour-, are if possible as influential or more so in the form of therapy that we use.

In this article, however, I am going to try to approach what could be a symbolic vision of what OCD could be.

I start from the premise that an obsessive disorder originates through two fundamental variables:

A certain genetic predisposition (which does not condemn, that is to say that it does not have to manifest itself if there are factors that trigger it).
Traumatic or stressful experiences lived at a specific moment in life or during a certain period of time, especially in childhood or adolescence.

What is the degree of influence of each variable? It will depend on each case, but without the concurrence of both, there is no obsessive disorder (I would go so far as to say that both are necessary for any type of psychological disorder).

Therefore, yes, repeatedly yes, emphatically yes, both variables are required for this disorder to occur. And it seems to me almost frivolous to consider that only one is the cause, whichever of the two.

So what happens?
The reptilian brain, amygdala-hippocampus, is impregnated with an emotional memory trapped in fear and/or guilt. And, therefore, it “hijacks” the person’s psyche.

From a certain moment on, the affected person starts to live more out of avoidance than out of desire, more so that nothing bad happens than to achieve the positive. Life is a chessboard and spontaneity hardly exists. Rigidity has set in and anxiety manifests itself as the body’s way of rebelling, and when ignored, it becomes an obsessive/compulsive manifestation.

I go to the symbolic.

I will start with two Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus who were brothers of their father, Zeus, the supreme god of Olympus.
The former represents order, harmony, reason, civilisation and beauty, among others.
Dionysus, on the other hand, represents excess, ecstasy, chaos, the spontaneous, the anti-conventional,…
Let me give an example:
An Apollonian painter will be the one who makes realistic portraits trying to faithfully approach the object, a Dionysian one will be carried away by intuition and emotion to compose something much closer to his particular sensory perception than to the truth.

Which god predominates, symbolically speaking, in a person with OCD?
Apollo, without a doubt, in his maximum splendour, and Dionysus hardly exists, not even a shadow of him (or yes, if we refer to the Jungian concept of “shadow”, the latent unconscious that houses everything that we are and feel but do not experience in reality).
Moreover, even the activities of the latter, such as dancing, are carried out from the perspective of the former, of reason. The person acts by controlling his or her movements and the image that he or she may be offering to others.

Then, logically, Dionysus will have to be integrated, at least enough to compensate for the Apollonian tyranny (what I call in my book “rescuing the princess”).

We will have to invoke him as the ancient Greeks did, or better to start activating those tasks or experiences proper to his deity.

A parenthesis. It is true that there are show business personalities who suffer from an obsessive disorder, that’s right, and who are apparently Dionysian: alcohol, some drugs, promiscuous sex, parties… Yes, but they do it all from control! Moreover, perhaps without certain substances they could not “dilute” as they do on or off stage!
Because obviously, for a “hard” Apollonian, the integration of “his opposite” requires courage, a lot of courage. And not everyone is willing to do that. Because for someone with OCD anything that means “letting go” sounds like a risky adventure, ridiculous or something they can’t control and scares them.

Let’s imagine the following scene:

A pure Apollonian comes to the consulting room: he plays sports regularly, he studies or studied a technical or scientific career, he has a girlfriend whom he loves and with whom he hopes to start a family, he gets along well with his parents, he even has a certain level of friendship with them, especially with his father, and he has friends with whom he goes out for drinks and fun. He is obviously incapable of transgressing in any respect: he is faithful to the core, he believes that all women like men and all men like women, in his imagination the “wife-children-home-dog-pool-barbecue-football” pack is presented as paradise on earth.
If their life were a film series, the most dramatic thing that could happen is that the dog would get something stuck in its paw and they would have to go to the emergency room to find a vet.
There is one concept they would never understand, nor do they ever understand: ambiguity.
For a pure Apollonian, things are what they formally represent, no more and no less.
That is why, if they read, they like historical novels, for example, where feelings are always noble and not given to fickleness, or essays, where they cultivate thought.

But it turns out that a dramatic circumstance happened to our Apollonian, for example, he saw his mother kissing another man when he was a child. This had such an impact on him that, from that moment on, he unconsciously kept it to himself and tried to ensure that his parents would never separate. Since then he has lived with a latent fear that the family will not be destroyed, and with guilt for not having said anything.
We already have the future trigger of anxiety, and perhaps obsessive disorder.

He lives trapped in a conservative dogma that does not correspond to the reality of life, he is a slave to a belief. Everything is much more changeable, more nuanced, more complex.

And if he does not integrate the Dionysian component, if he does not develop the anima (the feminine unconscious in the psyche of man), if he does not “rescue the princess”, he can live trapped in anxiety, without the capacity to enjoy life, to relax, to dilute himself.

How is Dionysus integrated?

Fundamentally through the body and the senses: dance, music, theatre, massages, doing nothing, creativity through any artistic or musical manifestation, the harmony of the body (and not so much the musculation of the body), the search for beauty in oneself or in others, leaving the established (it is not necessary to break any moral or ethical rule), the understanding of the other, be it of another gender, of another sexual tendency, of another culture, openness in all senses.

But of course, all of this requires a more complex, practical but profound therapeutic process, because the aim is to generate a more integrated personality, without excessive uni lateralisation.
We are in times of reductionism and psychological simplism, but the psyche requires a certain depth in its approach and change requires action.

Damián Ruiz
Barcelona, 9 December, 2021

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