“Moving from paralysis to full vitality and creativity” is a key theme of our recent book Into the Heart of the Feminine. From the responses we’ve received, women, in particular, seem to identify with this issue immediately. No matter how strong and successful we are, we all seem to feel paralyzed in some area of our lives.
Frequently, we become paralyzed when it is in our best interest to act in a way that displeases someone else. The same can be true when we need to confront someone in a close relationship or perhaps, a bombastic boss. Or we may become paralyzed when we need to become vulnerable in love. The same may happen when we have to confront and admit to ourselves the reality of how we actually were parented, without relying on our convenient explanations and excuses that we tell ourselves about how mothers and fathers treated us.
But we weren’t born paralyzed. Our paralysis comes from our experiences growing up. The core of these experiences is shaped by our culture’s wounding and belittling of the basic feminine principle – what we call the archetypal feminine – that is necessary to support the wholeness of life. In our book, Into the Heart of the Feminine, we follow the lead of the Jungian analyst, Marion Woodman as we journey deep into the dimensions of this wound in ourselves and in our society.
We identify this wound as “the Death Mother” because in general it is a negative force that affects all of us. In particular, it affects our capacity to “mother”…it affects our ability to like, nourish, and take loving care of ourselves. As a psychological complex, the Death Mother’s reign is much more around us than we may even realize. When we need to assert ourselves, try something new, advance our creativity, step out of our expected roles, share our vulnerability, or recognize our deep hurt, anger, or even joy – the Death Mother steps in. She is cold, denigrating, disapproving, and repulsed by our needs and desires. She is like Medusa. The instant we hear her voice within us, we freeze, we are turned to stone, and are left haunted by our guilt and shame.
In Into the Heart of the Feminine, we say more about this effect in the section”Turned to Stone” (p.102-103):
…Over the years, I have worked with woman after woman who was intelligent, capable, even professionally trained, and yet was still paralyzed when it came to pursuing her life with a sense of authenticity and security, grounded in her own ability. I am even more saddened to see how our ability to love and be loved and to be whole people in relationships has been frozen by the Death Mother’s influence in our families and in our society.
Not only have I seen this in the people I work with, but I have experienced it myself. I have questioned my own ability to believe in myself, in my potentials, and in my own success, not for years, but for decades. And I have wondered if I would ever really know what love is and if I would ever really experience it.
The effect of this paralysis is, therefore, very potent and very frightening. It has the ability to numb our capabilities to be productive, energetic, creative, and independent without our becoming fully aware of it. I have worked with women who were unable to finish college or graduate school because they were “paralyzed,” and with women who had chosen to get married, not out of love, but because they were “paralyzed” and couldn’t figure out what else to do. Moreover, the Death Mother limits our capacities to trust love and friendships as well as life. And all too often we, both men and women, unconsciously try to heal ourselves by seeking a good enough mother in our spouses, lovers, or partners.
I have also worked with a number of women who became professional, supported by the courage of the times, but could not bring their creativity and energy fully into their lives. In many cases, these women were haunted by the images emanating from the Death Mother. Such images spoke of shame, incompetence, and not deserving success. These feelings are especially debilitating when they are unconsciously projected on bosses, colleagues, competitors, and other people with authority.
In a similar vein, I have been very moved when working with women who truly wanted to bring love into their homes but were paralyzed even there by the pressure of negativity that they have inherited, which boils deep within their souls. In many cases, visions of their unhappy mothers and clichés of women’s roles in the 1950s and before cloud their vision of their possibilities today. With our history in this regard, a history I have shared that I was deeply affected by, this clichéd, shallow image of the feminine caused too many of us to see being quiet, receptive, and, at times, passive as capitulation to a destructive patriarchal system. This was an accurate assessment of the surface of our society.
But looking on a more profound level, we can see that the elemental aspects of the feminine are the holding vessel for love, creativity, and the nurturing of a true love life. I think that much of the rage in our souls boils at the way the patriarchal social character fails to value women’s efforts-and those of men as well-to bring love into our homes. The Death Mother has also robbed us of models of whole, mature adults being in love, struggling, and growing together.
We use the myth of Medusa in our book to show us the roots of how the archetypal feminine in our lives has become wounded. The myth also becomes a map for our transformation and informs us how to release our deepest abilities to become fully alive and creative. This journey requires courage – not the “blood and guts” kind of courage from the playing field or battlefield – but the kind of courage that allows us to give ourselves presence and attention. It is the kind of courage which allows us to look in the mirror, to journey into our own dark places, and to inspire a sense of meaning to take root and grow there.
So, I remember that while this journey must be careful,
it will be filled with awe at times, not just fear, rage, and grief.
And the outcome will be one of love, in its largest sense.
Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris