The Three Phases of the Transformative Experience

by Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D.

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The client who enters reparative therapy is in the midst of a crisis that is disordering his life. Now, his heart and mind have been opened to the need to look within. His intent is to rid himself of a behavioral problem as quickly as possible, but there will be no quick fixes: to re-order the dis-order, he must first descend into the depths of his deeply felt emotions.

Reparative Body Work

During therapy, he will encounter a course of what we call Body Work. It consists of three phases - (1) the defensive; (2) the core-affective encounter, and (3) a final, integrative phase.

Our client begins the session in the defensive phase, not wanting to face and fully feel the conflict in his life. His state of mind is dominated by self-protection as the therapist attempts to move him beyond his anxiety and into the core-affective phase.

Slowly surrendering his defenses, he will enter into and become overwhelmed by his deepest feelings about his personal struggle. This is the essence of Body Work; while maintaining emotional contact with the therapist, he must fully engage (on a body-memory as well as psychic level) his core-affective state, along with the physical tension responses that retain those feelings.

Then begins the cognitive integration phase, where he attempts to understand how his life history has influenced the behavioral decisions that have brought him into therapy. This is the period of Meaning Transformation, which integrates his life crisis into a larger perspective.

Those three phases of the psychological journey may be understood as a microcosmic sequence of the same personal transformation that is represented in the epic themes of both Greek classic and religious literature. Across time and cultures, the three phases convey the same universal truth about human development.

The client believes his problem is one of unwanted attractions; but as he plumbs the depths of the unconscious, he discovers that his problem is really not so much about sexuality, as it is about everything else - particularly, it is a deeper identity problem.

The Universal Transformative Experience

In the epic poems of the Greeks, the transformative experience shows us a three-phase passage: exile, journey, and the return home. Christian literature portrays the three phases as descent, conversion, and ascent. Old Testament biblical stories depict sin, repentance, and grace. In the Book of Exodus, the great transition is the journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land; in psychology, the slavery is emotional repression and the Promised Land is self-autonomy.

This journey always begins with the warrior (or pilgrim) who must radically interrupt his everyday life to be confronted with a test. Our client, confronting his deepest emotions, like the warrior, will encounter frightening forces which are to be wrestled with and tamed.

Returning Home: The Classic Tradition

In Ovid's Metamorphoses and Virgil's Aeneid, we have epic tales of descent into the wilderness, and of progress through purification experiences - ending with a final, glorious ascent. Among the Greek mythologies, the allegory of the soul's progress is found in Homer's Odyssey. With the warrior Ulysses, we see a man cast on the ocean and tossed about in a small boat that brings home the lesson of his frail human power.

The Christian Tradition

This same quest to go home, to people of faith, is the struggle toward holiness. Within the Christian literary tradition we see the inspiration of the Biblical stories, foremost of which is Christ's crucifixion and death; his descent into Hell; and his final resurrection. In the Bible, we see the story of the prodigal son who squandered his inheritance, then returned, chastened, and was ultimately redeemed. Greatest among the Old Testament stories is the account of the exodus from Egypt, vividly describing Israel's escape from slavery, the perilous desert crossing and fording of the Jordan River, and ultimate release into the Promised Land.

In Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and St. Bonaventure's The Journey of the Mind Into God, the wayfarer takes a similar journey. In Dante's medieval poem, The Divine Comedy, we see the pilgrim traveling into the Inferno, through Purgatory, and then into Paradise. The Divine Comedy portrays the same three phases of interior transformation: descent, conversion, and finally, ascent.

The Journey as Purification

In many of the texts about transformation, the journey is viewed as a process of purification. Successful completion of the process, in Greek mythology, requires the purging of pride (hubris). In religious texts, the pilgrim must purify himself of the Seven Deadly Sins. Within both secular and religious traditions, this purging process is vividly experienced as a sort of "death."

Reparative therapy acknowledges a similar process; we see a death of narcissistic and False-Self defenses with which the client on some level identifies, mistakenly thinking them to represent his True Self. Here, something old (the False Self) must die in order for something new, more beautiful, to be born. Re-birth involves the client's transformative discovery that life can be lived without those old defenses. When he surrenders the Shame Posture and begins to relate to others through the Assertive Self, he sees his True-Gendered Self slowly emerging.

And always, the journey ends the same way: with a return home to the woman. In all these traditions, it is the feminine who is the giver of life, the mediator of the inner world. Fulfillment of masculine identity - the goal of reparative therapy - now permits the client to receive this once-feared feminine power.

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