Tending The Compulsive Heart.

I’m browsing the shelves of a charity shop. Nearby, a customer is in conversation with the store manager. She has come in to collect some item that has been set aside for her.

‘I’ll just go and get it,’ asserts the manager and heads for the backroom with the kind of competance that gives bouncing babes their rosy cheeks.

‘It’s ok’, says the disgruntled customer, ‘I don’t mean to bother you.’

‘No bother,’ trills the bustling matron, now carving a confident wake across the store, the success of her task a foregone conclusion.

‘I’ll come back another time’, says the customer quietly and by the time the manager has returned with her item she has tipped herself back out into the friendless street, collar turned to the wind.

This tragic insistence that life will always thwart her intentions, so great that it must negate reality to do so, is the stuff of Monty Python sketches.

In fact it is quite funny…

But my guess is that she has lived like that on a daily basis for years…

not so funny..

every new opportunity to re-invent herself has to be passed up for yet another chance to replay the familiar and eternally dissappointing round, a groundhog life of compulsively repeated victimhood and rejection…

in the face of plenty.


A story that typifies this contemporary example and gives us some clues about it is the tale of Sisyphus, who was condemned by Zeus to push a boulder up a steep hill only to have it roll all the way back down just as he reached the top.

His labour is eternal, grinding, deathly.

It turns out that Sisyphus, begging your pardon, King Sisyphus, was an old fashioned tyrant not too different from the charity shop customer who, despite her helpless posturing, aggressively forced circumstances into a mould that violated the manager’s helpful and competant attitude, attacked her kindness and loaded her down with projections of meanness and witholding….

Albert Camus saw Sisyphus as personifying the absurdity of human life and of course the compulsive repetition of self-defeating actions do seem absurd…

until we know the context.

‘In many cases the patient who comes to us has a story that is not told, and which as a rule no one knows of. Therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal … secret, the rock against which he is shattered…’ CG Jung

In his autobiography Jung gives the example of a woman incarcerated for many years in the asylum who made curious rhythmic movements with her hands and arms. They were easily dismissed as meaningless. Jung decided that he had to assume they made some kind of sense and began to make enquiries, difficult given the forty years that had elapsed since her admission.

He looked again at the yellowing case notes to see the movements described as ‘cobbler’s motions’, the drawing up of threads from shoes held between the knees. When she died shortly afterwards her brother came to the funeral and Jung was able to ask when she had lost her mind. It turned out that as a young woman she had been spurned by a cobbler with whom she’d been in love, a rejection she refused to accept..

”The shoemaker movements indicated an identification with her sweetheart which had lasted until her death.” ibid

Sisyphus’ repetition of his apparently meaningless task has similarly significant antecedants.

He was greedy and deceitful. He killed travellers and guests, a violation of Xenia, the Greek Principle of Relatedness that guarenteed hospitality and protection to strangers. He commited incest with his niece Tyro, another violation of Relatedness. He also betrayed one of Zeus’ secrets for material gain.

The maddening  punishment reserved for Sisyphus was due to his conviction that he was not bound by any laws, not even the laws of Death whose chains he escapes when sent down to Hades..

Zeus poetically enchants the boulder to roll away before Sisyphus reached the top of the hill,  an eternal reminder that we are all constrained by natural laws, just as the rock is constrained by gravity.

One version of the story says he tricks Persephone to let him go back to the land of the living to punish his wife, Merope, for failing to bury him properly and refused to return, living out a second old age before dying again.

The circumstances of Sisyphus’ childhood are unrecorded but we do know he  lived circa 1200 BC just around the time that the Great Mother was being killed off in all the Mediterranean cultures. Her loss changed human values because with Her demise the Principle of Relatedness and the unwritten rules about how to treat one another are also lost and all the things we might learn at the breast about how to be with one another are eroded.

Sisyphus lived on the cusp of two worlds. His ancestors were Pelasgians, who worshipped the Great Mother, a practice ended by his father Aeolus who changed their tribal name to ‘Aeolian’, a now hellenised group who spurned the old ways. So Sisyphus was the first generation separated from the Divine Feminine.

We know that his relationship to his brother Salmoneus is one of murderous hate, the kind of hate that siblings have for one another when there is not enough mummy to go around.

His relationship with the Gods is one of trickery and deceipt. Such values are learned pre-verbally. Like the narcissistic prototype of Gilgamesh and Nebuchadnezzar, he is unmothered, internally divided from his loss, bound only by the limits of egoic desire yet empty and disconnected from the feeling tone of his inner world.

‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ Maya Angelou.

Sisyphus grandiose posturing, his defiance of both gods and subjects is compensation for his lack of relatedness but it can’t last forever. The repressed always returns in the form of a nasty symptom, some apparently meaningless compulsion. His belief that he can defy the Gods and cheat Death by failing to return to Hades as he promised is an error eternally impressed upon him by having to return to the bottom of the hill over and over again.

His lack of self-restraint is rooted in lack of early containment. The repetition of the daily round and common task that lends security to childhood has to be replaced by a compulsive disorder which will do the containing for him.

”She had a compulsion neurosis because she could not impose moral restraint upon herself. Such people must then have some other form of restraint and along come the compulsive symptoms to serve the purpose.” CG Jung.

Camus concludes,

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”.

The Obssessive follows Camus’ advice. Except for his symptom he is happy. He tries to forget his story, buries his secrets bedrock deep, betrays the sob of depth dark longing…

But his happiness is a lie…

for what happiness can there be if there is no Mother, if the premise of existence  has to be that life is absurd and the search for meaning futile?



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Psychotherapist/writer/artist/ author of, 'Going Mad to Stay Sane', a psychology of self-destructiveness, about to come into its third edition. Soon to be printed for the first time, 'Abundant Delicious.. the Secret and the Mystery', described by activist Satish Kumar as, ' A Tao of the Soul'. This book documents the archetypal country through which the process of individuation occurs and looks at the trials and tribulations we might expect on the way. In the meantime..... Narcissisim is the issue of our age. This blog looks at how it operates, how it can damage and how we may still fruit despite it.

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