Psychotherapy & Negative Capability

Poet John Keats offered the term negative capability to describe his ability to embrace a host of subjective experiences that most people avoid.  In a letter to his brother in 1817 he defined negative capability in these terms, “…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reach after fact and reason… in order to allow, as yet unimagined, creative possibilities to emerge.”

In an article in Contemporary Psychotherapy, Diane Voller applies this notion to her work as a therapist, declaring, “‘Negative capability’ is the advanced ability of a person to tolerate uncertainty. This does not mean the passive uncertainty associated with ignorance or general insecurity but the active uncertainty that is to do with being without a template and yet being able to tolerate, or even relish, a sense of feeling lost. ‘Negative capability’ involves purposely submitting to being unsettled by a person, or situation, and embracing the feelings and possibilities that emerge.  (

Voller introduces the concept of “space” to describe the intimacy of a close relationship that can be found in therapy or with any care-giving relationship, professional or personal. This is the ability to get out of oneself and realize that the distinction between “me and thee” is not as definite as we are taught that it is and yet avoiding the pitfall of co-dependency.  It is the ability to enter the domain of “no-boundaries” even as one maintains his/her own “boundaries.”  The 13th century Persian Sufi poet Rumi best described this essential spiritual skill, “Out beyond the distinctions of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field.  I will meet you there.”  Rumi keenly grasped the need of getting beyond the distinctions of “me” and “thee” if we are to enter sacred space with another person and clinical work is intrinsically spiritual.  Or it should be.

Voller is simply putting on the table for therapists and care-givers the notion of vulnerability.  It is so much easier to practice clinically when one is ensconced in jargon and “shop-talk”, hiding behind a diagnostic knife which always keeps the client “out there” separate and distinct from oneself.  And relevant to vulnerability, my mind always comes to a pithy observation from Norman O. Brown, “To be is to be vulnerable.”  If one is invulnerable, he/she lacks ‘be’-ing in the world.  He/she is just another object in a world full of objects, devoid of any spiritual (i.e. “spacial”) presence.

5 thoughts on “Psychotherapy & Negative Capability

  1. Monte Zerger

    I liked this from Keats a bunch. To use Jung’s term as I best understand it, I cannot see how once can become individuated with out embracing uncertainties, etc. This is the path we must go down if we ever want to be liberated, or at least, somewhat liberated.

    A couple of excepts along this line:

    To strive for perfection is a high ideal. But I say: “Fulfill something you are able to fulfill rather than run after what you will never achieve.” Nobody is perfect. Remember the saying: “None is good but God alone.” [Luke 18:19], and nobody can be. It is an illusion. We can modestly strive to fulfill ourselves and to be as complete human beings as possible, and that will give us trouble enough.

    Carl Jung /The Symbolic Life /133

    “It is my impression that those who go farthest in the process of individuation almost always have had some meaningful and indeed, decisive experience of the unconscious in childhood.Jung’s childhood experience is an excellent example of this.What often seems to happen is that the inadequacies of the childhood environment or the child’s adaptational difficulties, or both, generate a loneliness and dissatisfaction that throw him back on himself.This amounts to an influx of libido into the unconscious which is thereby activated and proceeds to produce symbols and value-images which help consolidate the child’s threatened individuality.Often secret places or private activities are involved which the child feels are uniquely his and which strengthen his sense of worth in the face of an apparently hostile environment.Such experiences, although not consciously understood or even misunderstood and considered abnormal, leave a sense that one’s personal identity has a transpersonal source of support.They thus may sow the seeds of gratitude and devotion to the source of one’s being which emerge in full consciousness only much later in life.”

    Edinger /Ego and Archetype /294-5

    Dr. Jung says that it means tremendous suffering to get in touch with the process of individuation.It causes a tremendous wound because, put simply, we are robbed of the capacity for arranging our own lives according to our own wishes.

    Marie-Louise von Franz

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anne-Marie

    This to me is what our lives are about. In me, there is a relatedness to not desiring to live with uncertainty and yet realizing that insecurity and vulnerability are the only way to new life. As I have grown older, the seeds of gratitude and devotion to the source of my being have begun to sprout. My life has not developed as I would have wished and yet it has also been a source of growth and fulfillment. The drive for perfection has been an false god and as I am learning to let go of this, true joy is emerging in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life.



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