I’ve written briefly in the past about archetypes, but it appears that it’s time for me to explain a little more about them and how they work in everyday life–particularly, how they appeal to me in my life. One of the commentators on a recent thread asked about the anima, the female part of the male, so to speak. With a view to writing about the anima next, bear with me as I first lay a brief foundation in archetypes that I haven’t laid elsewhere.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung first proposed the theory of archetypes. Like his mentor, Sigmund Freud, Jung believed that all people possess an unconscious mind containing personal forgotten and repressed contents which Jung called complexes. Unlike Freud, however, Jung believed that the personal unconscious acted as a superficial layer of a much larger and deeper layer of the unconscious “which does not derive from personal experience and is not a personal acquisition but is inborn” (Jung, Archetypes 3). Jung called this deeper layer the collective unconscious, and its contents he called archetypes.
Jung traced the use of the term archetype to Philo Judaeus, who used the term with reference to the Imago Dei (God-image) in man, and to several other classical sources, noting that archetypal contents are transmitted through tribal lore, myth, fairy tales, and esoteric teaching (Jung, Archetypes 4). Archetypal contents are also found in dreams; Jung believed that the existence of typical mythologems in dream contents indicated that myth-forming structural elements must be present in the unconscious psyche and common to all people. The personal archetype functions to express a particular aspect of a person’s psyche; when a collective archetype appears, it often corrects the imbalance of an age. For instance, the recent focus on magic and fantasy in all sorts of fiction indicates that we have suffered for too long with the scientific model and are longing for something transcendent to lend balance.
The complexes work together with an archetype thus: complexes are feeling-toned ideas that accumulate over the years around certain images or ideas such as mother, father, money, power, orphan, and so on. These images have an archetypal core. There is an archetype of mother, an archetype of father, and (I think) an archetype of orphan. We carry collective archetypes arising from human conceptions of these images that have survived over the centuries, and we also carry personal images or archetypes that are peculiar to us. The personal archetype is developed over time, and complexes usually attach to them as barnacles to a ship. Where the archetype goes, the complex goes until and unless we do something about the attachment.
When a complex is activated, we know so because strong emotions are present and are often expressed, whether the feeling is love, joy, hate, rage, sadness, fear, suspicion, or any other strong emotion. An emotional reaction means, in Jungian theory, that a complex has been constellated.
“We cannot get rid of our complexes,” writes Daryl Sharp, “because they are deeply rooted in our personal history. Complexes are part and parcel of who we are. The most we can do is become aware of how we are influenced by them and how they interfere with our conscious intentions. As long as we are unconscious of our complexes, we are prone to being overwhelmed or driven by them. When we understand them, they lose their power to affect us. They do not disappear, but over time their grip may loosen” (40).
Complexes are not necessarily bad, particularly if we’re aware of them. They can make life interesting and energetic. However, we’ve all had the experience of being bushwhacked by strong emotions and even of making asses of ourselves as a result; this is the unhappy result of being too unconscious of the effect of our personal history. I think understanding and awareness go a long way to helping us develop from being slaves to our complexes to being responsible owners of them.
In some conditions such as schizophrenia or during a psychotic break, a complex emancipates itself from conscious control to such an extent that it becomes visible and audible. They can appear in visions and speak in voices like regular people. Jung believed that this was not in itself pathological; he recommended that his clients experiencing psychosis engage in dialogue with their manifesting complexes and archetypal characters and believed that medicating schizophrenic patients into oblivion was a psychiatric error. As he took his clients seriously and showed respect for all the manifestations of their inner contents, he found his patients improved. This is one of the aspects of Jung’s early work with psychotic patients that I most admire: he refused to treat them as crazy people and, instead, treated them as what they were, people.
In Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), students are taught to consciously emancipate their complexes by visualizing them and talking with them. Depth psychologists believe that it’s healthy to give one’s complexes “a voice, a face, a personality,” because then “they are less likely to take over when you’re not looking” (Sharp 40).
We like to think we are masters in our own house, but clearly we are not. We are renters at best. Psychologically we live in a boarding house of saints and knaves, nobles and villains, run by a landlord who for all we know is indifferent to the lot. We fancy we can do what we want, but when it comes to a showdown our will is hampered by fellow boarders with a mind of their own (Sharp 40).
Regardless of what we intend consciously, our complexes and the archetypes they attach to live their own lives in the underground of our unconscious while we go about our daily business. People whose inner lives manifest and interfere with their conscious lives are often diagnosed and said to have mental illness. Certainly, they are suffering; but I believe that many times, people who are semi-comatose spiritually, going through life unconsciously, are much more ill and in danger than their diagnosable counterparts.
This statement may seem shocking, but when one considers how other segments of society are rewarded for manifesting and constellating their complexes and archetypes, one has to reconsider. For example, script writers, actors, playwrites, artists, poets, and fiction writers all dramatize their mental contents, often allow their inner personalities to take the driver’s wheel, so to speak, and are considered talented and even gifted for being able to do so. We are anavoidably drawn to the person who readily manifests a real self, even if in a fragmented way. Or perhaps especially if in a fragmented way, for this is the way these selves manifest: in bits and pieces, showing this part or that part, something like a kaleidoscopic picture of personality.
Sharp writes that even if writers deny that their work has psychological meaning, “in fact you can read their mind when you study the characters they create” (41).
Jung saw complexes as islands of consciousness split off from the ego-mainland. This is a useful metaphor. When you’re emotional, caught in a complex, you’re cut off from rational ego resources; the complex rules the personality for as long as you stay on the island. When the storm dies down you swim ashore and lick your wounds, wondering what on earth got into you (Sharp 41).
A Primer on the Archetypes
Among these inner bits of self, or these islands outlying the ego, are various archetypes and personalities. One of the most often seen and useful of these is the persona.The persona is the face we show to the world; it is best symbolized by clothing. It is useful as we put it between ourselves and the world and use it to make a smooth path for us socially. For instance, one wears an evening gown to a formal affair; and a bathing suit to the swimming pool. The bathing suit would be inappropriate to the formal affair, and vice-versa. So, the persona functions for us when we use it to clothe our selves with the veneer of social responsibility and good manners. If we choose not to allow the persona to assist us in this way, we are deemed uncouth and ill-mannered.
On the other hand, a person may so identify with her persona that she, in effect, becomes it. Certainly, the outside world rewards those who seem persona-based and nearly begs us to identify with it. People who single-mindedly play one role in life are usually rewarded for it; however, this very single-minded cardboard cutout of a person often becomes a trap. Think about the preachers who fall into sexual scandals, or the typecast actor who is repeatedly cast as a comic in spite of having enough depth to pull of a dramatic role. Those who have no hidden self are probably over-identified with their personas.
The shadow is the Mr. Hyde part of Dr. Jekyll and Mr, Hyde. The shadow is the trickster, the dark side, the side that puts its foot in its mouth, the part that opposes and compensates the conscious ego side of the personality. If we are compulsive about being neat and mannerly, he picks his nose at the table. He appears in our dreams. If male, our shadow is a male figure in dreams; if female, our shadow is female. She’s the figure we dream about and loathe, unable to imagine that she’s part of us.
The more identified a person is with the bright-as-a-penny image of their persona, the more dark and fearful the aspect of the shadow will be. Conversely, the person who has developed enough to own her flaws is more likely to perceive a shadow that is as much as companion as anything else. The shadow requires conscientious attention to one’s moods, fantasies, and dreams, and a long process of dialogue. The shadow is the other side of the ego coin, so to speak, and as such one cannot function without the other. As Daryl Sharp writes, “they can either collaborate or tear each other apart” (47). This is why scriptures and ancient myths and tales are full of stories of figures such as Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah. What they teach us is that whatever is divided and opposed is also destructive. This is the danger of externalizing the shadow and projecting it onto other people or groups.
Other archetypes (by no means an exhaustive list) include the Child, the Divine Couple, the orphan, the Wise Old Man or the Wise Old Woman, and archetypal images of wholeness such as the circle, the quaternity, the mandala, and so on.
- Man and His Symbols, by Carl Jung.
- The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, by Carl Jung.
- Jung Lexicon, by Daryl Sharp.
- Jungian Psychology Unplugged, by Daryl Sharp.
Jung, C. G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Sharp, Daryl. Jungian Psychology Unplugged: My Life as an Elephant. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, 1998.