Jung’s Model of the Psyche

I wrote yesterday about the child’s psychological wanderlust, that is, his natural need and desire to spend plenty of time at liberty. These hours spent at liberty are often the place to which we must return later, to begin to reclaim the authentic selves we lost somewhere along the way.

jung’s model of the psyche

Jung’s model of the psyche may facilitate understanding; I offer two below. One doesn’t see a label for the person’s physical body in either model. This is because in analytical psychology, we see no division between body and mind; thus, the body is assumed and contains the psyche and all the contents of the psyche. The body expresses the workings of the psyche through somatization, making physical that which is psychological.

In the first figure, a conical model of the psyche, one sees that the psyche consists of the ego, the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious, and the deepest part of the collective unconscious that can never be made conscious. The second, circular, figure of the psyche illustrates the contents of each layer of the psyche. The ego contains and expresses all that is conscious in the individual; the personal unconscious, belonging to the individual, contains a person’s complexes; and the collective unconscious contains and expresses symbols of the collective unconscious, called archetypes. (Other models of the psyche, along with explanations, can be found here.)


The ego is the conscious self (small “s”) peculiar to the individual. It has five functions, including stability of person, stability of identity, cognition, executive function, and reality testing. The ego makes a person reliable and predictable over time, giving us an ongoing sense of personality; it helps us to predict what our loved ones will do in a given situation, and it also helps us to have a stable sense of self over time. The ego helps us to process information, store it, and recall it; it also helps us to deal with the everyday demands of the world. Finally, the ego helps us with reality testing by giving us the ability to obey and respect the basic laws of physics.

The ego grows and develops throughout our childhoods and well into adulthood. The first half of life, in fact, is consumed by egoistic demands. We spend our entire youth pursuing the props of the ego, trappings that help us to show others who we are, what we are about, what we stand for. It’s developed through activities such as education, career, and relationships (dating, marrying, having children, etc.). We stay busy, thanks to the workings of the ego, which consume and obsess us.

something wicked this way comes

By the time one has reached middle age, the ego has become over-developed and begins to act as though it is the center of the psyche and its only inhabitant. By mid-life, the ego has gone too far, and the Self begins to assert itself. The personality begins to break down because the whole Self has not been addressed or respected; the person has answered only egoistic demands and has given little or nothing to the needs of the real Self. Over many years, a person may come to be more of a human doing than a human being.

The ego must be brought into line. It is at this point, usually, that the central organizing archetype of the psyche, the Self, steps forward in protest. “Wait a minute!” it seems to say, “there’s more to you than that, and I’ll prove it!”

The second half of life involves ego-self reunification. Ego runs off of false fuel, fuel that cannot possibly run the human engine for a lifetime. This is why it is that people often seem to run out of gas by middle age, losing energy and ambition, or being overcome by anxiety or fear. Many people feel they’ve missed the boat by middle age; one is not all one pretends or hopes to be.

Just as the ego worked to be more and to have more, focusing on the external and taking the self farther and farther from the rest of the psyche, so the Self strives to alter this one-sidedness, dredging up feelings of loss, loneliness, alienation, meaninglessness, depression, anxiety, etc. Because such feelings may also be triggered by traumatic events such as the end of a marriage, the death of one’s parents or another loved one, or the empty nest, it’s not unusual for people approaching or already in middle age to regard the event as the real cause of their malaise. In fact, it’s more likely that the diminishing returns of the ego are to blame.

In Jungian Psychology Unplugged, Daryl Sharp (1998, Inner City Books 93) indicates the typical progression of events in a midlife crisis:

  • 1. Difficulty of adaptation and progression of energy.
  • 2. Regression of libido; depression, lack of disposable energy.
  • 3. Activation of unconscious contents (infantile fantasies, complexes, archetypal images, inferior function, opposite attitude, shadow, anima/animus, etc.). Compensation.
  • 4. Formation of neurotic symptoms (confusion, fear, anxiety, guilt, moods, emotional reactions, etc.)
  • 5. Unconscious or half-conscious conflicts between the go and contents activated in the unconscious. Inner tension. Defensive reactions.
  • 6. Activation of the transcendent function, involving the Self and archetypal patterns of wholeness.
  • 7. Formation of symbols (numinosity, synchronicity).
  • 8. Transfer of energy between unconscious contents and consciousness. Enlargement of the ego, more adequate progression of energy.
  • 9. Integration of unconscious contents. Active involvement in the process of individuation.

The Self can only be seen through images we call archetypes such as hero, king, queen, wise old man, orphan, savior, divine couple, etc. in dreams, myths, fairytales, and the like. When a person is at an impasse developmentally, it is through trying to break through to the hidden life of the unconscious that she may find the way to her true Self.

siren’s call

The true Self speaks in images, often in images we find in our own dreams, but also through what we feel deeply, what overwhelms us. I plan to write more about the process of how the siren of our true selves calls out, and how we may follow that lovely voice to shipwreck. For though it’s possible to avoid shipwreck, it’s not likely if a person has done what nearly everyone else does, too, which is to feed the ego at the expense of the real self for two-thirds of our lifetime. This requires us to spend the third half of life fixing what we did before–and many never do.

Some of you are under age 50 and may be wondering what possible relevance this has to you. My answer is, “wait and see.” Thanks to a trustworthy witness in my life, today I was led to see that I had lost my place of refuge when I was around 30 years old. It can happen to anyone. We start out well, don’t we? We know who we were, kind of, when we married. But after several children and the demands of marriage or career, somehow it becomes easier to lose ourselves as we enter our 30s and 40s. Jung himself (and I’ll recount his story tomorrow) was all but lost to the life of his unconscious by the time he was 38 years old, which is when his split with Freud occurred. Our late 20s and our 30s and all the way into our 40s are dangerous times, times when we may wander so far inland that we can no longer hear the sirens singing, calling us to wreck ourselves on account of beauty at the place where dry land and deep water intersect.

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