The Personal Unconscious

I’ve been writing about the psyche from the perspective of analytic psychology, and have gotten so far as to write about the personal unconscious. This is the layer underneath the ego layer, and it contains all that belongs to you and me personally, but is unknown to us. This is where what Jungians call the “complexes” are-old feeling memories that cause us to react in uncharacteristic ways, for example, and cause us to feel and act as though we’re “not ourselves.” Our ego goes one way, and our personal unconscious goes another. This is where we have slips of the tongue, faux pas, outbursts, irritations, aggravations, projections, fits of anger, blame, dreams, synchronous events, blessings, luminous symbols appearing out of nowhere, and all manner of mystical, magical events. Some seem good, some seem bad; but we are not controlling them. They simply appear or overcome us.

Jung wrote that real therapy begins when the patient sees that it is not his past holding him back, not the fault of his parents any longer, but that he is standing in his own way. He is stuck and the only one making him continue to be stuck, is himself. An unconscious part of his personality continues to carry Mother and Father inside, Mother and Father who bar the way to wholeness, consciousness, and all that he wants. Mother and Father can be dead and moldering in the grave, but he still seems shackled to them by unknown bonds. This is the personal unconscious, the counterpart of his conscious attitude. “It will leave him no peace and will continue to plague him until it has been accepted,” Jung wrote (Collected Works 7, ¶88).

Sometimes, leaving home and getting out on our own is enough to liberate us from the psychological clutches of the past. But many times this is not the case, and, thanks to the personal unconscious, we unconsciously take Mother, Father, and Past with us, projecting their images onto others-friends, lovers, spouse, children, co-workers, analyst, therapist. This continues until, around middle age, disillusionment sets in and many years of projecting one’s own anger onto others and blaming someone or something “out there” exhausts the individual, who finally comes to see that this is his or her own life. This is the time of renewal, if the individual will accept the dissolution of old ties, the destruction of old illusions, and put an end to the transference of old images to new figures (CW 7, ¶91).

transferernce and projection

Eventually, a person realizes that she has been transferring her fantasies, suspicions, grudges, and wounds onto others and begins to recall her projections. She sees herself vacillating between hating others and fuming at them, and idealizing them. In reality, the other person is neither enemy nor savior; he is just another person. The disappointment and disillusionment that results from seeing the truth have the potential of opening up a whole new stage of consciousness and realization. For this reason, I whole-heartedly believe that any time a person is irritated, angry, upset, livid, or has any other reaction to another person, the first thing she should do is stop and recall her projections by using a simple little exercise: Quickly, without analyzing anything, write a quick, short list of all the wrongs the other person has just done you. Just as quickly, on the other half of the page, write down a list of “I” statements that have you doing the exact same behaviors.

For example, you are driving down the road and some fool speeds past you, nearly forcing you off the road. Your adrenalin pumps and your seethe with anger; your anger continues for the next ten miles, as you mentally or even verbally berate the other driver. “You idiot! You numbskull! You inconsiderate bastard! People like you make me crazy! You don’t care about anyone but yourself! Look at you in your huge, gas-guzzling new truck while I am putting along in my 10-year-old Volvo with my CHILDREN, you asshole!” I’m sure you get the idea; just think back to the last time your righteous indignation went sour and crossed over into (yes) projection of your own, personal unwanted, suppressed garbage. Just because you drive an old Volvo doesn’t mean that you don’t have a gas-guzzling new fill-in-the-blank something that symbolizes your disdain for everyone else (or whatever you think that huge vehicle symbolized to the guy who just whizzed past you); it’s there, all right. It is right there in your life because you are so livid about it. Nobody died; nobody had a wreck. but you are furious. This is because inwardly, something bigger than the actual incident occurred and you reacted with a 10 on a scale of one to 10, when the actual incident was probably only a three. That’s your unconscious, reacting by projecting. Call that puppy back and look at yourself, and you will be on your way to greater self-knowledge and tolerance.

archetypes and symbols

Images, symbols, and fantasies are the language of the unconscious, both personal and collective. My own unconscious is needed by the collective unconscious or no perception of collective symbols can be understood. However, my own unconscious has symbols personal to me that others may or may not grasp or empathize with.

An example is the orphan archetype, which I have written about from time to time. The Orphan is, according to Jung, common to all of us because aloneness is common to all; he wrote about the orphan as a sub-type of the Child archetype (I believe it may be its own archetype, but never mind that). From Oliver Twist to Harry Potter, the orphan symbol is alive and well; we understand him and our heart-strings are tugged by him. But why is this? Because the abandoned, lonely part in each of us is appealed to by stories of loss and reunion on a collective, universal level. However, my own personal story of loss, abandonment, and loneliness also illuminates this archetypal symbol. If I do not own my personal abandonment and plumb the depths of my mother- or father-loss, I may sublimate it and work with orphans or become a foster or adoptive parent. On the other hand, I may side with my abandoning parents and even become an abandoning parent, myself (whether to my own children or to others who take the place of the child figure does not matter). As long as I am unconscious to the personal meaning  of my own abandonment and my ego’s refusal to move past it, I will act my abandonment and orphanhood out until I am finished with it-or until it finishes me. This is how the collective unconscious and the personal unconscious can work together. The universal parts of the abandonment experience can be used in analysis or therapy to draw connections between what’s peculiar to me, and what’s common to us all. In fact, knowing that an experience or archetype really is universal may allow my ego to step aside long enough for me to begin to deal with my unknown aspects.

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