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.

9 responses to “The Personal Unconscious”

  1. henitsirk Avatar

    I was indeed shaken. After I pulled over and tried to put my side mirror back together, I just had to sit there a while to keep from crying. The worst part was seeing the hawk’s beautiful face in those few seconds.

    I used to have a book about animal totems. I’ll have to see if the library has it to start thinking about what meaning there might be for me in this. And maybe Man and His Symbols.

  2. Eve Avatar

    David, what good points you make. You are acting very much the parent to yourself, aren’t you? And very much the child, being received back with love and tolerance, over and over again.

    I’m touched by this most recent comment you’ve made; your awareness is startling to read first thing in the morning–as good as a cup of coffee!

  3. davidrochester Avatar

    Happilyeverafterness is surely an ending that takes a lifetime and longer to write.

    I am slowly coming to appreciate how I can learn from my projection reactions, but it’s a new process, and I am still spending some time sulking over the fact that it’s my problem, and not theirs. And of course, sometimes I am triggered by something or someone that really is legitimately problematic, as well as being personal to me, and then it’s fun to sort out The Right Thing from My Personal Thing.

    But I’m kind of enjoying the sulking and rebelling against the necessity to do the work. I know I will do the work, and am doing it, and that it’s in my nature to do it. I was such a preternaturally good kid, though; it’s useful to me to throw a little harmless resentful tantrum in my present continuum, even if I’m my only witness. Then I can sit myself down and try to explain that there’s no limit on how much happiness there can be in the world. My maddening colleague can have a whole lot, and there will still be plenty left for me if I want it, and wanting it is the hard part.

  4. Eve Avatar

    David, you are speaking my language. I had a friend who had such a sense of the benevolence of the universe that she often asked God to give her surprises, gifts and delights, and expected them,… and received them! I would feel so angry with her, and react the same way as you to your friend. Later I saw that she was simply being outwardly what I refused to be consciously. How sad that I had to project my blessed self “out there” and then feel jealous and angry at what I didn’t allow in myself.

    Where did this come from? A childhood deprivation that I had carried into adulthood with me, of course.

    Your friend, like mine, is your sense of entitlement, bounty, and blessing which is alienated from you. And you are acting the dark side for her. Our whole selves are light and shadow, yin and yang, Eve and Lilith, Adam and Christ. And everything cries “glory!”

    I hope you two will do what my friend and I did, which is to detach, make lots of lists about one another, do good work on the depths of our souls (with good help, I might add), and live happily ever after. (Well, I’m still working on that last bit. . .). 😉

  5. Eve Avatar

    Heni, I once hit a seagull that appeared out of nowhere as I was driving in L.A. It was so traumatic, and I too had children with me. My daughter was nine at the time, and my friend’s daughter also nine. It was one of the most jarring experiences I’ve had (strangely enough) to have this beautiful, graceful, white bird with such a long wingspan (up close) suddenly smash into the car in an explosion of white feathers and the reddest blood. We watched it cartwheel across the highway, hitting other cars. It seemed to be in slow motion.

    At the time I did not know what to make of it; looking back on it, when I think about why we were in L.A. and what was happening at the time, I wonder. I’ll have to think about it awhile. But I can sympathize with how shaken you must have all been. A hawk is such a gorgeous creature, too. Even more… stately… than a gull, somehow. And on the highway. Not what one expects.

  6. helenl Avatar

    I’m listening, Eve. I need to read more before I have anything to say.

  7. davidrochester Avatar

    Oh, how odd — if you type a semicolon and close parenthesis, you get a winking smiley, even if you really wanted punctuation.

    I fixed it for you, David. That was odd. It was actually closing quotation marks and a closed parentheses, which shouldn’t have made a winky face, but did. Even odder. Maybe some Trickster archetype of punctuation is playing with us! ~ Eve

  8. davidrochester Avatar

    I don’t know whether I’m on your wavelength today or you’re on mine, or possibly I collided with your blog at a particularly serendipitous juncture; in any event, I left you a comment chez moi that fits in nicely with this, and was a little startled to then read this here.

    The projection thing is so interesting … I am currently dealing with someone who triggers and irritates me so profoundly that I actually feel like I want to kill her, though she has done absolutely nothing to me personally, and has in fact been very gracious and appreciative toward me. But she is vocal about the fact that she feels entitled to have good things in her life, and expects them … and it just makes me so angry, although my hopelessness and negative expectations have nothing to do with her, and her optimism doesn’t diminish me. But my internal reaction to her (which is along the lines of: “How come YOU deserve good things when I don’t ever get to have any?” ) is a challenging one to manage. In a delightfully ironic twist, I am one of the good things that has happened to her, she tells me; I’m mentoring a project for her. I suppose the fact that she still thinks of me as a good thing is some reassurance that my annoyance with her isn’t particularly visible.

  9. henitsirk Avatar

    I used to have pretty much that exact experience when driving in Los Angeles. Then I moved away and had kids, and now I have that experience with my kids instead. Personally I’d rather not have a 10 out of 10 with my innocent little children. I look forward to learning more from your next post. (The hawk hitting my car the other day has really stuck with me as a possible symbol of something!)

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