Carl Jung (1875 - 1960) provided the most comprehensive account of human behavior that I am aware of. Here I offer a brief introduction the basic concepts in his vision of consciousness.
[summary: Introduction: the split mind Ego: gatekeeper, investor and balloon The politics of Persona: social identities The repression barrier The dominance of the unconscious ]
You are probably familiar with the life cycle of the caterpillar and its transformation into a butterfly. It’s a convenient metaphor to describe Jung’s view of human development. The caterpillar crawls along, developing knowledge of its world, until it gets wrapped in a cocoon.
Humans begin by crawling, then walk through life until their mid-life crisis, dramatic or not, and they enter a cacoon of pain. We all get stuck for a while. How we respond to the down periods (cacoon, stuckness, setback, etc.) determines our fate. We are what our choices have brought us to.
If the cacoon process goes well, the butterfly emerges, as if a new being. The butterfly symbolizes the human soul. It’s always present in some form, but blossoms most later in life. It has its own beauty and a subtle strength. As Rumi says, "the soul is here for its own joy." It can get caught up in the world. But guided by the instinct of love, soul takes us home.
Jung called the goal of human development individuation, becoming a whole person, as complete as circumstances allow, in touch with as many parts of our self as we can. I describe here Jung’s primary parts of the human psyche — Ego, Persona, Complex, Self, Shadow, Anima/us, and Archetypes.
These parts of our personal and collective conscious and unconscious mind operate together like our bodily systems (circulatory, pulminary, digentive, etc.). When in balance, we are mentally healthy. When a part becomes unstable, inflated, over-used, etc., we become mentally ill.
Figure 1:. The conscious mind.
The Split Mind
The human mind is inherently split, first between the conscious and unconscious aspects of mind. The conscious ego-mind operates in tension with the unconscious shadow. In development the ego “splits” in times of trauma, neglect or insecure attachment to its caregivers (see below).
Ego as gatekeeper, etc.
First a parable: the poet Robert Bly often told the story of the king and the servant at “Gatherings of Men” (see PBS video). Once there was a king who decided to live alone in a castle far from people. It worked well until he was overtaken by clutter. So he asked god to send him a servant to tidy up the place. God said “No”. The king tried to cope on his sown but failed. He asked god again and again for a servant, but it was no go.
After many pleas, God agreed to send a servant. But God added, "you cannot send the servant back”. So the servant arrived, and the king ordered him to clean all of the many rooms in the castle. Each day the servant reported all he had done. He was extremely quick and efficient, and the king advised him to rest, but the servant did not.
This cycle kept increasing until the king became as frustrated as he had been with the clutter. Bly ends the story-telling at this point, and he asks “who is this servant?” When no one answers, Bly gives a clue: “what part of you might the servant represent?” Eventually, he says it’s the ego, and he then states the moral of the story:
“The human ego is a magnificent servant, but a horrible master.”
In Jung’s theory Ego manages our conscious awareness. It’s the “center of the conscious mind.” It’s the “I” and the “me” personality that we believe we are. Throughout human history the Ego has secured the survival of our species. We need a stable and healthy Ego to survive and succeed in the world. We must befriend our Ego. But survival brings with it fear — fear of losing what we have, fear of not getting what we want. Fear can protect us in times of danger. But it often escalates unrealisticly and can make the Ego unstable, off-track.
Ego is indeed a wonderful servant of our identity, our needs and desires. But a horrible master when it separates us from others, demands its own way, acts out against others or the world, or when it is overtaken by dark archetypal forces. Some claim the Ego “feeds” on fear and that it can become the basis of evil (see Eckhart Tolle, 1997). So Ego can be infiltrated and overridden by unconscious instincts.
Nothing enters into awareness unless allowed by Ego. Ego makes all our conscious choices based on our will, reason and our morals.. It operates as a mostly fluid, often-changing process of awareness, as our self-image and personality grow. What matters is what resource within the psyche the Ego will follow, like the soul's wisdom and love.
When it allows wisdom from the unconscious to guide it, a balanced Ego thrives.
Jung described the cognition of our primary ego functions as thinking, feeling, sensing and intuition. Egos vary in the combination and strength of these functions. Over-relying on one function diminishes the others. Being too “one-sided” (too emotional, intellectual, intuitive, etc.) limits other functions and our wholeness.
For Jung, achieving equilibrium and becoming whole were central in our development. This process of individuation requires a dialogue between conscious and unconscious mind, between Ego and Self, and the effort to stay in touch with all parts of ourself, including creativity, faith, dreams and fantasy (each of these partly unconscious processes leading to Soul).
In the mind tension inevitably arises between thinking and feeling, between sensing and intuition. The more of any one, the less of the other. The dominance and variation of these cognitive functions, Jung claimed, were determined by two basic attitudes, or personality styles — extrovert and introvert. (See the Myers-Briggs personality profiles.)
So, Ego is at times de-stabilized. It is like a balloon, inflating and deflating, and at times flying off and out of control. It “polices” itself and its environment in order to control outcomes. While Ego arises out of the unconscious, it is also shaped by social forces. It defines itself in relation to other people. We learn to see ourselves first through the eyes of others.
In its ongoing testing of reality, Ego seeks pleasure and avoids pain. In stressful situations it experiences temporary distortions or deterioration. In danger of delusion and hallucination, impulse control is essential. Ego must constantly manage sexual and aggressive wishes without acting inappropriately, over-reacting or misconduct. Impulse control issues are common, such as road rage, sexual promiscuity, excessive drug use, etc.
The Ego is like a pitcher in baseball, a quarterback in football or point guard in basketball. The ball is in their hands, and nothing happens without their initiative. Ego as gatekeeper determines what enters awareness. It’s primary functions can be summed up: to judge reality, desire what it wants, and defend its comfortability.
Ego must also manage mutually satisfying relationships. The individual must distinguish boundaries between himself and others. It must defend its integrity within its own sphere, often while repressing unconscious contents.
Ultimately Ego holds the will to power -- to survive, thrive, succeed, or at times to use power over and against others. The Self, center of all consciousness can guide Ego to use its limited personal power in the service of others.
If we imagine the psyche as a funnel, the wider end contains the collective consciousness and unconscious of humanity. The lower end is each personal ego. Aldous Huxley In "Doors of Perception" describes ego as receiving only a "tiny trickle of awareness "compared to the greater consciousness we are capable of.
The Politics of Persona: Our Many Social Identities
Just as every building must have a facade, every Ego/personality has many personas — the main one being the “face” of our personality in general. hen the Ego orients outward to the world of people, it differentiates into Personas. It focuses the Ego’s emnergy in specific ways. Persona facilitates communication, like an actor to its audience.
Jung described Persona as a ”compromise between individual and society as to what a man should appear to be;” and that it always contains some pretense. “The persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is.”
As the poet T.S. Elliot wrote: “We prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet.” Each persona is a social identity for a given context. A persona wants to be accepted for the role it performs. It’s a bridge between the raw, vulnerable subjective self within us and the world. Our success or failure in adapting to society depends on persona performances.
Personas must be energized by Ego investments (desires, intentions, etc.) for the roles we enact in the world. As Shakespeare wrote: “All the world's a stage/ And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts…”
Later in that speech Shakespeare poetically describes “many parts” we perform. The “infant puking, the whining schoolboy, the lover sighing like furnace.” Then the “soldier, full of strange oaths, jealous in honor, quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation.” This “bubble” being ego inflation. The poetics of persona!
We are all at first a child, perhaps a brother or sister, then playmate, student, etc., and still later the jobs we do (teacher) or functions we serve (chairman), husband/wife, mother/father and so on. We learn early in life which behaviors are acceptable. We must somehow find a balance between our individuality and a moderate form of conventionality.
As personality develops, personas choose which traits to keep as parts of their social identity. Socially undesirable or unflattering traits at first become repressed into the the unconscious — the Shadow of our mind — until we can face them.
A major problem arises when the Ego over-identifies with a persona. It gets stuck in a role that operates across different social contexts. Always the teacher (minister, policeman, etc.) even at home. Ego must be flexible in performing its personas. Ideally Ego can stay in touch with guidance from deeper Self.
But the psychic “battle” is waged between the social roles we perform and the archetypal forces of the collective unconscious which may invade and overthrow a persona. A person with a good sense of humor may become flooded by the clown archetype, and not able to stop joking. A minor criminal may become inhabited by
the psychopath archetype.
Questions about self-identity: Am I merely the sum of the roles and functions I perform? or am I something more, beyond the obvious? Am I performing my role in line with expecations, or am I over- or under-doing it? Has an archetypal force overwhelmed my role…at work, home, with friends? Jung wrote many replies to these critical questions.
The Repressions Barrier — A Zone of Transfer
The “membrane” between conscious and unconscious mind has been known as the repression barrier. As mentioned earlier the Ego must defend itself from unconscious forces that may change, limit or overwhelm it. Powerful instincts like sex, aggression or the drive to power often threaten and affect Ego behavior, but do not necessarily overwhelm it.
Freud promoted the notion of unconscious mind into a dynamic force determining far more human behavior than was previously thought. He conceptualized first that Ego would seek pleasure and avoid pain. Further, that Ego, in defending itself, would collude with the unconscious mind to repress (or avoid, ignore, forget, etc.) what it did not like or want to deal with. Choosing to suppress behavior in order to adapt is one thing, but repressing feelings creates illness.
Jung clarified this: “suppression amounts to a conscious moral choice, but repression is a rather immoral ‘penchant’ for getting rid of disagreeable decisions; it causes neurosis, and "neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.”
Repression is largely unconscious so that what we ignore goes into our Shadow, where we cannot deal with it without great emotional courage and therapeutic effort.
So this repression barrier is a permeable membrane. It’s a zone of transfer where thoughts unflattering to Ego and Persona are “pushed out” of awareness. These fester like infections in our consciousness, and return unexpectantly. Meanwhile unconscious urges, impulses, instincts, etc, erupt through the barrier/membrane, upsetting Ego’s balance.
When strong unpleasant feelings arise in us, we have some choice to repress them or to tolerate them, let them grow deeper, and eventually surprise us with healthy insights into ourselves so that we can balance our outlook. If repressed, part of us is split off into the unconscious and thus out of our conscious control.
Figure 2: the Unconscious and its contents
Copyright © 2015 John Dore. All rights reserved.