Updated: May 11, 2021
Psyche [The Conscious and Unconscious Realm in the Individual]
How do I describe the unconscious?
I was thinking a lot about the topic of this blog, The Unconscious, throughout the past week. The unconscious forms the basis of #JungianBitsofInformation, a blog dedicated to exploring the unconscious in the workplace, specifically, the dynamics between the individual psyche and the workplace. I want to show how the unconscious manifests in individuals and how its dynamics interact with others, especially individuals in the workplace. The unconscious is an untapped source of personal transformation. It can also help you to improve your personal resilience, to better understand yourself and others, to develop more effective personal and work based relationships, to find creative solutions to long standing problems, and acts as a source of inspiration, greater wisdom and knowledge. So I thought I would explain what I mean by the unconscious given it is such a core feature of my blog.
The unconscious is a difficult subject to describe to others, not because of any ignorance or lack of knowledge on their part, but because the unconscious isn’t a concrete or visible thing. You may already have an awareness of it, perhaps some of you engage with it and for others, it isn’t a recognisable aspect or feature of themselves as human beings. The unconscious does exist. It’s discovery in the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries has led to the professions of coaching, mentoring, counselling, psychotherapy, psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Each of these professional fields explores the unconscious to a certain extent. The unconscious is a dominant feature of psychoanalysis, both Freudian and Jungian. If you go see a Freudian or Jungian psychoanalyst for an emotional problem, you can expect your unconscious to form part of the dialogue or talking therapy between you and the therapist. The unconscious also acts as a remedy to address any emotional problems. The unconscious is seen to be in a dynamic relationship with consciousness, bring both sides to the awareness of the individual is one of the goals of a Jungian analysis. Therefore, the unconscious is a central feature of Jungian analysis, it forms the basis of the techniques applied in a therapeutic setting. However, even this description does not fully explain what we mean by the unconscious.
My approach to writing this blog is quite methodical. First of all, I remind myself of the Jungian theories and concepts which then act as a useful lens to bring understanding and insight to the topic being discussed. Remember, my blog is about exploring personality and workplace issues from a Jungian analytical psychology perspective. Secondly, I apply a Jungian idea or ideas to the topic and in doing so, I develop a story, narrative or argument in my mind which helps me to communicate my analysis of the topic to others, and in a way that I hope they find interesting and insightful for their own personal interest or for personal development or organisational effectiveness purposes.
My biggest challenge is to communicate Jungian ideas about personality and workplace transformation in an accessible, practical and easy to understand way. Now coming back to my reflections during the week, I thought long and hard about how to best describe the unconscious. I had several ideas but none of them really resonated with me, they still seemed complex and my overriding desire was to describe the unconscious in a way that is easy to understand. I eventually tired myself out so I decided to relax and watch something for a couple of hours. I headed straight to YouTube and DW Documentary, a German and international broadcaster who produce documentaries about a wide range of topics from around the world involving people, travel, culture, current affairs, global events and more. It is a free broadcast which is just incredible and full of lots of interesting documentaries. I logged on to YouTube and there among the multitude of viewer recommendations, I saw a DW documentary about asteroids which immediately captured my interest. Entitled, “A new El Dorado in space?”, the documentary contained a brief summary ‘Mining on asteroids sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it could soon become a reality. Nation and powerful corporations already have plans for such ventures and are hard at work staking their claim to resources from space. How can economic growth continue unfettered once all the earth’s resources have been consumed? Major companies and governments have long been working on plans to exploit the resource is to be found in the vastness of space. How far are humans from achieving this? This documentary examines the technological requirements of space mining. It also assesses how great the desire is to find new sources of raw materials. The film touches on scientific and fundamental societal issues, including humanity's craving for new territories and our degradation and exploitation of all our planet has to offer’
What does Psyche mean?
I was hooked by the description of the documentary. I clicked play and settled down with great interest about what was about to unfold. About ten minutes into the documentary, an image of an asteroid appeared on the screen and the presenter begins to describe it in more detail. The asteroid is called Psyche. It is made entirely of metallic substances, more than 200km in diameter and the rarest type of asteroid. Psyche is the product of the universe's intense phases of formation. It is a planetary embryo, like the inner core of the earth's planet, which has not survived the onslaught of collisions from other objects such as asteroids. Unlike earth, it hasn't formed an outer layer, it has an iron core which has never reached a sufficient size to withstand collisions. Psyche is a rare metallic mammoth, floating in the astroid belt, discovered by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis on March 17, 1852. He named the asteroid after Psyche, the Greek Goddess of the Soul who was born mortal and married Eros, the God of Love.
Image of Psyche
So why is this relevant to this blog? Well, one of the most effective ways to understand the unconscious is to adopt metaphorical thinking. This is a form of unconscious thinking which enables you to perceive or know the unconscious in a concrete way. The asteroid, Psyche, can be used as a metaphor for the unconscious and conscious combined, interestingly also known as the psyche! It is the inner core of the conscious and unconscious mind combined. The conscious layers of a planet like earth can be represented by the land, mountains, hills, valleys, oceans, seas, plant and wildlife. These are concrete objects we can touch and see. However, we don’t immediately see what is beneath the planet Earth’s surface, however we have a good idea or expectation about what makes up the inner core of the planet earth through scientific geophysical discoveries.
The Internal Structure of Earth as a Metaphor of the Psyche
The earth was discovered to have a solid iron, inner core distinct from its molten outer core in 1936 by the Danish seismologist Inge Lehmann. Lehmann discovered the earth’s inner core by studying seismologists from earthquakes in New Zealand. The radius of the earth’s inner core is 1220km, around six times the size of the asteroid Psyche. The exploration of earth and the universe by astronomists and seismologists mirrors a parallel process of exploration of the mind by the first psychologists who emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They referred to the inner mind as psyche, a Greek term for ‘soul’. It is now used to describe the totality of the human mind, both conscious and unconscious.
Image of the Internal Structure of Earth
I finally found a great metaphor to describe the unconscious! The unconscious is our inner core. We are aware of it but we cannot see it. We can see it and its effects on us. Think of the hot molten lava that spews out of volcanoes, volcanoes can transform the environment around it, the land around volcanoes is very fertile, perfect for growing crops and sustaining wildlife and human life, sometimes they even create new lands, as can be seen in the islands of Hawaii. But at times, volcanoes can be destructive, destroying settlements around it and sending volcanic ash high up in the earth’s atmosphere. Similarly, the unconscious can cause eruptions in our conscious mind, in either a transformative or destructive way. The idea of my blog is to show you how the unconscious operates in both a transformative and destructive way.
Scientists wonder whether the asteroid Psyche could be an exposed core of an early planet that lost its rocky outer layers due to a number of violent collisions billions of years ago. This intriguing asteroid is now the primary target of NASA’s Psyche mission. Targeted to launch in August of 2022, the Psyche spacecraft would arrive at the asteroid in early 2026. Over 21 months in orbit, the spacecraft will map and study the properties which make up Psyche. NASA says its Psyche mission will be the first mission to investigate a world of metal rather than of rock and ice. Deep within rocky, terrestrial planets including Earth scientists infer the presence of metallic cores, but these lie unreachable below planets' rocky mantles and crusts. Because scientists cannot see or measure Earth's core directly, Psyche offers a unique window into the violent history of collisions and accretion that created terrestrial planets.
NASA’s mission to Psyche is a useful metaphor to use for Dynamic Psychiatry, the study of, and exploration of the unconscious. It is based on a scientific methodology with a detailed and objective survey of the human psyche, the totality of the conscious and unconscious mind. The main explorers [astronauts] of the unconscious are Pierre Janet [Psychological Analysis], Sigmund Freud [Psychoanalysis], Alfred Adler [Individual Psychology] and Carl Jung [Analytical Psychology]. Janet, Freud, Adler and Jung studied the mind in the late eighteen to early twentieth centuries. Their discoveries have had a lasting impact on the field of psychology and psychiatry, the exploration of the inner world as compared to the exploration of the outer world, the universe. For example, Isabel Myer's and Katherine Briggs's personality assessment tool, Myers Briggs Type Indicator, was developed from the theory of personality by Carl Jung. The personalities of these leaders in the field of the unconscious had an impact on the development of their methodologies, their own exploration of their own unconscious mind led to pioneering techniques to help people to address emotional problems, trauma, depression, anxiety etc. Their discoveries were not entirely new. We can trace our understanding of the unconscious several centuries and generations before us. Primitive healing, religious confession, religious healing, exorcism and hypnotism show subtle psychotherapeutic methods which can still be seen in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis today. My blog is based on Carl Jung’s Analytical Psychology so I will now go on to describe the unconscious in Jungian analytical psychology terms.
Topography of the Unconscious
The psyche, in Jung’s model shown below, is the totality of all psychic processes and contents, conscious and unconscious. The diagram is like a topographical illustration of the interior of the psyche, both the conscious and unconscious realms.
The Structure of the Psyche [courtesy of Johnston JG, Jung's Indispensable Compass]
Using metaphor, imagine the psyche as an interactive theatre with a conscious and unconscious stage in which many actors play a role. On the conscious stage two actors play their roles. At the apron of the conscious stage the first actor, the persona, turned towards the audience who represent social interaction in the world. Jung borrowed the term persona from Greek which means ‘theatre mask’, like an actor’s mask, it is the personal façade that we put on to create a desired impression to others. Jung described the persona as ‘a complicated system of relations between the individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual’ [Collected Works 7, Para.305]. It is a socially conventional attitude that an individual adopts because he or she belongs to a certain group, profession, occupation, social class, political party, tribe, clan or nation. How often do you talk about your profession when someone asks you what do you do? Many people identify themselves with their profession or job. The persona develops throughout childhood and into adult life, becoming a fixed social mask. Some individuals will identify too strongly with their persona attitude so that they lose contact with their true personality. A mask is expressionless but it has holes in the eye and mouth which allows the person wearing the mask to see and speak. This is a fitting description of the persona mask, it allows the person wearing it to see and speak, but it also conceals their true face or nature.
The actor behind the mask is the ego, the lead actor on the conscious stage. The ego exerts is influence as the lead identity of consciousness, influencing behaviour of the individual, but it does not constitute the unique person. We often think our ego is all that we are but that’s not true. Our ego is predisposed to use the one of psyche’s functions i.e. sensation, intuition, thinking and feeling in an extraverted or introverted attitude. If an ego is predisposed to sensation in an extraverted way, the ego then has a preference for extraverted sensation. The ego may use the one or more of the functions in an extraverted or introverted attitude e.g. introverted feeling and extraverted thinking. The combination of a function and attitude [functional-attitude] creates the unique character of the individual’s personality.
The conscious audience, the world at large or outer objects interact with the ego, like a theatre audience, sometimes applauding, sometimes booing, taunting, conversing, ignoring or supporting the persona and ego. Behind the ego is a vague psychic scrim, the threshold of the unconscious realm, the personal unconscious. In a theatre a scrim is a lightweight transparent curtain that conceals actors or objects behind it when they are not illuminated but reveals them if light is cast upon them. The personal unconscious contains an individual’s memories of the past, personal experiences which are forgotten and are therefore concealed from the conscious stage unless they are illuminated i.e. remembered by the ego. These are memories from our childhood or from day to day adult life, with some effort, we can bring some memories back into our conscious mind. Some memories do not require any effort at all from the ego. They appear spontaneously in the conscious mind, disrupting the ego which is often powerless to suppress them. These memories are known as autonomous complexes, they arrive uninvited and incognito in the conscious mind, growing in number and intensity as the ego engages with the outer world. Autonomous complexes which consist of clusters of often long-forgotten content and may trigger compulsive urges or reactions. As their name suggests, they seem to come and go as they please, either hindering or reinforcing the ego’s role [Jung’s Indispensable Compass, Johnston J G, p12]. The autonomous complexes can take over or possess the ego, forcing themselves onto the conscious stage, an individual possessed by an autonomous complex can appear to have irrational fears, disproportionate reactions, intense attractions or aversions to certain people. These behaviours can either create interpersonal conflict or have a harmonising effect between individuals in the workplace.
Behind the personal unconscious, we now enter the deeper layers of the unconscious. Jung uses the term unconscious both to describe mental contents which are inaccessible to the ego and to delimit a psychic space with its own character, laws and functions. The unconscious is a mirror image of consciousness but it has a quieter and more ethereal quality. The conscious stage includes perceptions of and interactions with the world at large (outer objects), the counterpart in the unconscious, the inner audience includes perceptions of and interactions with images from the archetypes of the collective unconscious or inner objects. Within the unconscious you will see another actor hidden within its depths, the shadow. The shadow contains all the attributes the ego has not adopted or does not value. Whatever attributes the ego has adopted, the shadow adopts the opposite attributes behind the scrim. If the ego is emboldened with pride, the shadow is timid and incompetent. If the ego is productive, the shadow is reflective. If the ego is loving, the shadow is hostile. If the ego is oriented to the outer world, the shadow will be oriented to the inner life. The shadow is also autonomous and can wreak havoc if ignored or repressed, interrupting the ego’s role on the conscious stage. The ego typically projects the shadow onto others in the world at large, often such shadow projections have been the cause of discrimination, violent personal hatred, mass persecutions, and even genocide. The most severe aspects of the shadow are manifested in racial, social and national prejudice. The shadow contains the personal characteristics that the individual wishes to hide from others and from him or herself. However, if the shadow is acknowledged progressive personal growth develops towards the emergence of the whole person.
The persona also has its counterpart in the unconscious, the soul, a term that Jung refers to as an inner personality. The soul plays a compensatory role to the persona on the conscious stage, which means that as the persona presents a sort of personality at the threshold of the outer world, the soul presents a personality of the threshold of the inner world. Like the shadow the soul can also be projected onto the conscious audience. This is inevitable as long as the soul remains unconscious to the individual. While the shadow projects to the outer world in a negative way, the soul often projects a more positive, favourable aura onto others, projecting an idealised image onto some lucky beneficiary or individual, creating a harmonising effect between individuals in the workplace.
As we delve deep inside the collective unconscious we now encounter the counterpart to the outer objects, the collective unconscious or inner objects. The collective unconscious constitutes the evolutionary experience of humankind. It operates independently of the ego on account of its origin in the inherited structure of the brain. Jung also described the inner images as archetypes, a priori ways of being that are universal to all cultures around the world. Jung regards the unconscious as a centre of psychological activity which is objective and related to the instinctual bases of the human race or archetypes. He saw the archetypes as layers of evolutionary experience.
The Archetypal Layers of the Collective Unconscious [courtesy of Johnston JG, Jung's Indispensable Compass]
In this figure, archetypes underpin a person’s life from built up layers of ancestral experience. Starting with the ‘central fire’ (H) at the bottom, the layers progressively move up from animal ancestors (G) to primate ancestors (F), to large groups (e.g. European, African, Middle Eastern) (E), to nations (D), to clans (c), to families (B), and finally to individuals depicted as round objects on the small mounds of family lineage [Jung’s Indispensable Compass, Johnston J G, p15].
The contents of the collective unconscious have never been in consciousness and cannot be truly known. However, the unconscious has a language which includes images, symbols and fantasies. I talked earlier about using metaphors to understand the unconscious and this idea of the language of the unconscious is why I made this statement in the first place. The best way to understand the unconscious is to think about it in metaphorical terms, as an image, symbol or even fantasy.
The Language of the Unconscious - Directed and Fantasy Thinking
Jung introduced two terms to describe the language of consciousness [directed thinking] and unconscious [fantasy thinking]. These terms delineate the different forms of mental activity and the differing ways in which the psyche expresses itself.
Directed thinking involves the conscious use of language and concepts. It is based on or constructed with reference to reality. Essentially, directed thinking is communication, thinking outwards to others. It is the language of intellect, scientific exposition, and common sense.
Fantasy thinking on the other hand uses images, metaphor, symbols, imagination, emotions and intuitions. The rules of logic and physics do not apply, and there are no moral judgments. Jung also pointed out that fantasy thinking may be conscious but is usually unconscious in its expression. The ego benefits from such contact with fantasy thinking, especially personality transformation and psychotherapeutic benefits.
I attempted to explain the concept of the psyche in a metaphorical term using the asteroid Psyche as the inner part of the human psyche, the unconscious world. Directed and fancy thinking can coexist as two separate and equal perspectives though the latter is closer to the much deeper, archetypal layers of the psyche, known as the collective unconscious. The idea of two types of thinking, directed thinking [conscious realm] and fantasy thinking [unconscious realm] can also be likened to the functioning of the left and right brain, the two cerebral hemispheres of the brain, the interaction of which is central to the functioning of the psyche. The left cerebral hemisphere is usually associated with language, logic, action, analysis, logic, rational and obeys the laws of time and space. The right cerebral hemisphere is usually associated with emotions, feelings, fantasies, intuition, it gives one a sense of where one is in relation to everything else, and a holistic capacity to grasp a complex situation. Dreams are also typical expressions of fantasy thinking or right hemispheric functioning, that’s why dreams are often used in a Jungian analyse as a means to access an individual’s unconscious.
So why does the unconscious remain sort of imperceptible, unnoticeable or undetectable in some people and why do some parts of the unconscious become known or discernible to others. Jung’s tentative conclusion was that (a) a quantum of energy alters in the individual’s psyche and (b) the strength of the ego determines what may pass over into consciousness. The crucial factor is the ego’s ability to maintain dialogue and interact with possibilities revealed in the unconscious. If the ego is relatively strong it will permit the selective passage of unconscious contents into consciousness. Over time such contents may be seen as enhancing personality development in a unique and individual way. My work with individuals is to help them become aware of, and understand such contents, to bring greater personal effectiveness, improvement or transformation.
The unconscious is a source of untapped creativity for the individual. The individual is at the centre of the psyche, a centre point which unites both the conscious and the unconscious. The individual should not be confused with the ego in the conscious realm. The individual is the very subject of personality development midway between the conscious and unconscious audiences with access to both, a balanced midpoint with access to all the functional attitudes of extaversion, introversion, sensation, intuition, thinking and feeling. The goal of personality transformation is to become whole i.e. to reach this midpoint or centre.
In Part II of this series about the Unconscious, I will go on to explain how the actors in the individual’s psyche, the persona, ego, personal unconscious, shadow, soul, collective unconscious and the individual interact with each other in a collaborative or opposing dynamic to create the distinct, unique individual personality, for better or worse, from the context of the workplace. In Part III I will focus on the structure and dynamics of the organisational psyche and explain how the unconscious dynamics between groups of people impede, or contribute to business success.
Got any questions or comments? Feel free to contact me!