Normality in Analytical Psychology

This video is an academic, masters-level presentation that I was invited to make at a university conference.  The full paper has been published in the Journal for Behavioural Sciences.   On the page below, I provide a non-academic overview and discuss one of its practical implications.

Jung’s theories are sometimes criticised for being based on his experiences with mentally ill people.  Whilst that is true to some extent, only 1/3rd of his Collected Works are concerned with mental illness.  He was able to spend much of his life studying ‘normal’ applications of psychology, which interested him, because he was financially independent (having married a very rich woman).  And one of the books that Jung published, Psychological Types, became the basis for the most popular personality questionnaire in use today – the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

Jung’s interest in normal psychology was inspired in several ways.  He was the son of a Swiss Reformed Pastor, and he saw his father struggle with the conflict between reason and religion.  Also, many of his ‘psychotherapeutic’ clients were not mentally ill, but middle-aged, rich people who found their lives were lacking in meaning or purpose.  And Jung lived through two world wars which had a significant impact on his thinking about topics such as leadership, relationships, how people behave in groups, and the causes of conflict.

What is ‘normal’?

Normality is an important concept in psychiatry and psychology because it is used to determine who is ill and needs treatment.  Sigmund Freud took the view that everyone is ill to some degree – i.e, everyone has unconscious neuroses that influence the way they think, feel, and behave.  C.G. Jung disagreed that everyone is ill because, although he accepted that everyone has psychological complexes, he regarded complexes as the basic building blocks of how the mind works, not as inherently dysfunctional.

Normality, in Jung’s view, is to live a full range of human experience and emotions – e.g. suffering, elation, and all the emotions in-between – in an overall dynamic balance.  Neurosis occurs when things get permanently out of balance, e.g. feeling as if one suffers all the time, or is elated all the time, or alternates between the two extremes without being able to spend much time in the intermediate states (i.e. bipolar disorder).

In analytical psychology, the most important balance that one needs to achieve is between the external and internal worlds.  That is, there is a need for balance between (a) the demands of one’s job, family, and society, and (b) one’s own nature, talents, and potential.

The neglected unconscious

There is an aspect of Jung’s theory of normality which has largely been overlooked and is now becoming of greater interest due to some advances in neuroscience.  At the heart of Jung’s theory is the idea that conscious thought is only a small part of the mind.  The larger and more powerful aspect of the mind is the unconscious.  Research in neuroscience is beginning to demonstrate support for this idea.  For example, brain scan research shows that seemingly-conscious decisions are determined beforehand in the unconscious mind.  That is:

  • Decisions are made by the unconscious mind.
  • The conscious mind then adopts the decision, sometimes several seconds later.
  • We delude ourselves by thinking we made the decision consciously.
  • Our lives are therefore shaped largely by our unconscious minds.

Jung’s theory of normality is concerned with the role of the unconscious mind, how stuff gets into it (i.e. heredity, culture, parenting, training, experience, etc.) and the impact it has when it comes out (on beliefs, emotions, relationships, conflict, leadership, performance, etc.).  In Jung’s theory, personal development involves becoming more aware of the unconscious mind and engaging in a dialogue with it, to retrain it to react differently in different situations.

The unconscious mind in action

To some people, Jung’s theory – of a dialogue with the unconscious mind – might seem a little strange.  However, there are lots of everyday examples that show this already happens in daily life.  One of these is learning a new skill, because it is often impossible (when carrying out a task) to make all the required decisions consciously.  Whether you are playing the piano or driving a car, your unconscious mind is doing most of the work because you need to act or react quickly.  And during lessons or practice, you are training your unconscious mind to react in certain ways.

Another example is the psychiatrist Steve Peters, who has improved the performance of the GB cycling team by introducing them to “the chimp paradox”.  This is a simple model that helps the cyclist recognise different aspects of the unconscious mind, how it can influence conscious thoughts, and how it can be controlled.  By interacting with a part of the unconscious mind as if it were a chimp, the GB cyclists are better able to manage their emotions and develop their performance.

Practical implications

Jung’s theory of archetypes is a more sophisticated version of ‘the chimp paradox’.  To develop as a person, Jung suggested that we look for, listen to, and interact with a wide range of voices that emerge from the unconscious (a technique that he called active imagination).  The most practical way to start this is by keeping a dream diary.  That is:

  • Put a pencil and piece of paper by the side of your bed when you go to sleep.
  • When you wake up, write down everything about your dreams that you can remember.
  • If possible, close your eyes and re-enter your dream, watching what happens and interacting with the characters and things you see.
  • At a later time, consider what the dream might mean for you, personally.  You may find it helpful to consult online dream dictionaries, but treat them with caution because the meaning of each dream image can be very different for different people.

Another way of learning about your own unconscious is to look for the indirect impact it has in your daily life and relationships.  For example, if other people do things that are unexpected, consider whether your own unconscious mind might have had an impact (unconsciously) on their behaviour.  Alternatively, investigate the concept of psychological projection (a frequent occurrence in normal relationships) and consider what aspects of other people’s characters are projected from your own unconscious mind.

The unconscious mind as an integral part of normal life.  However, most normal people ignore it – which Jung argued can be to their detriment and to the detriment of society as a whole.

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