Can We Really Assert “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way?” Jung on the Relation of Ego & Will Power

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.  Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.


Can We Really Assert “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way”?

Jung on the Relation of the Ego and Will-Power


“It is true that civilized man has acquired a certain amount of will-power which he can apply where he pleases….We can carry out what we propose to do, and it seems self-evident that an idea can be translated into action without a hitch,… The motto “Where there’s a will there’s a way” is not just a Germanic prejudice; it is the superstition of modern man in general.”

Jung (1961)[1]


“However much the ego can be proved to be dependent and preconditioned, it cannot be convinced that it has no freedom….The existence of ego consciousness has meaning only if it is free and autonomous…. There are temporal, local, and individual differences in the degree of dependence and freedom. In reality both are always present: the supremacy of the self and the hubris of consciousness.”

Jung (1954)[2]


“Everyone knows nowadays that people ‘have complexes.’ What is not so well known, though far more important theoretically, is that complexes can have us. …The complex must therefore be a psychic factor which, in terms of energy, possesses a value that sometimes exceeds that of our conscious intentions, otherwise such disruptions of the conscious order would not be possible at all. And in fact, an active complex puts us momentarily under a state of duress, of compulsive thinking and acting, for which under certain conditions the only appropriate term would be the judicial concept of diminished responsibility.”

Jung (1934)[3]


“The term ‘self’ seemed to me a suitable one for this unconscious substrate, whose actual exponent in consciousness is the ego. The ego stands to the self as the moved to the mover, or as object to subject, because the determining factors which radiate out from the self surround the ego on all sides and are therefore supraordinate to it. The self, like the unconscious, is an a priori existent out of which the ego evolves. It is, so to speak, an unconscious prefiguration of the ego. It is not I who create myself, rather I happen to myself…..”.

Jung (1954)[4]


A recent conversation led me to investigate how Jung saw the relationship between the ego and will-power. As the above quote indicates, our modern way of thinking says “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!,” implying that we can use our egos to push, drive and make things happen. But note what Jung called this claim: a “superstition.”[5] Just why he thought this, and how he perceived our vaunted will-power, are the subjects of this essay. We’ll begin by defining key terms–“ego,” “complex,” “will-power,” and “Self,” and then examine the features of these words. The relationship between ego and will-power will be the subject of the final section.




We’ll begin with the ego. Jung defines the “ego” as “the sine qua non of consciousness,”[6] and “a complex of ideas which constitute the center of my field of consciousness and appears to possess a high degree of continuity and identity.”[7] Jung saw the ego as similar to “the army commander,”[8] “the commander of a small army in the struggle with his environment.”[9] Jung extended this analogy, regarding the ego’s “reflections and decisions, its reasons and doubts, its intentions and expectations”[10] as “the general staff,”[11] and likened the ego’s “dependence on outside factors”[12] to “the dependence of the commander on the well-nigh incalculable influences emanating from general headquarters and from the dark machinations of politics in the background.”[13] Lest we wonder at Jung’s choice of the army to describe the ego, we should remember that every Swiss man had obligatory military duty annually, so Jung’s service in the medical corps gave him familiarity with the workings of the army.[14] Jung did not enjoy his army stints:[15] he disliked having to take orders and this might explain his reference to the ego as “a suffering bystander who decides nothing but must submit to a decision and surrender unconditionally.”[16]

Jung also wrote of “an ego-complex….one complex among other complexes”[17] because “the ego is only the center of my field of consciousness,… [and] not identical with the totality of the psyche.”[18] This leads us to wonder how Jung defined a complex.

A complex is “a psychic factor which, in terms of energy, possesses a value that sometimes exceeds that of our conscious intentions.”[19] As a “collection of imaginings”[20] a complex has autonomy, meaning it “is relatively independent of the central control of the consciousness, and at any moment [the complex is] liable to bend or cross the intentions of the individual.”[21] When a complex gets “constellated,”[22] i.e. activated or set off by a trigger (something someone says or does) it can instigate all sorts of “impish tricks.”[23] For example, complexes can

“slip just the wrong word into one’s mouth, they make one forget the name of the person one is about to introduce, they cause a tickle in the throat just when the softest passage is being played on the piano at a concert, they make the tiptoeing latecomer trip over a chair with a resounding crash. They bid us congratulate the mourners at a burial instead of condoling with them, they are the instigators of all those maddening things…we confront so helplessly.”[24]

Jung felt justified in regarding a complex “as somewhat like a small secondary mind, which deliberately (though unknown to consciousness) drives at certain intentions which are contrary to the conscious intentions of the individual.”[25]

Often complexes have a strong emotional charge. Jung called these “feeling-toned” complexes,[26] and they are “incompatible with the habitual attitude of consciousness.”[27] In describing a complex to my students I liken it to a bruise on the skin: Just as a black-and-blue mark is especially tender and likely to elicit a strong reaction if it gets hit, so we might think of a complex as a “bruise” on our psyche which, when “hit” with a certain remark or interpersonal action, can set off fireworks of emotion. Multiple times I have seen in my own life, as well as at times in our Jungian Center classes, instances where a complex got set off and a normally quiet, unassuming individual turned into a loud, aggressive person suddenly, without warning. What does this have to do with will-power?

Will-power Jung defined as the “amount of energy” the ego has “at its disposal.”[28] As “the main guiding and controlling force of our mental life,”[29] will-power makes it possible for us to “carry out what we propose to do.”[30] Our ability to focus, to concentrate, to complete projects, to achieve our goals–all depend on will-power. But when we are off our game, e.g. tired, sick, depressed–in situations where we “approach the darkness that is ultimately at the bottom of the whole structure–the unconscious[31]–the ego has very little energy available to support will-power. Likewise when a complex gets hit: our normal ego-as-commander gets deposed by another inner “actor” who appears with bombast and rudeness, to our embarrassment and chagrin. At such times, we are reminded that the ego is not the master of our lives. Who is?

The Self is the “determining psychic factor”[32] within us, “the ‘genius’ of man, the higher and more spacious part of him whose extent no one knows.”[33] And it “has the final word.”[34] Jung defined the Self (which he did not capitalize but I do for clarity) as “a superordinate self as center of the total, illimitable, and indefinable psychic personality,”[35] “an a priori existent out of which the ego evolves,”[36] and an

“unconscious substrate, whose actual exponent in consciousness is the ego. The ego stands to the self as the moved to the mover, or as object to subject, because the determining factors which radiate out from the Self surround the ego on all sides and are therefore supraordinate to it.”[37]

To use Jung’s army analogy, the ego is a commander, and the general directing the whole campaign is the Self.


Features of the Ego, Complex, Will-Power and Self


So the ego depends on the Self, but it is not a slave. Jung was clear that “The existence of ego consciousness has meaning only if it is free and autonomous….”[38] Jung recognized that “There are temporal, local and individual differences in the degree of dependence and freedom”[39] of the ego. At different times, in different cultures, and influenced by our own personal histories, we may be more or less free and have more or less energy at our ego’s disposal.

This impacts our will-power. At those times when we are off our game, we are not likely to be able to summon the energy necessary to transform “the demon from an uncontrolled force of nature into a power that is [ours] to command,”[40] which is how Jung defined the creation of will-power. In such times of fatigue or illness, the inner “demon” is primed to produce all sorts of symptoms, which Jung enumerates: “clouding of judgment, weakness of will, and the blocking, perseveration, stereotypy, verbal-motor superficiality, alliteration, and assonance”[41] which are “peculiar to reactions”[42] when a complex is constellated.

Although the “power-instinct”[43] in us “wants the ego to be ‘on top’ under all circumstances,”[44] Jung knew that this was “the hubris of consciousness,”[45] i.e. the pride or arrogance that can lead to our humiliation when the complex shows up. Jung reminds us that, when we say we “have complexes,” the reality “is that complexes can have us.”[46] That is, they can take us over, grab away our refined, civilized comportment, and do so when we least expect them, unless we have worked long and hard to wise up to them and to “depotentiate”[47] them over many years of effort induced by “repetition compulsion.”[48]

I can now look back–after 30+ years of work on myself–to recognize how the Self brought the people and situations I needed, time after time, to “hit” my complexes over and over, so as to help me wise up to the patterns and gradually lessen the intensity of the reaction. At the times when these “hits” occurred you can be sure I was not happy, and certainly did not appreciate the Self’s efforts on my behalf.[49] It is only now, years later, when I can see the bigger picture–how the Self forced me to yield “to the power which suppressed my egotistic claim”[50] to be in charge of my life. Such experiences, with all their humiliation and grief, offered repeated “crucifixions of the ego,”[51] and proved empirically the superiority of the Self.[52]


Jung’s Sense of the Ego-Will-Power Relationship


We live in a society that believes in the old adage “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Jung disagrees. Time and again, in his own life and in the lives of his patients, he saw how will-power fails in the face of the unconscious. We don’t want to think of ourselves as “possessed by powers beyond [our] control.”[53] We like to think that the “gods and demons”[54] of ages past have disappeared, but Jung knew that they “have not disappeared at all, they have merely got new names.”[55] And they keep us

“on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an invincible need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, dietary and other hygienic systems – and above all, with an impressive array of neuroses.”[56]

All these are indicators of how the ego is not the ruler of our lives, how the ego is not “top dog.”

While a complex “can usually be suppressed with an effort of will, but not argued out of existence… at the first suitable opportunity it reappears in all its original strength.”[57] Our ego strength pales when confronted by the unconscious. We must no longer imagine that our ego “can settle everything and do everything by the force of its will.”[58] Will-power can be sustained only so far, and “autonomous complexes [can] at times completely destroy [our] self-control,”[59] rendering our vaunted will-power ineffectual. Perhaps we might rephrase the old adage:

“Where there’s a will, there may be pride heading for a fall.”

Better to take a page out of the alchemists’ book and say, after declaring what we want, deo concedente[60]–if God/the Self is willing. Relinquishing our desires to the Self is a great way to align our ego’s will to the higher will.




Brome, Vincent (1978), Jung. New York: Atheneum.

Jung, C.G. (1973), “Experimental Researches,” Collected Works, 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), “The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease,” Collected Works, 3. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1956) “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press

________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

University Press.

________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


[1] Collected Works 18 ¶555. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW 11 ¶391.

[3] CW 8 ¶200.

[4] CW 11 ¶391.

[5] CW 18 ¶555.

[6] CW 14 ¶522.

[7] CW 6 ¶706.

[8] CW 8 ¶692.

[9] Ibid. ¶693.

[10] Ibid. ¶692.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Brome (1978), 74.

[15] Ibid.

[16] CW 9ii ¶79.

[17] CW 6 ¶706.

[18] Ibid.

[19] CW 8 ¶200.

[20] CW 2 ¶1352.

[21] Ibid.

[22] CW 8 ¶200; this technical term reflects the Law of Correspondence, familiar to the alchemists: “As above, so below,” in the idea that configurations of the stars (L. stella) are reflected in our lives–an idea Jung supported.

[23] Ibid. ¶202.

[24] Ibid.

[25] CW 2 ¶1352.

[26] CW 8 ¶201.

[27] Ibid.

[28] CW 18 ¶29.

[29] CW 3 ¶505.

[30] CW 18 ¶555.

[31] Ibid. ¶91.

[32] CW 11 ¶394.

[33] CW 9ii ¶79.

[34] Ibid.

[35] CW 11 ¶67.

[36] Ibid. ¶391.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] CW 5 ¶548.

[41] CW 3 ¶578.

[42] Ibid.

[43] CW 7 ¶50.

[44] Ibid.

[45] CW 11 ¶391.

[46] CW 8 ¶200.

[47] This technical term refers to the achievement of lessening the power of  the unconscious through work with dreams, psychoanalysis etc.; CW 12 ¶163.

[48] This is a form of “compulsion neurosis” in which the person unconsciously attracts persons or situations repeatedly which serve to bring up unpleasant or frustrating feelings for the purpose of (finally!) getting the person to recognize the pattern and take ownership of the problem. This then makes possible conscious work on the healing of the complex. In my case, I kept attracting individuals and situations to get me to work on my negative father complex. See CW 6 ¶s609,654 & 663 for more on compulsion neurosis.

[49] Jung notes how typical it is for us to feel resistance in these instances; CW 11 ¶394.

[50] Ibid.

[51] CW 9ii ¶79.

[52] CW 16 ¶219.

[53] CW 18 ¶555.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] CW 8 ¶201.

[58] CW 14 ¶522.

[59] CW 2 ¶1352.

[60] CW 9i ¶277; 11 ¶448; 12 ¶450 note; 14 ¶86; 16 ¶385; & 18 ¶1631.