The Unconscious Will Take to You the Attitude You Take to It

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.



The Unconscious Will Take to You the Attitude You Take to It

Jung on the Nature of the Unconscious



The rejection of the unconscious usually has unfortunate results; its instinctive forces, if persistently disregarded, rise up in opposition:… The more negative the attitude of the conscious towards the unconscious, the more dangerous does the latter become….

                                                                                                Jung (1950)[1]


The general rule is that the more negative the conscious attitude is, and the more it resists, devalues, and is afraid, the more repulsive, aggressive, and frightening is the face which the dissociated content assumes.

                                                                                                Jung (1945)[2]


We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid—it reflects the face we turn towards it. Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features….

                                                                                                Jung (1944)[3]


There are psychic goals that lie beyond the conscious goals; in fact, they may even be inimical to them. But we find that the unconscious has an inimical or ruthless bearing toward the conscious only when the latter adopts a false or pretentious attitude. 

                                                                                                Jung (1943)[4]           


            The title of this essay is a phrase I often use in my courses at the Jungian Center, to remind students that their attitude toward their inner life is consequential. How we choose to regard our dreams, the inner characters that inhabit our “inner city,”[5] and the unconscious in general determines how these unconscious contents will show up in life. In this essay we consider some of Jung’s ideas on the nature of the unconscious, its goals and purposes, and how we might most fruitfully regard the unconscious.


Definitions of the Unconscious


            The most obvious definition of the unconscious is “that which is not conscious, that of which we are not aware.” A more psychoanalytical definition is

that part of the personality, or function of the mind, of which a person is not directly aware; one’s unconscious (but still active, or dynamic) thoughts, desires, fears, etc., which may become manifest in seemingly groundless obsessions, compulsions, etc.[6]

Jung understood that the concept of unconsciousness had, in Western intellectual history, both a psychological and philosophical meaning. In volume 6 of his Collected Works he offered his own definition:

The concept of the unconscious is for me an exclusively psychological concept, and not a philosophical concept of a metaphysical nature. In my view the unconscious is a psychological borderline concept, which covers all psychic contents or processes that are not conscious, i.e. not related to the ego in any perceptible way….[7]

Ever the empiricist, Jung went on to note that, in crafting his definition, he was drawing “simply and solely from experience,…”[8]—experience that had shown him in his work with hundreds of patients “of the existence of unconscious processes….”.[9] From these experiences Jung was able to elaborate his definition, describing the unconscious as:

“the source of all sorts of evils and also the matrix of all divine experience”[10]

“a natural entity”[11]

“the source of the highest good”[12]

“a unique guide”[13]

“the source of the libido, from which the psychic elements flow…”[14]

“a field of experience of unlimited extent,… an independent, productive activity,… having its own reality…”[15]

The unconscious was also “the realm of … personally acquired contents…”[16] and in his various writings—particularly his alchemical studies—Jung identified some of these contents.


Contents of the Unconscious


            I say “some” of the contents because Jung recognized that “It is … impossible to specify the range of the unconscious, i.e. what contents it embraces. Only experience can decide such questions.”[17] That is, it was only in working with individual patients that Jung could identify particular contents, but some things appeared in the dreams, fantasies, or active imaginations of almost every patient, e.g. the shadow, the anima/animus,[18] and archetypal symbols.[19] Imagos (especially of the parents) and autonomous complexes were also common.[20]

            Repressed contents were also typical: impulses,[21] unpleasant wishes,[22] memories,[23] tendencies or plans,[24] phobias, obsessive ideas, vices,[25] and blinding illusions.[26] Even the devil appeared as the unconscious revealed its stuff.[27] Sometimes contents of the unconscious appear in outer life, as “unconscious reactions in the form of bad moods, affects, phobias, obsessive ideas, backslidings…”, and projections.[28] Using these outward manifestations of inner reality Jung would work to figure out what was going on in the patient’s unconscious.

            Many unconscious contents are personal, arising from the unique history and experience of the individual patient. But Jung also noted “impersonal collective components in the form of inherited categories or archetypes”[29] that unlettered, untrained patients could not possibly have known about consciously. A famous example of this Jung witnessed early in his career, while treating a schizophrenic patient at the Burgholzi clinic. The man told Jung he saw a tail on the sun, an image Jung later learned was an image in Mithraic liturgy.[30] The patient had no knowledge of ancient religions and their liturgies, so Jung concluded that the vision had to come from the deep collective level of the unconscious.

            Repressed, negative, personal, positive, collective—the unconscious holds “… all those things which have been forgotten or overlooked, as well as wisdom and experience of uncounted centuries.”[31] Our psychic heritage as human beings lies in the unconscious, and this heritage includes both the negative (stuff we don’t like) and positive (our creativity and good traits). This brings us to a consideration of the nature of the unconscious.


The Nature of the Unconscious

            After decades of working with the unconscious, Jung admitted that “… the answer to the crucial problem of the nature and essence of the unconscious process has still to be found….”.[32] So, while we cannot describe the nature of the unconscious definitively, Jung provides multiple descriptions that allow us to paint a general picture of the unconscious.

            Jung likened the nature of the unconscious to nature itself, in that it is neutral,[33] with an “antinomial character,”[34] a complexio oppositorum,[35] a union of opposites: positive, negative, evil, good, dark, light, bestial, demonic, superhuman, spiritual and divine.[36] When confronting the unconscious our limited ego minds face a paradox[37]—a reality that is both good and bad, demonic and divine. It is understandable why we often turn away or try to avoid dealing with the unconscious, if only to avoid the inevitable mind cramp!

            The unconscious “does not ‘think’ as we understand thinking. Its mentality is “instinctive”[38]—another reason why our ego minds find it hard to handle. But this difficulty is no reason to spurn it or try to repress it. Jung was very clear on this point: the unconscious “can never be repressed to the point of extinction,”[39] and, because it speaks the truth, it can be a very useful guide and source for vast possibilities.[40]

            As noted above, the unconscious is both personal and impersonal, unique to the individual and part of the collective history of humanity. It is autonomous,[41] going its own way,[42] and presenting a perspective which we often don’t want to see. Independent[43] and sufficient unto itself,[44] it “knows no human considerations,”[45] and is more powerful than the conscious mind.[46] Dynamic[47] and continually active,[48] the unconscious never rests;[49] it is always at work, creating and “constantly supplying us with images,”[50] images that can be “gripping” and transformative[51] in their impact on our lives.

            This is because the unconscious is “compensatory and contrasting,”[52] operating as a “self-regulating” inner mechanism,[53] striving to maintain a psychic equilibrium within us, much as the various homeostatic processes function to maintain the normal range of temperature, electrolytic balances etc. in our bodies. Jung noticed this process frequently in his work with patients. If the person was depressed, he often would report dreams of flying, or being Superman, as the unconscious was reminding him “this also is true.” In the same way, when a patient had become inflated (too full of himself), dreams often turned up in which he was falling or showing up at a fancy ball only to wind up in a cowshed[54]—dreams to pull the person back down to a more realistic attitude.


Goals and Purposes of the Unconscious


            Self-regulation[55]—maintaining an inner psychic equilibrium—is one goal of the unconscious. It seeks to compensate our conscious attitude, especially if that attitude is one-sided or out of balance. In this way the unconscious can put us in touch with our instincts and help us be grounded and rooted in our nature.[56] In so doing the unconscious strives to keep us mentally healthy and fosters our psychological development and self realization.[57]

            Another purpose of the unconscious is to enlarge the scope of our personality,[58] by supplying us with contents to extend the range of consciousness. Via dreams, fantasies, intuitions, and active imaginations the unconscious offers up images, ideas, and possibilities that “extend the horizon of our consciousness” and can grow us out of personal dead ends.[59]

            When we are “dissociated,” out of touch with our true identity or highly neurotic,[60] the unconscious confronts the conscious mind with contents so as to abolish the dissociation. In this way it seeks to “shake neurotics out of their apathy,”[61] so as to bring about a change of personality, as well as a change of attitude. Thanks to the intervention of the unconscious we can get “to the root of complexes,”[62] and in this way quiet down obsessions and possessions by inner demons.[63]

            The unconscious helps us to accept responsibility for ourselves,[64] to become “one with ourselves,”[65] and “to conform to our true self.”[66] In this way, it can play a powerful role in fostering individuation.[67] I say “can” because taking advantage of the goals and purposes of the unconscious—accessing and drawing on its possibilities—depends almost entirely on the attitude we have toward the unconscious. Which brings me to the next section of this essay.


Reperceiving the Unconscious


            As the title of this essay indicates, the unconscious will take to us the attitude we take to it, and the vast majority of people in Western culture have a negative attitude, “even horror,”[68] a “serious undervaluation,”[69] “panic,”[70] a “critical depreciation of the unconscious…”.[71] In my experience interacting with people in mainstream society, I often get strong reactions when I tell people I work with dreams and inner visions. For example I’ve often heard statements like: “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of!” “Why mess with that stuff?” “Yuck! I never want to go there.” “I’m not going to mess with the monsters down there!” Such reactions bespeak fear.

            Jung was well aware of “the fear which the conscious mind has of the unconscious,”[72] “the primitive fear of and aversion to everything that borders on the unconscious.”[73] And he recognized that this negative attitude has become stronger over the last 200 years due to “marvelous development of science and technics,” which came along with “an appalling lack of wisdom and introspection…”.[74]

            The result of this conventional perception is a lack of adaptation and hostility to life.[75] Jung was explicit in his warning: “Disalliance with the unconscious is synonymous with loss of instinct and rootlessness.”[76] If we wish to thrive mentally and psychologically, to grow and achieve individuation, we must break away from the conventional attitude and reperceive the unconscious.

            This is not easy, and Jung recognized this: “… The overcoming of this fear [of the unconscious] is often a moral achievement of unusual magnitude,…”[77] and “to let the unconscious go its own way and to experience it as a reality is something beyond the courage and capacity of the average European….”[78] We can add here “American,” for, given the strong Extraverted orientation of American society, we are even less interested in this work of reperception than are Europeans.

            Why did Jung speak of this work being a “moral achievement of unusual magnitude”? For several reasons. First, reperceiving the unconscious as real and useful to our well-being requires having an independent mind, a mind willing to step out of convention, to be different. The majority of Americans (moreso than Europeans) are herd animals, “other-directed,”[79] content to go along with the crowd, and the crowd has no use for dreams, inner work, or the unconscious.

            Second, reperceiving the unconscious means becoming aware of the shadow[80]—those parts of ourselves we don’t want to see, recognize or acknowledge as “us.” Given the compensatory nature of the unconscious, noted above, this awareness is especially difficult for people who are inflated, full of themselves, haughty or snobbish—the very people most in need to the rebalancing force of the unconscious.

            A third reason why reperceiving the unconscious is unpopular lies in the fact that the ego does not relish relinquishing control. “To let the unconscious go its own way” is to allow this unknown, unfamiliar inner reality to have its way with us. I recall back in the late 1980’s, when I was in the early years of my analysis, and the unconscious was throwing up all sorts of contents I did not want to deal with, it was very hard to let go and trust it. Initially I flatly refused. Then bad things began to happen. I dismissed them as “just coincidences.” Then even worse things happened. Finally, when I found my analyst, and told her of what I was experiencing in outer life, she clued me in, saying “I think you might be a bit more open to the unconscious.” Indeed! As I did, the accidents, illnesses, conflicts and other misfortunes stopped. Life got better.

            Which brings me to the final section of this essay: Why undertake to reperceive the unconscious?


Why a Change of Attitude is Important


            As I noted above, from my own experience I can say that life improves when we switch from repressing or ignoring the unconscious to listening to it. I came to understand that many of the travails of life—fights, confrontations, troubles at work, troubles finding work, illnesses, accidents, loss of vitality, feelings of malaise or meaninglessness—are linked to ignoring the unconscious. It is really true that there are no accidents or coincidences. “Stuff” doesn’t just happen: We bring about a lot of the misery in our lives by our failure to enlist the help and support of the unconscious. By “opposing no force to the unconscious we do not provoke it to attack.”[81] So one reason a change in attitude is important is simply to improve the quality of daily life.

            Another is to diminish the possibility that the unconscious might overwhelm the conscious mind. This situation, Jung felt, “… is far more likely to ensue when the unconscious is excluded from life by being repressed, falsely interpreted and depreciated.”[82] The more we repress it, the more vigorously the unconscious strives to compensate our lack of balance. Depending on the individual situation, this overwhelming could result in a neurosis or even a psychosis.[83] In other words, a change in attitude is important so as to avoid mental illness.

            A third reason draws on the realization that, as long as we go through life drawing only on the resources of our conscious minds, we are playing the game with half the deck. The unconscious holds tremendous possibilities, potentials, and the creativity and vitality of our “inferior function,” as well as the wisdom and riches of our human heritage.[84] When we reperceive the unconscious as something positive (i.e. more than just neutral), we gain access to a limitless storehouse of creativity and vitality. We open ourselves more fully to the process of individuation—becoming more truly who we are, in the fullness of our being.

            When we shift our thinking to welcome the unconscious as a part of ourselves, Jung says

… the disharmony ceases and we can then enjoy the favorable side of the unconscious. The unconscious then gives us all the encouragement and help that a bountiful nature can shower upon man. It holds possibilities which are locked away from the conscious mind, for it has at its disposal all subliminal psychic contents, all those things which have been forgotten or overlooked, as well as the wisdom and experience of uncounted centuries …[85]

In other words, life not only gets better, it gets better than the ego mind (with its limited perspective) could possibly imagine.

            The unconscious takes to us the attitude we take to it. For our mental health and physical well-being, for our happiness and fulfillment, we owe it to ourselves to take a stand against the denigration of the unconscious that prevails in modern society, and develop an appreciation for the presence and role of the unconscious.




Jung, C.G. (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), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. 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.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton 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.

Riesman, David, Nathan Glazer & Reuel Denney (1955), The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. Garden City NY: Doubleday & Co.





[1] Collected Works 5, ¶540. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW 13, ¶464.

[3] CW 12, ¶29.

[4] CW 7, ¶s345-346.

[5] For more on the concept of the inner city, see the blog essay “Our Inner City,” archived on this blog site.

[6] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 2119.

[7] CW 6, ¶837.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] CW 18, ¶1586.

[11] CW 16, ¶329.

[12] Ibid., ¶389.

[13] CW 7, ¶197.

[14] Ibid., ¶258.

[15] Ibid., ¶292.

[16] CW 13, ¶481.

[17] CW 6, ¶838.

[18] CW 9ii, ¶62.

[19] CW 7, ¶220.

[20] Ibid., ¶s295 & 387.

[21] CW 6, ¶574.

[22] CW 7, ¶218.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., ¶307.

[26] Ibid., ¶373.

[27] CW 6, ¶82.

[28]CW 7, ¶307.

[29] Ibid., ¶220.

[30] CW 5, ¶149.

[31] CW 7, ¶196.

[32] Ibid., “Foreword to the 1934 Edition,” p. 124.

[33] CW 18, ¶1586.

[34] CW 9ii, ¶355.

[35] Ibid.

[36] CW 16, ¶389.

[37] CW 18, ¶1586.

[38] CW 7, ¶289.

[39] Ibid., ¶247.

[40] CW 6, ¶83, and CW 7, ¶s 196-197.

[41] CW 7, ¶387.

[42] CW 12, ¶60.

[43] CW 7, ¶292.

[44] Ibid., ¶345.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid., ¶370.

[47] Ibid., ¶195.

[48] Ibid., ¶258.

[49] Ibid., ¶273.

[50] Ibid., ¶292.

[51] Ibid., ¶361.

[52] Ibid., ¶247.

[53] Ibid., ¶257.

[54] Cf. CW 8, ¶164, and CW 18, ¶469.

[55] CW 7, ¶257.

[56] Ibid., ¶195.

[57] Ibid., ¶s 216 & 387, and CW 13, ¶482.

[58] CW 7, ¶218.

[59] Ibid., ¶358.

[60] CW 13, ¶481.

[61] CW 7, ¶290.

[62] Ibid., ¶387.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid., ¶373.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] CW 10, ¶244.

[69] CW 11, ¶28.

[70] CW 9ii, ¶62.

[71] CW 7, ¶352.

[72] CW 9ii, ¶355.

[73] CW 11, ¶28.

[74] Ibid.

[75] CW 12, ¶74.

[76] CW 7, ¶195.

[77] CW 9ii, ¶62.

[78] CW 12, ¶60.

[79] This phrase and the concept of other-directedness is described in Riesman et al. (1955).

[80] CW 9ii, ¶62.

[81] CW 7, ¶391.

[82] CW 16, ¶329.

[83] Ibid.

[84] CW 7, ¶359.

[85] Ibid., ¶196.

Leave a Reply