Jung on Neurosis Part III

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.



Jung on Neurosis Part III:

Healing Neuroses and Aspects of Jung’s Philosophy


The Role of the Patient


This is central to any form of healing, be it somatic or psychic: The individual must admit his/her life isn’t working very well.[1] Jung was explicit:

“In the last resort it is a man’s moral qualities which force him, either through direct recognition of the need or indirectly through a painful neurosis, to assimilate his unconscious self and to keep himself fully conscious. Whoever progresses along this road of self-realization must inevitably bring into consciousness the contents of the personal unconscious, …” [2] and

“Without the complete willingness and absolute seriousness of the patient, no recovery is possible. There are no magical cures for neurosis.”[3]

Nobody else can do the work for us: If we’ve got a neurosis, it is only by “having it out with ourselves”[4] (the auseinandersetzung, as Jung called it) that we can be healed.

So what’s a patient to do to foster the work of healing? Jung gives multiple suggestions, e.g. work with his or her moods:

“… the patient must try to get his mood to speak to him; his mood must tell him all about itself and show him through what kind of fantastic analogies it is expressing itself.”[5]

Drawing, painting or working with mandalas often helps in getting the mood to “speak,” as such non-verbal activities can often “pierce through this fog of verbiage to the conscious personality of the patient,”[6] to reveal “what must be the nature of his attitude if he is to integrate that split-off fragment…”.[7]

Another approach is to deal with imbalance.[8] For example, Jung dealt with a “neurotic individualist,”[9] a “Lone Ranger” type, who had no awareness of “the collective man in himself–hence the need for collective adaptation.”[10] No man is an island, as John Donne reminds us.[11] Jung agrees: for the “neurotic individualist” healing lies in recognizing that he lives among others and must adapt (at least to a degree) to collective life. The opposite is also true: The person whose consciousness is completely oriented to outer life would have to find and come to appreciate his “inner city” and all the energies that live within it.[12]

Getting wise to one’s prejudices is another component in curing neuroses.[13] Jung dealt with patients who harbored

“… all kinds of prejudices which are often the direct cause of his neurosis and help to keep it alive. If these misunderstandings are not thoroughly cleared up, they can easily leave behind them a feeling of resentment…”[14]

Here the work requires changes in attitudes and belief systems,[15] and for the ideologue, wedded to ideologies and ideas, this can be a challenge.

Insight is another task of the patient, especially insight to his/her projections.[16] Jung made it clear that the patient “… if he wants to be cured–[has] to gain insight into his primitive projections to a far higher degree than the normal person does.”[17] We all project,[18] normal or neurotic, but the neurotic person has “primitive” projections,[19] due to the fact that he or she “is sick not in one particular mechanism or focus of disease but in his whole personality.”[20] So many of his/her projections are way out of line, and thus these projections tend to mess up relationships. Just how this happens–how relationships get messed up–is grist for the mill of the analysis, which brings us to another key element in healing neuroses: the role of the therapist.


The Role of the Therapist


Admitting there’s a problem, wrestling with the conflict between outer life and inner reality, dialoging with moods, striving for more balance in life, wising up to prejudices and gaining insights are all things the patient can do to support the process. But, to paraphrase Larry Wilson, while the patient “has to do it himself, he can’t do it alone.”[21] Healing a neurosis is no piece of cake, nor is it without its dangers. Jung was aware of this:

“Not a few of the classic neuroses, such as hysteria and obsessional neurosis, turn out under treatment to be latent psychoses, which can sometimes pass over into manifest psychoses – a fact that should constantly be borne in mind by the psychotherapist.”[22]

Jung would not advise well-meaning friends or untrained people to try to heal someone who is neurotic. The work requires training and also the therapist’s own analysis:

“… the art of psychotherapy requires that the therapist be in possession of avowable, credible, and defensible convictions which have proved their viability either by having resolved any neurotic dissociations of his own or by preventing them from arising. A therapist with a neurosis is a contradiction in terms.”[23]

In other words, the Jungian analyst comes to know that analysis works because, in his/her own lived experience, it healed him/her and left him/her with the conviction that the Jungian approach is effective. He/she got to recognize his/her own complexes, neuroses and habits of projection, and so he/she is able to spot these in his/her patients.[24] The therapist also learns how to hold a transference from the patient and spot when he or she has a counter-transference on to the patient.[25] As the above quote implies, the whole point of the therapist’s years of training, with multiple analysts,[26] is to clear up his/her own neuroses.

Besides handling the transference, the analyst’s task is to “reinforce the conscious personality of the patient,”[27] “to reestablish the lost connection and the life-giving cooperation between conscious and unconscious,”[28] by strengthening the positive, healthy aspects of the patient to the point that they together (analyst and patient) are able examine the trauma(s) that led to the neurotic dissociation, and, as a result, eventually “bring the autonomous complex under the control of his [the patient’s] will.”[29] This process is work. It has its own timetable (in my experience, it was always too long, too slow, seemingly interminable). And it requires more than “mere sympathy”[30] on the part of the therapist: “Mere personal sympathy can never give the patient that objective understanding of his neurosis which makes them independent of the doctor…”.[31] Jung felt it was his “duty as a physician to show [his] patients how they can live their lives without becoming neurotic.”[32] As much as he sought to heal his patients, Jung sought to empower them, to give them the means to do inner work on their own.

But “means” do not mean “techniques.” Jung was clear that therapeutic work to heal neuroses could not resort to “cookbook” measures or gimmicks:

“In dealing with the neurosis, the doctor is not confronted with a delimited field of illness; he is faced with the sick person who is sick not in one particular mechanism or focus of disease but in his whole personality. “Technique” cannot cope with that. The personality of the patient demands all the resources of the doctor’s personality and not technical tricks.”[33]

The person of the patient, in all his/her fullness, meets the person of the therapist,[34] in all his/her fullness, and this relationship, in all its depth, works the healing, not techniques.

Jung also had no use for theory in the analysis. He warned his students

“… if you begin the analysis with a fixed belief in some theory which purports to know all about the nature of neurosis, you apparently make your task very much easier; but you are nevertheless in danger of riding roughshod over the real psychology of your patient and of disregarding his individuality.”[35]

Beyond healing the patient’s neurosis, Jung sought also to encourage the patient’s individuation. Toward this goal, Barbara Hannah said that Jung never analyzed two people the same way.[36] He had no system, no method, and he was blunt:

“… all theories of neurosis and methods of treatment are a dubious affair…. There simply is not and cannot be any such treatment, and even if there could be, one would be on the surest road to failure.”[37]

To Jung, there would be no true success if healing the neurosis meant crushing the patient’s unique individuality. Nor was the joint work just about getting rid of the neurosis. Jung knew that

“To lose a neurosis is to find oneself without an object; life loses its point and hence its meaning. This would not be a cure, it would be a regular amputation…; and it would be cold comfort indeed if the psychoanalyst then assured the patient that he had lost nothing but his infantile paradise with its wishful chimeras, most of them perverse.”[38]

The analyst’s task is to help the patient wise up to him/herself, while keeping the wider perspective in mind,[39] via the archetypes that show up during the course of the analysis. In this concern Jung was challenging Freud’s form of analysis, with its reductionism and “personalistic psychology:”[40]

“… a purely personalistic psychology, by reducing everything to personal causes, tries its level best to deny the existence of archetypal motifs, and even seeks to destroy them by personal analysis. I consider this a rather dangerous procedure which cannot be justified medically.”[41]

Jungian analysts spend years immersed in the study of myths, legends, fairy tales and other sources of archetypal perspectives so they can access and use the healing potentialities that lie in archetypes, with their numinous connection to the Self.[42]

How does the therapist know when to consider archetypal connections? Usually from the patient’s dreams, which brings us to another key component of healing neuroses.


The Role of Dreams


When my neuroses became obvious in 1983, as I began to have very disturbing dreams, I consulted many practitioners in the mental health field–psychotherapists, counselors, psychiatrists–and they all told me that, if I wanted to work with dreams, I should find a Jungian. They all associated dreams with Jung’s school of psychotherapy. Rightly so: Jung put great stock in dreams, and found analysis of the patient’s dreams would

“… give us rather more than we expected. It gives us not only the etiology of the neurosis but a prognosis as well. What is more, we even know exactly where the treatment should begin: …”[43]

Dreams can guide the pace and process of the analysis, provide the analyst with signposts along the inner journey, offer wider perspectives thanks to the archetypes they contain, “…try to reestablish the equilibrium by restoring the images and emotions that express the state of the unconscious,”[44] and generally support the “wider personality”[45] which the patient might not see.

Jung found dreams even more useful than his Association test in fleshing out the content of a neurosis.[46] In explaining how this is, Jung used an analogy from gardening:

“The symptom is like the shoot above the ground, yet the main plant is an extended rhizome underground. The rhizome represents the content of a neurosis; it is the matrix of complexes, of symptoms, and of dreams. We have every reason to believe that dreams mirror exactly the underground processes of the psyche. And if we get there, we literally get at the ‘roots’ of the disease.”[47]

As the name “depth psychology”[48] suggests, Jung was not one to be content with superficial treatments. He went deep, to get at the deep sources of the patient’s malady, and he found analysis of the patient’s dreams one of the best ways to do this.

Jung put great store in the patient’s initial dream–“a dream, often of visionary clarity”[49] that

“occurs about the time of the onset of the illness or shortly before, which imprints itself indelibly on the mind and, when analyzed, reveals to the patient a hidden meaning that anticipates the subsequent events of his life.”[50]

This passage means a lot to me, for this was exactly what happened with me. The dream that touched off my healing work was just like this: visionary, clear, unforgettable, revealing of meaning, and foretelling my future, in explicit, incontrovertible ways.

Dreams give Jungian analysts clues as to how to proceed in the analytic work. Jung understood that “… it is chiefly the doctor who will have to concern himself with dreams, because their interpretation offers the key to the unconscious.”[51] And this key is especially useful in treating neuroses and psychoses. But Jung encouraged his patients to learn how to work with their dreams, so they would be able to dialog with their inner characters and maintain the health of their psyche after their analysis concluded.[52] One aspect of psychic health, Jung felt, was having a proper religious attitude.


The Role of Religion


By “religion” Jung did not mean church-going.[53] He recognized how our age has “rationalized and watered down”[54] religion, and he himself had little use for organized religions–he called them “creeds”[55]–but he had great respect for the “religious instinct”[56] that is part of every human being. We deny or dismiss this instinct at our peril. Of this Jung was adamant: “… I regard the religious problems which the patient puts before me as authentic and as possible causes of the neurosis.”[57] Because so many people these days have thrown off traditional religious observance, “… the ways in which the contents of the unconscious contrive to reach us” have become “more intricate and mysterious,”[58] and one of these ways, Jung felt, was through neurosis:[59] We become mentally ill as a way for the unconscious to get our attention, to call us back from illness into health, wholeness and holiness.

To Jung “religious questions [were] primarily psychological questions…”[60] and one consequence of suffering from a neurosis was that it caused “… a separation from the unconscious [which meant] … nothing less than a separation from the source of all life.”[61] In his handling of the symbols that turned up in his patients’ dreams, Jung recognized their “spiritual content,”[62] and he taught his students (i.e. future Jungian analysts) that part of their role as analysts was to help patients “understand the spiritual content of the symbols”[63] their dreams offered up. Clearly, to Jung, mental illness has spiritual implications, and restoring mental health fosters individuals’ total well-being, including the wellness of their souls.

His personal experience, as well as his work with hundreds of patients led Jung to appreciate the role of the transcendent function in healing. Jung defined the “transcendent function” as “The cooperation of conscious reasoning with the data of the unconscious…”[64] and Jung felt that

“This function progressively unites the opposites. Psychotherapy makes use of it to heal neurotic dissociations, but this function had already served as the basis of Hermetic philosophy for seventeen centuries. Besides this, it is a natural and spontaneous phenomenon, part of the process of individuation. Psychology has no proof that this process does not unfold itself at the instigation of God’s will.”[65]

Ever the empirical scientist,[66] Jung knew that there was no way he could prove that the transcendent function had a spiritual source, but he held out the possibility, knowing that alienation from one’s soul has perilous implications for both physical and mental wellness, which brings us to consider Jung’s philosophy.


Jung’s Philosophy


Some parts of Jung’s philosophy have been mentioned in passing above, e.g. his confidence in the healing force of Nature; the teleological nature of neuroses; his disdain for psychological theories, and the importance of spirituality and connection to the source of life for mental health. For all the suffering he dealt with, Jung had a remarkably positive view of life and illness. Neuroses were, to him, purposive, holding the potential to grow the neurotic to new levels of consciousness.[67]

As a psychiatrist, Jung trained as a medical doctor, but, for all that, he had very little regard for diagnosis in psychotherapy, which does not operate like organic diseases.[68] A physician can diagnose a case of typhoid, or scarlet fever, or pneumonia, and these labels translate clearly into courses of treatment.[69] With mental illnesses, the situation is quite different:

“As a rule, the diagnosis does not greatly matter since the needs and the difficulties of the treatment have to do with quite other factors than the more or less fortuitous diagnosis. And because there are only individual illnesses, they practically never follow a typical course on which a specific diagnosis could be based.”[70]

Jung put little emphasis on the label, and much more on the person sitting in front of him. He reminded his students that “The object of therapy is not the neurosis but the man who has the neurosis.”[71]

Jung differed from Freud in his valuation of things spiritual, his non-reductive handling of dreams and symbols, and also on the importance of the patient’s personal history.[72] While the Freudian school put (and still puts) great stress on the anamnesis, Jung felt this emphasis was misplaced.[73] In order to effect the healing of a neurosis, the focus must be on the patient today, not in the past:

“The true reason for a neurosis always lies in the present, since the neurosis exists in the present. It is definitely not a hang-over from the past,… it is fed and, as it were, new-made every day. And it is only in the today, not in our yesterdays, that the neurosis can be ‘cured.’ Because the neurotic conflict has to be for today, any historical deviation is a detour, if not actually a wrong turning.”[74]

Freud would spend months, even years, rehashing the patient’s past and relationships with the parents etc.–all of it, to Jung, a wasted effort.

Jung also took exception to Freud’s depreciation of the unconscious. Rather than regarding the unconscious as a rich source of both information and healing potential, Freud downplayed it and sought “… safety in the discriminating power of consciousness.”[75] Jung felt

“This approach is generally mistaken and leads to desiccation and rigidity wherever a firmly established consciousness already exists; for, by holding off the antagonistic and apparently hostile elements in the unconscious, it denies itself the vitality it needs for its own renewal.”[76]

No wonder few people heal their neuroses when working with a Freudian!

Where Freud took (and most modern people take) a negative attitude toward neurosis, Jung thought it was “a great mistake” to consider it

“to be something inferior, a quantité negligeable from the medical point of view…. For behind the neurosis are hidden those powerful psychic influences which underlie our mental attitude and its guiding principles…..”.[77]

Because we have such a poor opinion of neurosis, we think we can remove it from the patient. Jung would caution us otherwise:

“A neurosis is by no means merely a negative thing, it is also something positive. Only a soulless rationalism reinforced by a narrow materialistic outlook could possibly have overlooked this fact. In reality the neurosis contains the patient’s psyche, or at least an essential part of it; and if, as the rationalist pretends, the neurosis could be plucked from him like a bad tooth, he would have gained nothing but would have lost something very essential to him. That is to say, he would have lost as much as the thinker deprived of his doubt, or the moralist deprived of his temptation, or the brave man deprived of his fear.”[78]

Many people, reading this quote, might wonder what could be wrong with eliminating doubt, temptation and fear? Jung understood that these are vital parts of life, and must exist if we are to know certainty, contentment and confidence.[79] This common attitude–seeking to purge what seems negative–illustrates Jung’s belief that “… the conscious mind is always in danger of becoming one-sided,,…”[80] i.e. wanting only the good, the beautiful, the positive, seeing little value in the bad, the ugly, the negative. But one-sidedness is dangerous: it can lead to neurosis.[81] But “the complementary and compensating function of the unconscious ensures that these dangers, which are especially great in neurosis, can in some measure be avoided.”[82]

In his long life Jung met “more than one person who “learned to accept his neurotic symptoms with gratitude, because, like a barometer, they invariably told him when and where he was straying from his individual path, and also whether he had let things remain unconscious.”[83] So, even when a neurosis is not healed, it can still become a positive aspect of life.




Despite its length, this long essay is but a brief introduction to the complex topic of neurosis, a bit better, perhaps, than my glib answer to my student that life does not work very well for the person with a neurosis, but certainly not the final word on the subject. It is my hope that the reader has gained some sense of what “neurosis” means, what sorts of things might cause its formation, how it shows up in life, and how it might be healed. This essay is not in any way meant to offer medical advice or diagnostic principles, nor does it try to suggest ways the reader might try to treat him- or herself. Remember Jung’s warning: Neuroses are dangerous, and the unconscious is not the stuff of parlor games.[84] If you suspect you might have a neurosis, I heartily recommend you find and work with a Jungian analyst. To locate one in your area, you can use the locator on the Web site of the International Association of Analytical Psychology.




Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung: His Life and Work, A Biographical Memoir. New York: G.P. Putnam.

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.

________ (1961), “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” Collected Works, 4. 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.

________ (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.

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

________ (1966), “The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature,” CW 15. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

________ (1979), General Index to the Collected Works of C.G. Jung, compiled by Barbara Forryan & Janet Glover. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1984), Seminar on Dream Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.






[1] Collected Works, 7 ¶218. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. ¶497.

[4] I think this was how Marie-Louise von Franz described the auseinandersetzung, but I cannot find the specific reference. If any reader should encounter it, I would much appreciate having the citation.

[5] CW 7 ¶348.

[6] CW 10 ¶364.

[7] Ibid.

[8] CW 7 ¶187.

[9] CW 16 ¶5.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Devotions XII.”

[12] CW 16 ¶5.

[13] CW 17 ¶181.

[14] Ibid.

[15] CW 15 ¶100.

[16] CW 8 ¶517.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. ¶507.

[19] CW 8 ¶517.

[20] CW 10 ¶338.

[21] I first heard Larry say this in 1988, when I gave a presentation at his Pecos River Learning Center.

[22] CW 3 ¶558.

[23] CW 16 ¶179. Jung understood the concept of the “wounded healer;” to be an effective healer, the therapist must have had his/her own experience of being wounded and healed.

[24] CW 10 ¶338.

[25] Jung defined “transference” in CW 7 ¶94, note 13: “Transference is projection, and projection is either there or not there. But it is not necessary [i.e. in the analysis]. In no sense can it be ‘made,’ for by definition it springs from unconscious motivations. The doctor may be a suitable object for the projection, or he may not. … The absence of projections to the doctor may in fact considerably facilitate the treatment, because the real personal values can then come more clearly to the forefront.” In my own experience of wrestling with neuroses, I found transference to be very helpful in revealing how I projected my negative complexes (especially my negative father complex) on to people who had sufficient “hooks” to hold the projection. In this process, I was able to observe what was going on (with my analysts’ help, of course) and, eventually, to take back the projections.

[26] “Multiple,” because Jungian training requires the trainee to have a personal analyst and, in addition, a supervising analyst (who must not be the same person). The analyst who provides supervision gives feedback and guidance to the trainee as he/she works with a client–a hands-on. experiential part of the years-long process to become a Jungian analyst.

[27] CW 16 ¶271.

[28] CW 4 ¶761.

[29] CW 16 ¶271.

[30] Ibid. ¶292.

[31] Ibid.

[32] CW 11 ¶522.

[33] CW 10 ¶338.

[34] Ibid. ¶s337-338.

[35] CW 17 ¶181.

[36] Hannah (1976), 130.

[37] CW 17 ¶203.

[38] CW 10 ¶355.

[39] CW 11 ¶79.

[40] CW 9i ¶97.

[41] Ibid.

[42] CW 11 ¶285.

[43] CW 16 ¶305.

[44] CW 18 ¶474.

[45] CW 11 ¶79.

[46] Ibid. ¶37.

[47] Ibid.

[48] The Jungian and Freudian are two schools of psychology known as “depth psychologies” for their work with the unconscious, i.e. in the depths of the psyche.

[49] CW 5 ¶78.

[50] Ibid.

[51] CW 17 ¶191.

[52] CW 11 ¶522.

[53] Jung had little use for organized religion; for more on his personal religious orientation, see my book The Spiritual Adventure of Our Time: C.G. Jung and the New Dispensation.

[54] CW 8 ¶712.

[55] CW 11 ¶10.

[56] Ibid. ¶157.

[57] CW 11 ¶518.

[58] CW 8 ¶712.

[59] Ibid.

[60] CW 8 ¶526.

[61] CW 4 ¶761.

[62] CW 5 ¶683.

[63] Ibid.

[64] CW 18 ¶1554.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Jung got hung with many labels in his lifetime, e.g. “mystic”, which he hated. He preferred to be regarded as an empiricist, as he told Pastor Ernst Jahn, in a letter of 7 September 1935; Letters, I, 195.

[67] CW 7 ¶218.

[68] CW 16 ¶540.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid.

[71] CW 10 ¶337.

[72] CW 11 ¶518.

[73] CW 10 ¶363.

[74] Ibid. By writing this Jung did not mean to dismiss the value of an anamnesis: As the therapy progresses it is essential for the therapist to understand the patient’s past, what happened to him or her, so as to gain a sense of how the neurosis formed.

[75] CW 4 ¶761.

[76] Ibid.

[77] CW 8 ¶712.

[78] CW 10 ¶355.

[79] This reflects Jung’s adherence to Heraclitus’ concept of paired opposites operating in the enantiodromia.

[80] CW 9ii ¶40.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Ibid.

[83] CW 16 ¶11.

[84] CW 7 ¶192.