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 Delusion
“Normal and hysterical psychology both give us a number of clues that allow us to get a little nearer at least to the commonest forms of delusion.” Jung (1907)
“The constructive standpoint is very different. Here the delusional system, as regards its material content, is neither infantile nor in itself pathological, but subjective, and hence justified within those limits.”
“Formerly, in a more materialistic epoch of psychiatry, it was believed that all delusions, hallucinations, stereotypes, etc., were caused by morbid processes in the brain-cells. Adherents of this theory overlook the fact that delusions, hallucinations, etc., are found in certain functional disturbances, and not only there but also in normal people.” Jung (1914)
“It is not for us to imitate what is foreign to our organism or to play the missionary; our task is to build up our Western civilization, which sickens with a thousand ills. This has to be done on the spot, and by the European just as he is, with all his Western ordinariness, his marriage problems, his neuroses, his social and political delusions, and his whole philosophical disorientation.”
“Greater than all physical dangers are the tremendous effects of delusional ideas, which are yet denied all reality by our world-blinded consciousness. Our much vaunted reason and our boundlessly overestimated will are sometimes utterly powerless in the face of “unreal” thoughts. The world-powers that rule over all mankind, good or ill, are unconscious psychic factors, and it is they that bring consciousness into being and hence create the sine qua non for the existence of any world at all. We are steeped in a world that was created by our own psyche.”
“Anything new should always be questioned and tested with caution, for it may very easily turn out to be only a new disease. That is why true progress is impossible without mature judgment. But a well-balanced judgment requires a firm stand point, and this in turn can only rest on a sound knowledge of what has been. The man who is unconscious of the historical context and lets slip his link with the past is in constant danger of succumbing to the crazes and delusions engendered by all novelties. It is a tragedy of all innovators that they empty out the baby with the bath-water.”
As the above quotes indicate, Jung recognized how our Western world “sickens with a thousand ills,” some of which are “social and political delusions.” Jung wrote these words eighty years ago, but, given our current social and political reality, they are just as true today as they were then. For those of us endeavoring to hone our capacity for critical thinking, such delusions pose a challenge. In this essay, after defining the term “delusion,” we examine Jung’s ideas about delusions, in multiple venues: in the insane, in “normal” people, and in the world at large. We conclude with suggestions Jung offered on how we might navigate our way through the delusions in our contemporary world.
Definitions of Delusion
The dictionary defines “delusion” as “1. the act of deluding; 2. the state of being deluded; 3. a false notion or belief; 4. a fixed belief maintained in spite of unquestionable evidence to the contrary. People with mental disorders, especially schizophrenics, have delusions.” But the act and state are not limited to people who are mentally ill: It is not just the hysteric or the schizophrenic who can manifest delusions. Anyone can delude others, i.e. mislead or deceive, and anyone can be misled or deceived, particularly if he/she is unconscious, i.e. not self-aware. More on this in the second section of this essay.
Jung on Delusions in the Insane
As a psychiatrist, Carl Jung was a specialist in “mental diseases,” in an era when the treatment of such diseases was in its infancy. Jung joined his teachers, Janet, Bleuler, and Freud, in being a pioneer, and most of his early publications focused on his research and treatment of the insane.
In the context of the insane asylum, Jung regarded delusions as one of the symptoms which “occur in all mental diseases and also in hysteria.” When he dealt with hysterics, he found their “delusional assertions” were
“displacements; that is to say, the accompanying affect does not really belong to them but to a repressed complex which is disguised by this maneuver. An insuperable obsession merely shows that some complex (usually a sexual one) is repressed, and the same is true of all the other obstinately asserted hysterical symptoms.”
Always independent in his thinking, Jung relied not on the “dogma” of his teachers, but on his own personal experience in treating his patients. This empirical approach led Jung to look at the “delusional system” of his patient “without prejudice,” and he would ask himself “what it is aiming at.” This is a key feature of Jung’s psychology: the psyche is not some jumble of oddities, but it operates with purpose or intent. Jung recognized that, even when delusional, the psyche is “aiming at something,” and “the patient devotes all his will-power to the completion of his system.”
Jung broke with both Freud and Adler in their beliefs that delusions were “gratifications in fantasy of infantile wishes” (Freud) or “the striving for power” (Adler). Rather, the “Zurich school” (Jung’s term for his brand of psychology) regarded delusions as “significant psychic processes” operating in “an essentially compensatory relationship” to the conscious attitude, and possessing “mythological motifs.” Jung admitted that
“At the beginning, I felt completely at a loss in understanding the association of ideas which I could observe daily with my patients. I did not know then that all the time I had the key to the mystery in my pocket, inasmuch as I could not help seeing the often striking parallelism between the patients’ delusions and mythological motifs. But for a long time I did not dare to assume any relationship between mythological formations and individual morbid delusions.”
The usefulness that Jung discovered in “mythological motifs” is one reason formal training for Jungian analysts includes study of diverse cultures’ myths, legends and fairy tales. These elements of the universal collective unconscious helped Jung relieve the suffering of both his psychotic patients and the more normal neurotics who showed up on his doorstep after he left the Burghölzli psychiatric clinic.
Jung on Normal People and Delusions
Jung was explicit that delusions are not limited to crazy people. He recognized “that delusions, hallucinations, etc., are found in certain functional disturbances, and not only there but also in normal people.” His school of psychology sees “the delusional system” as “neither infantile nor in itself pathological, but subjective,…”. In this, Jung was stressing his differences with Freud and Adler. “Normal people,” Jung knew, can be deluded without having “infantile wishes” (a la Freud) or “obstinate clinging to the fiction of one’s own superiority,…” (a la Adler). A delusion is “subjective” in that its content “is, factually considered, nonsense,” that is, it is not in touch with reality, but the deluded person believes it to be true.
Why? What causes a “normal person” to become delusional? Jung offers some answers. We can become delusional if we lose “touch altogether with the compensating powers of the unconscious,” i.e. if we become very “one-sided” in how we live. Jung gives the example here of the “man who identifies himself absolutely with his reason and his spirituality.” Such an overly-rational mode of living puts the man “in danger of becoming dissociated from his anima” (his feeling nature and relational ability). Jung warned that
“In a case like this the unconscious usually responds with violent emotions, irritability, lack of control, arrogance, feelings of inferiority, moods, depressions, outbursts of rage, etc., coupled with lack of self-criticism and the misjudgments, mistakes, and delusions which this entails.”
When life gets way out of balance, the psyche produces symptoms to try to get our attention, much as our body tries to restore homeostatic balance in situations of physiological imbalances.
Another possible cause of delusions is the denigration of the “daemon,” the inner psychic force that seeks to foster our creativity and soulful expression. In our materialistic culture, we tend to regard the daemon as “an illusion,” but Jung would have us
“… learn to acknowledge these psychic forces anew, and not wait until [our] moods, nervous states, and delusions make it clear in the most painful way that [we are] not the only master in [our] house.”
Jung knew that an entire world lives within us, and we ignore the demands and promptings of these inner forces at the risk of becoming delusional.
A third reason for delusion in a normal person is identification with an archetype. Archetypes are innate, “primordial images” existing in the collective unconscious. They are impersonal, powerful, numinous, and therefore not to be identified with. Jung describes what happens to the person who does identify with an archetype:
“… he makes himself … either god or devil. Here we see the characteristic effect of the archetype: it seizes hold of the psyche with a kind of primeval force and compels it to transgress the bounds of humanity. It causes exaggeration, a puffed-up attitude (inflation), loss of free will, delusion, and enthusiasm in good and evil alike.”
More prosaically, we speak of people who have “delusions of grandeur.” Jung knew that this type of delusion “may easily arise when there is a lack of orienting ideas and a predominance of egotistic thinking.” Narcissists often manifest this delusion, and, if they identify with an archetype (e.g. “king,” “emperor”) they can become charismatic and dangerous, as we saw with Adolf Hitler, and, more currently, with certain political leaders on the global scene. Which brings us to consider how delusion shows up in collective reality.
Delusion in Our World
Jung saw a relationship between the personal unconscious (the unconsciousness of individuals) and the collective unconscious. In his dream seminars he warned his students that
“When there is much personal unconscious the collective is overburdened; the things which we should be aware of seem to press down on the collective unconscious and enhance its uncanny qualities. There is a sort of fear, … which is typical of the collective unconscious…a reaction may reach you through your fellow-beings, through waves in your surroundings. The reaction is not only in you, it is in your whole group.”
Delusions in individuals, in other words, will affect other people, fostering fear and more delusions in our environment.
This relationship between personal and collective unconscious is made even more prone to foster delusions due to the tendency individuals have to project their shadow–negative qualities like greed, selfishness, anger, fear, feelings of inferiority etc. When we deny these sorts of qualities lie within us
“They become an inexplicable source of disturbance which we finally assume must exist somewhere outside ourselves. The resultant projection carries a dangerous situation in that the disturbing effects are now attributed to a wicked will outside ourselves, which is naturally not to be found anywhere but with our neighbor de l’autre côté de la rivière. This leads to collective delusions, “incidents,” revolutions, war – in a word, to destructive mass psychoses.”
Jung was not exaggerating here: Hitler’s Germany lay just on “the other side of the river,” a few minutes walk across a bridge from Basel, and Germany in the Third Reich certainly manifested “mass psychoses,” and World War II was one result.
Psychiatrist that he was, Jung warned the world about the dangers inherent in our rationalism and our “overestimated will:”
“Greater than all physical dangers are the tremendous effects of delusional ideas, which are yet denied all reality by our world-blinded consciousness. Our much vaunted reason and our boundlessly overestimated will are sometimes utterly powerless in the face of ‘unreal’ thoughts.”
We like to think we can figure out solutions to global problems, that our reason, combined with willpower, are powerful enough to handle the “effects of delusional ideas,” e.g. that climate change is a hoax. It is delusional to think that climate change is not happening. Those who have eyes to see the disappearing glaciers might admit that the planet is warming but deny that it is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. This is also delusional thinking.
Given the ahistoricity of American culture, the United States, Jung felt, is especially prone to delusion. Jung was blunt about this:
” … unless we are in possession of the human experience which the past has bequeathed to us… we are without root and without perspective, defenseless dupes of whatever novelties the future may bring. A purely technical and practical education is no safeguard against illusion and has nothing to oppose to the counterfeit.”
and our American infatuation with “the new, new thing” makes us even more susceptible to delusions:
“Anything new should always be questioned and tested with caution, for it may very easily turn out to be only a new disease. That is why true progress is impossible without mature judgment. But a well-balanced judgment requires a firm stand point, and this in turn can only rest on a sound knowledge of what has been. The man who is unconscious of the historical context and lets slip his link with the past is in constant danger of succumbing to the crazes and delusions engendered by all novelties.”
Jung’s reference to novelty turning into disease reminds me of the invention of the cell phone and the rash of addictions and social pathologies it has caused. We are surely deluded if we think that our sophisticated technologies can spare us from delusions. Au contraire! These technologies are fostering more of them! So what to do?
How Jung Suggests We Might Avoid or Handle Delusions
Jung provides us with nine ways we might avoid falling into delusion, or how to handle delusions if/when they appear. I present these nine beginning where Jung would begin–within, with the psyche, our inner reality–and then take up actions in outer life.
acknowledge the reality of the psyche and the power of psychic forces:
A cardinal principle of Jung’s thought is that “the psyche is real.” In a 1917 essay, Jung noted that
“The psychic alone has immediate reality. And this includes all forms of the psychic, even ‘unreal ideas and thoughts which refer to nothing ‘external’. We may call them ‘imagination’ or ‘delusion,’ but that does not detract in any way from their effectiveness.”
In their “effectiveness,” Jung recognized that “psychic forces” have such power that they can overpower our egos, showing us that we are not “masters in our own house.” On this principle rests many of Jung’s other suggestions.
become more self-aware, i.e. become conscious of the unconscious within you
Jung often was asked by individuals what they could do to improve the world. Jung’s answer often surprised them: Become conscious of the unconscious. In our personal unconscious lies our shadow side, our contrasexual side (animus in a woman, anima in a man), and the Self (our inner divine core). Jung understood that we need to become aware of these inner energies, to “clear up” our personal unconscious, so “there is no particular pressure” that builds up from “collective unconscious forces” that would “force” themselves upon us. Much as we might periodically do a thorough cleaning of our outer house, so we need to clean up our “inner house.”
stop projecting the shadow: recognize your shadow side and befriend the shadow
This psychic housecleaning is especially important with regard to the shadow, that part in each of us which Jung called
“the imperfect being in you that follows after and does everything which you are loath to do, all the things you were too cowardly or too decent to do.”
Our inner shadow side is the one who “commits the sin,” and if we deny this “fellow” within us, “he is pressed towards the collective unconscious and causes disturbances there.” Why? Jung explains: because this denial “is against nature, you should be in contact with your shadow, you should say: ‘Yes, you are my brother, I must accept you’.” Among the “disturbances” the collective unconscious can throw up are delusions.
stop projecting assumptions on to others
The shadow is not the only thing we often project. Jung noted how
“people unhesitatingly project their own assumptions about others on to the persons concerned and hate or love them accordingly. Since reflection is so troublesome and difficult, they prefer to judge without restraint, not realizing that they are merely projecting and making themselves the victims of a stupid illusion. They take no account of the injustice and uncharitableness of such a procedure, and above all they never consider the serious loss of personality they suffer when, from sheer negligence, they allow themselves the luxury of foisting their own mistakes or merits on to others.”
We project assumptions, attitudes and values on to others, e.g. we assume someone does not like us, or a person has a negative attitude, or holds values that we despise. Such projections can wreck personal relationships, as well as create havoc in society, by leading us to believe in “strange machinations” or other skullduggery perpetrated by those we hate or fear. By wising up to these assumptions we make possible better personal relationships, and greater possibilities for a positive, peaceful society.
recognize that vision has a Janus-like nature: we see not only from the outside but also from inside outwards
Jung urged “a balance of power between the two worlds” of the ego (the outer world) and the psyche (the inner realm). When we have self-awareness we are able to recognize that we see “not… only from the outside in words, but from inside outwards.” There is outer vision, which ideally conforms to objective reality (the world of science, of facts verified by replicable experimentation and presented in forensic testimony in law courts), and there is the inward vision that is subjective, personal, unique to the individual (but often shared with those in our circle of family, friends and acquaintances). Both types of vision can succumb to delusion, as our current social and political situation reflects, e.g. with “fake news” and “alternate facts,” but the inward, subjective type is harder to evaluate, especially if we are not aware of our shadow and the other psychic forces. Absent self-awareness, inner vision can get skewed by moods, nervous states and delusional thinking.
avoid one-sidedness: strive for balance in both outer life (e.g. rest and activity) and inner life (ego and shadow, anima and animus)
Jung was explicit that we need to avoid identifying with one function, like thinking/reason, for this can be dangerous: As noted earlier, living in a one-sided way risks “becoming dissociated… and thus losing touch altogether with the compensating powers of the unconscious.” All sorts of negatives can result, e.g. “violent emotions, irritability, lack of control, arrogance, feelings of inferiority, moods, depressions, outbursts of rage, etc., coupled with lack of self-criticism and the misjudgments, mistakes, and delusions…”.
internalize a locus of authority: don’t look outside for how to live your life; don’t go along with the crowd; avoid group think and “mass-mindedness”
A leitmotif running through Jung’s work is the danger of “mass-mindedness.” Going along with the crowd was, to Jung, the very antithesis of his goal for persons: individuation. Each of us should aspire to live out our personal destiny, and this only becomes possible when we look within, listen to our inner wisdom and, in doing so, internalize a locus of authority. Doing this can be a challenge, requiring that at times we stand against family, friends, the crowd, and live in the world without being of the world.
value history and learn from its lessons, on both the personal and collective levels
Jung knew that we need “the human experience which the past has bequeathed to us.” Without a sense of history, “we are without root and without perspective,” and this leaves us vulnerable to being “defenseless dupes,” with no safeguard “against illusion and … nothing to oppose to the counterfeit.” On the personal level, it is important for us to become aware of our family pathologies passed down through generations, or the neuroses that run through maternal and/or paternal lines. Equally valuable is historical perspective on our collective cultural experience. Without such “historical context” we can “slip our link with the past” and succumb “to the crazes and delusions engendered by all novelties.”
don’t identify with an archetype, and especially not with leaders (gurus, political figures, celebrities) who have done so
Because most public figures, including celebrities, politicians, and spiritual and religious leaders, are unconscious, it is not uncommon to find that they fall into identifying with an archetype. Elvis Presley, for example, got labeled “the king” by an adoring following, and, lacking any sort of psychologically astute advisor, he eventually fell into identifying with this powerful archetype, and it led to his self-destruction through drug abuse.
Religious leaders often also succumb to this temptation, and begin to “play God,” or demand obedience from their congregants. Most dangerous (because they command military might) are the politicians who rally the masses, stir up powerful emotions, and fancy themselves above the law. As a Swiss democrat, Jung had little patience with such inflations, and he urged his students and patients not to vote for or support such figures.
Like so much of Jung’s advice, each of these suggestions is easy to note, and hard to practice. But if we wish to avoid being deluded, these are ways we might try to live.
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________ with Howard Sasportas (1987), The Development of the Personality. York Beach ME: Samuel Weiser.
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________ (1973), “Experimental Researches,” Collected Works, 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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Rosen, David (2013), The Tao of Elvis. Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock.
Turkle, Sherry (2015), Reclaiming Conversation. New York: Penguin.
 Collected Works 13 ¶168. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 Ibid. ¶412. Jung used “constructive” as an adjective to distinguish his brand of psychology from Freud’s, which Jung labeled “reductive.”
 Ibid. ¶453.
 CW 13 ¶5.
 CW 8 ¶747.
 CW 17 ¶251.
 CW 13 ¶5.
 In 1929.
 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 527. “Delusion” should not be confused with “illusion.” Both “mean something mistakenly or falsely believed to be true or real. Illusion applies to something appearing to be real or true, but actually not existing or being quite different from what it seems:… Delusion applies to a false and often harmful belief about something that does exist.” Ibid., 980-981.
 CW 13 ¶55.
 CW 3 ¶166.
 Bair (2003), 43.
 Jung studied in Paris with Pierre Janet in 1901-1902, while taking a leave from his job at the Burghölzli clinic; ibid., 79-80.
 Jung worked under Eugen Bleuler at the Burghölzli from December of 1900 to 1909; ibid., 158.
 Jung’s relationship with Freud began in 1906, when Jung wrote to him; ibid., 99. Their contact lasted six years.
 Cf. CW volumes 1 through 4 for details of Jung’s experimental and clinical work at the Burghölzli clinic.
 CW 3 ¶166.
 Ibid. Jung wrote this in 1907, when he was under Freud’s influence; he later came to regard causation of complexes more widely, rather than as “usually sexual;” CW 4 ¶780.
 CW 17 ¶296.
 Ibid. ¶128.
 CW 10 ¶338.
 CW 3 ¶410.
 CW 8 ¶159.
 CW 3 ¶410.
 Ibid. ¶411.
 Ibid. ¶414.
 CW 11 ¶899.
 CW 18 ¶833.
 CW 18 ¶833.
 Personal communication with Lynda W. Schmidt.
 “More normal neurotics” means people whose neuroses were such that they did not have to be confined in psychiatric wards.
 CW 3 ¶453.
 Ibid. ¶412.
CW 11 ¶222.
 CW 13 ¶454.
 CW 15 ¶152.
 CW 13 ¶454.
 CW 13 ¶454.
 CW 13 ¶55.
 Jung’s idea of our inner world led Jungian analyst Daryl Sharp to call his Jung-focused publishing house “Inner City Press.”
 CW 6 ¶s746-754.
 CW 9i ¶189.
 CW 7 ¶110.
 CW 1 ¶284.
 E.g. Donald Trump. For detailed examination of Trump’s mental state, cf. Cruz & Buser (2017) and Lee (2017).
 Jung (1984), 75.
 CW 13 ¶52.
 CW 8 ¶747.
 Evans (1976), 334, quoting Jung.
 CW 17 ¶250.
 This is the title of Lewis (2000) which illustrates our infatuation with technological novelty.
 CW 17 ¶251.
 For an incisive examination of the impact of cell phones, see Turkle (2015).
 CW 11 ¶757.
 CW 8 ¶747.
 CW 13 ¶55.
 Hannah (1976), 129.
 For a succinct description of these contents of the personal unconscious, see Hopcke (1989), 81-84, 90-93 and 95-97.
 Jung (1984), 75.
 Ibid., 76.
 CW 8 ¶584.
 CW 3 ¶169.
 Cw 7 ¶381.
 CW 10 ¶714.
 CW 13 ¶55.
 Ibid. ¶454.
 CW 10 ¶718.
 Jung defines “individuation” in CW 6 ¶757.
 Cf. CW 16 ¶2 and CW 7 ¶s263-264.
 CW 17 ¶250.
 Familial neuroses and pathologies can be seen in astrological charts of families; see Greene (1978) (1987) and (1992) for detailed explication of this.
 CW 17 ¶251.
 Rosen (2013), 33b.
 E.g. Mussolini and Hitler.