Why We Do What We Do Part 2

Why Do We Do What We Do?

Part II: Some Examples



Part I of this essay discussed Jung’s list of determinants of human behavior. In this part Jung’s ideas get illustrated by real-life examples. I will illustrate as many of his ideas as I can, drawing on my own life and from my reading and work with students.

Hunger: The instinct that drives us to eat, as “open systems,”[1] is also an instinct that can become distorted in pathological behaviors like bulimia or anorexia. Poor self-image, or a profound complex can cause such disorders, leading even to the point that people (mostly women) can look in the mirror and think they are too fat, when in reality they are skin and bones. Princess Diana’s struggles with eating disorders, linked to her poor relationship with her mother, is a widely known example of how this instinct can produce harmful behavior.[2] Marion Woodman is a Jungian analyst who came to specialize in treating women with this disorder—a pathology exacerbated by the way our culture puts a premium on looks, thinness and unrealistic emphasis on the body as one’s identity.[3]

Sexuality: Is there any instinct these days that is more in the news than sex? Gay marriage, transgender shifts, rewriting law codes, historic legal decisions, “hooking up,” and “casual” sex—all these are behaviors reflecting the instinct and how it is showing up in new manifestations. Not all these behaviors are new: the “Don Juan” is an age-old archetype—the seductive “ladies’ man” who lives to conquer and then moves on to the next potential “conquest.”[4] Given that Jung recognized the close connection between sexuality and spirituality, and his appreciation of the numinosity of the coniunctio archetype,[5] I doubt he would be sanguine about many of these manifestations.

Activity: Jung was a traveler. He made six trips to America, several to Africa, one to India, and many around Europe and Great Britain.[6] He was often away from home as much as five months out of a year.[7] He also shared Heraclitus’ belief that the only constant is change.[8] The instinct of activity gives us our capacity to adapt to an ever-changing reality and our love of exploring different locales. But there must be a balance. Adaptability is good; inability to commit, to focus one’s life so as to accomplish something, is not good. Both Jung and I have encountered people (especially men) who cannot commit. The saddest cases to come to my threshold have been “trust fund babies” who have no financial worries, who don’t need to work in order to earn a living, and so they drift through life, often with a deep sense of frustration and meaninglessness. Jung diagnosed this type as the “puer,”[9] the man with too close a relationship with mother, who cannot commit to life because to do so would mean striking out on his own, breaking the bond, and leading an independent existence.

Reflection: This is an instinct I am using right now, in creating this essay. We manifest the behavior of reflection when we refrain from impulsive actions, when we reflect on the meaning or purpose of something, when we try to describe a personal value or our relationship to the Divine, when we listen “actively” to a friend and provide him/her with feedback. Developing a personal philosophy, describing why we liked or disliked a book, giving a speech—all these behaviors call upon the instinct of reflection.

Creativity: All the blog essays on this site required the active use of this instinct. Jung was clear that we are meant to be co-creators with the Self.[10] But, in my experience working with students at the Jungian Center, I have found many people shy away from creativity. Adopting the warped attitude of our culture (which defines creativity as “high art”), many people feel they are not creative. They tell me “Oh, I can’t draw.” or “I don’t have talent.” My response to this is to assure them that the only thing I can draw is my daily bath water, but that doesn’t stop me from developing my creativity. Little kids are tremendously creative, but conventional public education kills it, and most of the corporate business world also has no use for creativity (because creative people tend to be hard to control). So this instinct is one we have to actively, consciously work to appreciate and act on. How best to do this? Do what you love. Follow your interests. Become sensitive to how and where your psychic energy wants to flow, and you will find your creative niche.

The Will: Jung was once asked if he believed in free will. He gave one of his typically paradoxical replies: “Freedom of will is the freedom to do gladly that which we must do.”[11] In Jung’s way of thinking we are all fated, creatures with a unique, individual destiny, and this destiny cannot be gainsaid. Within those limits, we are free to choose how to respond to what befalls us. So yes, we have free will, but within limits. In my experience, the key to the positive use of will lies in how we interpret events. For example, in July of 2013, I broke my leg. Using my will I could have chosen to be morose and sulk in self-pity, asking “Why me?” But I didn’t. Instead, I recognized that this was a stellar event, a major transition point shifting my stance (leg) in life, and, because I was laid up for 11 weeks, it provided a great opportunity for me to receive. Thirty-five people came forward with meals, running errands, bringing in my mail, taking out the garbage, driving me around. It was a time of pain and hassle, to be sure, but also a time of great blessings and major growth. Whatever happens in life, we always have the choice of how we use our will. We can see the glass as half-empty (thus leading us to focus on lack and fear) or as half-full (leading to a focus on potential and abundance). How we choose to use our will is very important.

Sexual Identity: Male, female, masculine, feminine, hetero- or homosexual, or transgender—how we identify ourselves sexually has a major impact on behavior. In my experience working at the Jungian Center I see this most often in terms of personal interests. We deal with the inner life here, and about 80% of our students are women. I think this is not unusual: most organizations with this inward focus draw women. The men who participate are usually either gay or have a solid connection to their anima (feminine side). The interests and behaviors of the macho, Harley-driving, testosterone-fueled young blood are not really a match for the activities of the Jungian Center.

Age: As with sexual identity, the activities of the Jungian Center draw more people in their mature years. Jung was explicit that the behavior of the young person (i.e. under c. 35-40) should be outward: work life, forming a family, moving up in the world in terms of providing for children and a solid retirement.[12] Only at mid-life should there be a course correction, with a shift toward one’s inner life. Most of our students are in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s—people in what Jung called the “afternoon of life,”[13] the time when behavior should be about living fully while coming to terms with the reality of death. Our bodies help in this regard, as we observe physical changes that serve to slow our pace and draw us inward.

Hereditary disposition: One example that comes to mind illustrating how personal history can affect behavior is a person I know who had a very hard early life, with little support or love. This person grew up with a compliant, accommodating disposition and an unconscious identification with the archetype of “victim.” It has been amazing to watch how this person will attract innumerable life experiences that confirm this identity: instance after instance where the person has been the victim of discrimination, harassment, brutality, exploitation, unprofessional conduct, and greed. It has been equally frustrating to watch all this while wondering if/when the person will spot the pattern and come to realize life does not have to be this way. We wonder if compliance and accommodation ever give way to defiance and self-assertion? By no means are all heritable tendencies so pathological. Most of us have not experienced such a difficult early life.

Conscious and unconscious: My own life is rich with examples of how profoundly being unconscious can show up in weird behavior. Before I ever heard of Jung I was contemptuous of all forms of psychotherapy. I would exclaim forcefully that I would never have my “head examined,” or see a “shrink.” Life has a funny way of showing up when we say “never!” and I now realize that it is usually just those who are most afraid of analysis who are most in need of it![14] After my “upending experience” in November of 1983, when a series of dreams told me what was going to happen, and then it all began to unfold, I felt I was losing my mind. In that interval, as all my old reality began slipping away, one element that left very quickly was my marriage. In the space of a few weeks I came to perceive my relationship with my husband in a totally new way, leaving me wondering just why I had married him. That led to my wondering what I was to learn from the divorce. And that led to my consulting the very group of practitioners I had previously held in such contempt, which eventually led to my encounter with Jung’s works and my Jungian analyst.

When we are unconscious we often marry out of unconsciousness: We attract partners who will provide experiences that serve to provoke our becoming more conscious. These experiences usually are not pleasant. In my case, as I subsequently came to learn, I had married a man like my father. But my relationship with my father had not been good. I had what they call in the trade a “negative father complex”[15] (more on complexes below). I discovered this in conversations with the therapists I initially met. My work in Jungian analysis focused, in the early years, on grappling with this complex. The first step was becoming aware of it, becoming more conscious of the nature of the relationship I had, with both my parents.

As few people have had perfect parenting (if there is such a thing!), most of us have parental complexes, to a greater or lesser degree. Jung was clear that, if a complex is benign (i.e. not messing up one’s life, or creating a host of problems), it can be left undisturbed.[16] Creating consciousness is an ongoing task, but does not require that we turn over every stone to spot every complex, wound, problem or flaw. As I noted above, Jung felt becoming more conscious would lead to a life that worked better, with greater capacity for rational behavior, more awareness of both self and others, and greater freedom from the compulsiveness of instincts. He likened the unconscious to the ocean, in being limitless in its extent and depth,[17] so the goal of becoming conscious is an open-ended one.

Extraversion and introversion: Like sex and age, this modality shows up at the Jungian Center with a marked imbalance. Just as we have many more women and mature participants, so we have many more Introverts than Extraverts. This is true of Jungian activities in general.[18] In terms of behaviors, we stress inner practices like meditation, active imagination, dream work and dream interpretation, creative activities like drawing, painting, sculpting that nourish the soul, and we read books on these topics. Our values run to things like solitude, quiet, authenticity, individuation (becoming more fully one’s true self), independence of mind, and critical thinking (so as to become aware of the many pathologies in our contemporary culture).

Sometimes people show up eager to help us grow, to get bigger, to become “successful,” in terms of our culture’s concept of “success.” I sit and listen to this for a while and then reply that, taking a page out of Mother Teresa’s book, we are not called to be successful, but to be faithful to the demands of the Self. Then we get strange looks and the Extraverts soon wander off, assuming we are weirdos. Jung was quite astonished at the level of extraversion in America, and his wife Emma found it almost intolerable.[19] With their reluctance to look within, to focus on the inner life and become aware of the “inner city” that people the unconscious, most Extraverts find what we do unappealing.

Spirit and matter: Jung regarded the psyche as real. He found few people who understood this. Fifty years on, there are still very few who get this, especially in America, given our strong bias toward materialism. It takes a definite shift in both worldview and values to appreciate the spiritual realm, to focus on intangibles, and come to believe the truth expressed in the bumper sticker: “The best things in life aren’t things.” Meaning, purpose, peace of mind, integrity, authenticity—such things are not tangible, but they show up in profoundly important behaviors that nourish both soul and physical environment (body and Earth).

Meaning—knowing why you are alive, what the point of your existence is—gets you out of bed in the morning. Purpose moves you toward goals and provides drive and energy, so you know what you are doing really matters in the larger scheme of things. Peace of mind comes from the awareness of personal connection to Self/Source/the Divine, with a knowing that, whatever might happen, there is a reason or value to it. It is what Jesus called a “treasure in Heaven.”[20] Integrity, authenticity, self-awareness—these are components of individuation, and these show up in behaviors aligned with the intentions of the Self.

While participants in the activities of the Jungian Center live in the world, we recognize there is a difference between living in and living of the world. Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world;[21] neither is the realm of the Self. Few understand this in our culture, which is one reason why we are not eager to grow bigger or aggressively advertise. We know that “when the student is ready, he/she finds us,” in just the right way, at just the right time.

Complexes. I referred to this phenomenon above. There are many complexes, the parental complexes perhaps being the most common, and some of the most powerful, since our family of origin is such a powerful influence on us and our psychic life. How do complexes show up in behavior? My own life can provide a vivid example.

I had both a negative father complex and a negative mother complex. The father complex showed up first, in terms of the work I had to do on myself. When the relationship with one’s father is skewed, it can show up in a variety of ways: lack of self-confidence, a belief that the world is unwelcoming, difficulties in dealing with authority figures, problems adapting to the conventions and norms of the culture (which is patriarchal in nature—the world of the fathers).[22] I had all these beliefs in my unconscious. Not surprising then that I found it hard to perform as “the fathers” expected, and always felt myself something of a rebel, or odd-man-out. That was the general situation.

The specific manifestation of the complex, in terms of behavior was as Jung describes: When an interaction with some man “constellated” (set off) the complex, I—my rational ego self—disappeared. Being “autonomous” (beyond the control of the ego), the complex took over and I began to react to the man I was with as if he were my father! Before I got into analysis, all this was quite unconscious, and my behavior was all the more bizarre for being unconscious. After I became more aware, thanks to the analysis, I could both be present (in the complex) and at the same time, some part of me could witness what was going on. I could sense when the complex was rising; in time I got wise to the types of men and situations likely to spark it; over more time I could sense it coming and contain it, i.e. feel the emotions “stirring the pot,” but they didn’t have to show up in outer behaviors. Finally, after years of working on myself, the complex was “depotentiated” (starved of its power) to the point that I could say to myself, “Once upon a time having to deal with a man like that would set off my negative father complex. But no more!” Complexes never go away, but they can be reduced in their power to mess up our lives.[23]

Archetypes: Part of the power complexes have derives from the archetypes that make them up. Archetypes are universal “psychic forms”[24] that live in all human beings. They have certain features: intentionality, generativity, autonomy and numinosity, to name a few.[25] They intend to manifest as behaviors. The mother archetype, for example, intends to produce behaviors that serve to nurture and protect the vulnerable. They generate behaviors that support their intent. In the example of the mother, one behavior would be feeding the child, or tending to the fears of a crying child. They are autonomous in that they can produce behaviors spontaneously, independent of our ego will. And they have numinosity because they lie in the collective unconscious and thus connect to the Self, our Divine core.

Part of becoming more self-aware is getting wise to the archetypes that are most active within you. In my own life, the archetypes of “teacher,” “writer,” “student,” and “spiritual seeker” are very important. I am an irrepressible learner, and once I learn something, I want to pass it on to others (the “teacher” in me). My creative daimon gets antsy if I am away from my books and computer for too long, as it wants to get to writing again (I say this now, after weeks in the basement, doing a thorough clean-out), and my inner “spiritual seeker” keeps me questing, and striving to create more consciousness.

Equally important in self-awareness is recognizing those archetypes that don’t have much purchase on your soul. Despite my 18 years of care-giving, the mother archetype holds little attraction, nor does the Divine Child. I am much more a senex than a puer. Being mindful of this imbalance, I must work to play, or rather, my “play” takes the form of changes of pace and scene, while still producing tangible results.[26] Each of us has a range of archetypes that are important, and some that aren’t. Such is the stuff of self-knowledge.

The Functions and Types: Most participants at the Jungian Center are INFs—Introverted Intuitive Feeling types. The J/P difference seems more equally split. In terms of behavior, I much prefer solitude and quiet, days spent focused on the inner life, in myself and my dream students. Writing, reflecting, evaluating, relating to others with sensitivity—these are the types of behaviors of the INF. Extraversion shows up when I send ads to the newspaper, give speeches to groups, or meet with the general public. Typical of the Introvert, such outward-oriented activities drain my energy pretty quickly.

We encourage our students to look within, to spend time alone, to resist the “groupiness” of American society. And we admit readily that these activities are subversive. We recognize how badly imbalanced American life is these days, and how much it needs to be leavened with introversion, intuition and an appreciation of feeling. Subverting such imbalance is necessary, and we do what we can, each individual in his or her unique way.


Why Do We Do What We Do?


As the above suggests, the reasons for our behaviors are manifold and complex. It is not at all easy to explain or understand why situations happen, but when they occur over and over, we might want to stop and ask ourselves if life is trying to tell us something. A psychologist might think of the phenomenon of “repetition compulsion,”[27] that incentive from the psyche meant to get us to wise up to the pattern of behavior that is being repeated.

When my student asked me why she was facing yet again a painful experience that had recurred over and over in her life, I told her to give herself a gold star for spotting the recurring pattern. This is the first step in working on it.

As for why “yet again,” the reason is that most of the time we learn through repetition. And most of the time in learning life lessons, the experiences are painful, rather than pleasant, because pain is more of a motivator for change than pleasant things are. When my student came with her question, I asked her to spend some time reflecting on what the psyche might want her to learn about herself from what was going on in these repeated experiences. This turned the question back to her, a response she was not very pleased with (most of the time people want a clear answer from the “expert,” an approach Jung explicitly warned against).[28]

The second step in figuring out why we do what we do is identifying the commonalities or threads that recur in the various iterations of the problem. Often these common themes or points go way back in our life to some early years when a self-image was formed, or some key assumptions or beliefs about reality were laid down in our consciousness, many times to fall into the unconscious. They resurface when the situation recurs, so we can spot them if we have taken up the task of becoming conscious.

In this, we can enlist the help of the psyche. I encourage my students to incubate dreams, to watch for synchronicities, to listen to any intuitions that may come up. Outer life and inner reality together help us gather insights. Insights alone do not bring cures, but they are an important piece of the work.

Most of the time, if the person is very wounded, addressing the situation will require analysis, including work with the emotions that come up when complexes get hit, confrontation with shadow aspects, with all the challenges this implies, and then further work to depotentiate the complexes that are involved. This is the work of heroes.

In sum, why do we do what we do? Most of the time we don’t know. Our motivations lie in the unconscious. Most of the time this is not a problem. But sometimes, as with my student with the recurring frustrating experience, it is a problem. Then it calls us to seize the opportunity to gain more consciousness.




Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

Cirlot, J.E. (1962), A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Philosophical Library.

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

Jung, C.G. (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.

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

Morton, Andrew (1992), Diana: Her True Story. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sharp, Daryl (2005), Not the Big Sleep. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Stevens, Anthony (2003), Archetypes Revisited. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Woodman, Marion (1980), The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa and the Repressed Feminine. Toronto: Inner City Books.

________ (1985), The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation. Toronto: Inner City Books.






[1] Open systems are living systems which exchange energy and communicate with the outer world, e.g. eating, urinating, talking.

[2] Morton (1992), 18.

[3] Cf. Woodman (1980) & (1985).

[4] CW 9i, ¶162.

[5] Coniunctio is Latin for “union,” and is the term used in alchemy to refer to the integration of the alchemical elements; see CW 16, ¶459 & figure 5.

[6] Bair (2003), 153,160-70,177-8,181,213,344-55,426-9,609,702.

[7] This, by his own admission; Jung (1984), 86.

[8] CW 7, ¶111.

[9] CW 9i, ¶162.

[10] Jung (1965), 338.

[11] Try as I might, I have not been able to find the citation to this quote; it can be found on many Internet sites quoting Jung, but none that I searched had the citation to his works. If a reader of this essay happens upon the citation, I would be very grateful to have it.

[12] CW 16, ¶75.

[13] CW 7, ¶114. For more on this, see the essay “Enjoying the Afternoon of Life: Jung on Aging,” archived on this blog site.

[14] CW 8, ¶s 208 & 211.

[15] Sharp (2005), 85.

[16] CW 16, ¶s 179 & 187.

[17] Cirlot (1962), 242.

[18] If you want to see this for yourself, attend one of the IAAP conferences and notice how most of the attendees seem eager to disappear behind the wallpaper! Introverts are not party animals and most Jungian analysts are introverted.

[19] Hannah (1976), 237.

[20] Matt. 6:20.

[21] John 18:36.

[22] Jung (1984), 161.

[23] This is what is meant by “depotentiation;” CW 12, ¶163.

[24] CW 8, ¶254.

[25] Stevens 92003), 68,100,140,231.

[26] For more on the puer and senex, and how their respective play manifests, see the essay “Senex Play and Puer Play,” archived on this blog site.

[27] Jung (1984), 546.

[28] CW 16, ¶2.

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