What the heck is an archetype, and why do I need to know about that stuff anyway?

4036This post may not seem to have anything at all to do with horses, but if you read through it, it may make it a bit easier to understand the way I make sense of my work with horses, and life in general.

I’m trained as a depth psychologist, and that means that I pay a lot of attention to the symbolic and, yes, “archetypal” nature of the world and my life as I experience it. Dreams are important as sources of information, and so are events in my waking world. I watch for patterns, and for “synchronicities” that show up and practically beg me to look for their meaning.

My worldview has been greatly influenced by Carl Jung’s ideas, and in this post, I’d like to give you an overview of some concepts found in Jungian psychology that I’ve found useful. I promise to keep it short and sweet.

First, there’s what Jung called the collective unconscious, the ground out of which consciousness arises. Jung believed that the experiences of humankind, from the beginning of consciousness, all exist in a kind of psychic field that he called the collective unconscious. The contents of the collective unconscious are not concrete, specific images. Rather, they’re what he called archetypes: patterns of experience and behavior that are common to all humans. I’ll say more about archetypes in a minute.

Within the limitless unconscious, there are centers of consciousness that correspond to individual human beings. Each of these centers is an ego, which in Jung’s view is an association of experiences and images that begin to coalesce around a physical body in infancy to form a personality. Some of the experiences that a person has remain conscious; others are forgotten or (as in Freud) repressed into what Jung calls the personal unconscious.

In Jung’s view, before an infant becomes aware of her surroundings, she is completely subsumed by the collective unconscious. Life experiences bring about the development of the ego, as the baby’s consciousness differentiates from her surroundings.

Then there’s the persona. In order to live together, people have to form a society or culture with rules and norms for behavior. Any society has shared ideas of morality, aesthetics, and behavior to which we must adapt. These rules, learned consciously or picked up without awareness, are internalized. Each person has a social role, and in response to our need to “fit in,” our ego chooses bits from the collective unconscious that fit our particular social role, and calls these bits its own. This is what Jung calls the persona (from the Latin, meaning a mask, false face, or character in a drama): “a more or less arbitrary segment of the collective psyche” that our ego assembles as an ideal image of itself that it shows to the world.

Often, we identify with the role we play. “I’m a psychologist,” or “I’m a wife and mother,” or “I’m successful”: this is often how we really identify ourselves, even to ourselves. You can see this identification and its power when, for instance, a person loses their job or when their spouse leaves them, and they go into a complete depression. “Who am I if I’m not (a successful IT professional/mother/wife/husband/provider)?”

We’re often (or usually!) completely unaware that the persona is in fact a mask that overlies a huge repository of repressed material. This repressed material gives rise to dreams, fantasies, and neuroses. Images that appear in dreams and fantasies take characteristic forms that remain more or less constant across individuals and even across cultures. These images come from the collective unconscious, and group themselves into patterns or archetypes.

Archetypes themselves can never be fully understood. They exist as overarching patterns that can only be represented symbolically as images in dreams, fantasies, and neuroses, and can be experienced by each of us as particular events in our lives. For example, every human has a mother. Each person’s experience of “mother” is unique, and taken all together, humanity’s experience of mothers and mothering takes its form from, and contributes to, the archetypal pattern “Mother.”

Another term: our complexes. During the development of our psyche from infancy onward, bits of the unconscious coalesce around an archetypal pattern and function as though they themselves were conscious. Jung called these autonomous groups of contents complexes. We’ve all heard “mother complex,” for instance. It’s not important right now to fully understand what Jung meant by this concept. We just need to know that our complexes are initially unconscious. We notice a complex when it suddenly “takes over,” often at inopportune moments. We may suddenly say or do something wildly inappropriate and wonder, “Where the heck did that come from?” The answer: from our unconscious. Our complex made us do it.

In a more or less normal person these complexes lose their control over our lives as we become more aware of what’s going on with them. In other individuals, the complexes prove stronger than the ego and overwhelm it, resulting in neurosis or psychosis.

Here’s the really important thing to understand about our complexes: As long as they’re unconscious—as long as we aren’t aware when they’re taking us over and why they do it—their actions and effects on us seem mysterious, and we tend to experience them as events or persons in the outside world.

This is the idea of projection. Our complexes get “personified” and appear to us as independent entities or personalities. These can be people or things in the outer world, or images in dreams and fantasies. Either way, they don’t seem to belong to us, and we don’t control them. Rather, they function as autonomous “beings” that seem to make decisions for us.

How do you become more aware of your complexes? Notice the next time someone makes you really, unreasonably angry, for instance. Feel into that. At the core of that irrational anger is a complex. That person may remind you of your father, or maybe he reminds you of something in yourself that you really don’t like. That’s where the complex lies. Incredibly valuable information!

Finally, there’s the concept of individuation. For Jung, the goal of life is increasing self-knowledge: becoming conscious of our wholeness while at the same time developing our uniquely individual nature (as opposed to the “herd mentality” or blind acceptance of the dictates of our culture). We accomplish this through integrating our unconscious complexes into our consciousness. Jung calls this process individuation.

According to Jung, the process of individuation leads to the person expressing more of her unique qualities even as she becomes more conscious of the collective elements in her psyche. Individuation is the process of becoming aware of the totality of our being.

Individuation involves hard, sometimes psychologically dangerous work. Looking at the material in our personal unconscious is particularly difficult and uncomfortable—that’s why it was repressed in the first place! It takes a lot of courage. But Jung believed, and so do I, that doing our own internal work, no matter how difficult the task, benefits the world at large. It’s worth the effort.

(Cross-posted on It’s an Alchemical Life)