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On Guilt and Related Topics

Larry Staples, Ph.D.

Posts by Jungian Analyst Larry Staples, Ph.D., (with permission) to an Online Jung Discussion List (edited and arranged by April Barrett)

Guilt has been a subject of special interest to me for many years.  Like you and others responding to this list, I learned that guilt is far more complicated than the conventional explanations for its psychic existence.  One result of this interest was my book, Guilt with a Twist: The Promethean Way


       The conventional view of guilt’s role is that it helps us remain “good.”  Guilt keeps us within boundaries deemed acceptable.  It helps us resist doing things that would disturb or harm our individual and collective interests.  It can remind us, for instance, of the apology we should make to help repair a harm we may have done.  This conventional view of guilt has an important role in the maintenance of conventional life.

       The conventional view, important as it is, also creates an enormous problem.  It can deter us from being “bad” when being “bad” is exactly what is needed.  While the conventional view is part of the truth, it is not the whole truth.  The meaning of sin and guilt is far more complicated.

       The idea that we actually need to be “bad” at times, in order to develop, grow, and individuate, led me to a concept I call “Good Guilt.”  In common parlance, the words “good” and “guilt” don’t belong together. Experience in life and work, however, has repeatedly confirmed for me the useful role of sin and guilt.  I began to notice that there are times in our lives when the experience of guilt actually was a signal of having done something good, even essential to nurture us.  While the guilt probably did not feel like “Good Guilt” at the time of the transgression, the “sin” that caused the guilt is sometimes viewed in retrospect as having brought something valuable to our lives.  Examples might include divorces, separations from partners and friends, giving up family-approved or family-dictated careers or even marriages that are opposed by one’s family on the grounds of race, religion, gender, or social status.  It might also include the expression of qualities previously rejected as unacceptable, like anger, selfishness, or the contra-sexual sides of ourselves. Later in life we may look at guilt thus incurred in a different light.


       Jung, of course, clearly saw the conflict between his developmental concept of individuation and collective mores.  He knew that we couldn’t individuate without sinning and incurring guilt.  He explains the consequences in a brief passage:


Individuation and collectivity is a pair of opposites, two divergent destinies.  They are related to one another by guilt.  . . .  Individuation cuts one off from personal conformity and hence from collectivity.  . . .  It means stepping over into solitude, into the cloister of the inner self.  . . .  Since the breaking of personal conformity means the destruction of an aesthetic and moral ideal, the first step in individuation is a tragic guilt. . . .  The accumulation of guilt demands expiation.  . . .  Every [further] step in individuation creates new guilt and necessitates new expiation" (CW 18, par. 1094-1099).

       Jung was clear and emphatic that there is a high and demanding price of guilt to be paid when one gives up conventional life and travels the path of individuation.  We cannot grow without suffering guilt.  We know it’s a path that requires courage.  But Jung also offered ideas as to how this guilt might be redeemed:


[The individuating person] . . . must offer a ransom in place of himself, that is, he must bring forth values, which are an equivalent substitute for his absence in the collective, personal sphere.  Without this production of values, final individuation is immoral and – more than that – suicidal.  . . .  Not only has society a right, it also has a duty to condemn the individuanl if he fails to create equivalent values, for he is a deserter. Individuation remains a pose so long as no values are created.  The individual is obliged by the collective demands to purchase his individuation at the cost of an equivalent work for the benefit of society.  Only by accomplishing an equivalent is one exempt from the conventional, collective path.  A person [who individuates] must accept the contempt of society until such time as he has accomplished his equivalent (CW 18, par.1094-1099).

       Jung’s way is essentially the Promethean Way where “sin” eventually leads to something good for humanity.  Prometheus, as we know,  “sinned” by stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans to serve their needs. 

       Jungians know that in order to accomplish our equivalent, we have to turn inward to the unconscious.  We have to search there for what needs to be developed within ourselves in order to become the complete persons we are called to be.  Only then do we have the capacity to give back the most we are capable of giving. 

       At some point, it dawned on me that guilt serves the psyche, and life itself, in a number of ways other than its support of morality.  I began to notice that guilt is often morally neutral.  That becomes obvious when we see that we can feel guilty about one thing and also feel guilty about its polar opposite.  For example, we can feel guilty if we are too assertive or not assertive enough; a woman may feel guilty when she has a career (so-called “mommy guilt”) and she can feel guilty when she doesn’t have one.  We can feel guilty if we work too hard or too little, when we are very rich or very poor, when we neglect others and when we neglect ourselves. Examples are legion.  It thus appears that guilt in its non-moral function is actually an important part of the psyche’s self-regulatory system.  It is often compensatory.  If we move too far toward either of a pair of opposites, guilt may nudge us back toward the center.

       Guilt is incalculably important to the functioning of the psyche for another reason.  I feel sure that guilt plays a major role in the formation and maintenance of consciousness.   And if it is important to the maintenance of consciousness, it is important to the maintenance of life as we know it.   As Jung wrote, “The opposites are the ineradicable and indispensable precondition of all psychic life, so much so that life itself is guilt” (CW 14, par. 206).  As Jung, Edinger, and others have pointed out, consciousness depends on the existence of polar opposites.  These are basic to the architecture and anatomy of the psyche. 


       The flow of psychic energy is similar to the flow of electricity.  It is based on the same principle.  The flow is between polar opposites, negative and positive.  If psychic energy does not flow, we are “brain dead”; our body may be alive but we do not know it.   

       While the opposites create consciousness and life, it is guilt that creates the opposites.  Early in life parents and other authorities cause us to divide our world into pairs of opposites: the acceptable and the unacceptable.  We are wired to feel guilty when we embrace the unacceptable opposite. 

       The relationship between guilt and consciousness is embedded in the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden.  Adam and Eve, tempted by the serpent, ate of the tree of knowledge and became capable of distinguishing between good and evil.   As Jung has often said, “There is no consciousness without the discrimination of opposites.  Nothing can exist without its opposite; the two were one in the beginning and will be one again in the end” (CW 9, Part 1, par. 178). 

       Consciousness is this capacity to differentiate. The eating of the forbidden fruit is the mythical basis for this consciousness.  We lose our paradisiacal innocence when we become aware of the opposites.  We suffer for this capacity.  Guilt separates the opposites from each other based upon their imputed values of relative goodness or badness.  By means of compensatory mechanisms, guilt also helps maintain distance between the opposites.

       Guilt appears to be a psychic necessity that can, nevertheless, cause much pain and be dangerous.  I began to suspect that guilt is a necessity because, through its capacity to create the opposites, it gives life to the psyche the same way food and drink give life to the body.  I speculate that the Creator, whoever or whatever that may be, who created our amazing minds and bodies, may have run into the problem that human creators often run into.  For instance, whoever invented the gasoline engine at some point came to realize that this fuel produced a toxic residual that would be a threat to the integrity of the engine if some means were not found to exhaust it.  When the creator figured out that we need food and water to run on, it had to figure a way to discharge its residual, its waste.  When it figured out psychic life needed guilt to run it, it had to figure out a way to discharge that residual. In all these cases, if we don’t discharge the waste, it becomes toxic and dangerous.  It makes no difference whether the food is good for us or bad for us.  The toxic waste has to be discharged.  It makes no difference whether the guilt is good or bad for us, its toxic waste also has to be     2 discharged or we get sick.  The colon and the anus had to be created just as exhausts had to be created for engines.  Then we had to develop sewage treatment plants and catalytic converters.  In the case of guilt, we had to come up with means of expiation like Baptism, which washes away guilt, or confession, which we call catharsis.  It cleans out the psyche.  Confession helps get rid of psychic shit just as bowel movements get rid of bodily shit. 

        It occurred to me over the years that many patients used the word shit in their presenting problems. Patients often would say something like, “I’ve got a lot of shit to deal with” or “I feel like a piece of shit.” One of the more colorful presenting images was, “ My life is all fucked up, and I feel like a piece of shit that has been hammered flat.”  I wondered if they intuitively felt the connection between bodily and psychic toxic waste and a need for catharsis.

       Eventually it became quite obvious, as it probably does to all of us doing clinical work, that the untreated, unexhausted toxic residual of guilt is a major threat to our psychic health and wellbeing.  Clinically, it became clear to me that guilt is one of the great hidden and often-overlooked causes of anxiety and depression. 

       This view is not widely held among medical and mental health professionals, despite the fact that they encounter and deal with guilt daily in their practices. In the case of depression, biological and chemical imbalances or psychological factors like loss, grief, and failure are emphasized as causes.  In my experience, however, these conventional viewpoints both overlook and underestimate guilt’s causal role in these serious disturbances.  As the years have passed, I have become increasingly conscious, not only of the important causal role of guilt in these major psychological disorders, but also of the damage it generally inflicts on our mental health and wellbeing. 

       We know that the diagnosis and treatment of both physical and mental illnesses depends importantly upon naming something for what it is.  Calling a spade a spade can often save us, like saying Rumpelstiltskin. Most of us, I think, are aware of misdiagnoses of physical illnesses, as for example, when someone’s edema is diagnosed initially as being caused by heart problems only to learn later that it was caused by cancer of the kidney.  Similarly, we often think the cause of our psychological suffering is depression or anxiety.  Later, in my experience, I have often found that depression or anxiety,  painful and serious as they may in themselves be, are not the primary cause of our difficulties.  I often find this primary cause to be guilt.  Unfortunately, guilt often hides and lurks behind these other disturbances and, for this reason, can be extremely difficult to see, at least, initially. 

       This is not to say that we do not take the depression symptom seriously.  We, of course, treat it with all the means at our disposal, including medication when necessary.  Although we know that treating the symptom does not work over the long term (eventually we must treat the root cause), it may be necessary to treat the symptom (i.e., the depression) because the symptom might kill the patient before we can get to the root cause.  In that way, the treatment procedure is analogous to treating alcoholism.  Drinking is a symptom of an underlying cause, but if the symptom is not treated early on, then the patient may die before the cause is found and can be treated.


       Part of the explanation for our diagnostic blind spot is the way patients typically present their problems.  Guilt, in my experience, is rarely the presenting problem.  I suspect that if a person could articulate the problem clearly as guilt, he/she might be more likely to go to a priest or minister or rabbi.  I must, however, make a point, up front, that astonished me, albeit not until I had time to reflect on it and subsequently acknowledge its truth.  In all my years of practice, I have never — not once — seen a patient who was not struggling with a large reservoir of both conscious and unconscious guilt.  They usually suspected that the cause of their depression and anxiety was something other than guilt.  They usually suspected that the cause was an actual or impending loss, such as loss of a marriage or other important relationship, a job, their health, their drive, the meaning of their life, their youth, their reputation, their status, or something else they valued. They come to therapists because therapists are better known for dealing with these problems.  Despite the fact that guilt was seldom the presenting problem, it would always eventually appear, but only after layer upon layer of “other stuff” had been removed.                                                                                                                              3

        While the more common presenting symptoms of anxiety and depression can be extremely painful and dangerous themselves, we can bear those painful feelings more easily and with less threat to ourselves than we can bear feelings of guilt.  While there are many feelings (e.g., hate, anger, jealousy, fear) that can cause us to feel guilty, guilt itself is the only feeling that we palpably experience as indisputable evidence that we are bad, that we have somehow sinned.  The thought that I am bad or evil is a potentially threatening experience.  It suggests I am not only bad but also worthless.  The mere suggestion that we are worthless is enough to depress us and frighten us.  It is simply not possible to feel a lot of guilt and a lot of self-esteem at the same time.  It takes no more than common sense arising from observations of commonplace life experiences to reach that conclusion. Regardless of our genetic make-up, it is difficult to imagine someone feeling a lot of guilt without feeling a lot of depression and anxiety.  To one degree or another guilt always devalues our worth and diminishes our feelings of wellbeing.

       Most of us, of course, know that guilt can actually make us hate ourselves, and at its worst, can cause us to give up on ourselves and consider or commit suicide.  In an ironic twist that adds to the complexity of guilt, suicidal thoughts themselves can compound our feelings of guilt because suicide is a sin in the minds of many.  Even if there were no religious compunctions about suicide, it is usually viewed as evidence of ultimate failure to deal successfully with life.


       While feelings of depression and anxiety are painful and menacing enough, they do not hit our vital spots; they attack our walls.  Guilt, on the other hand, assaults our foundation, our sense of self-worth.  It threatens to annihilate us.  The deeper fear of experiencing ourselves as evil is an important reason for our defenses that substitute for that deeper fear a less horrific fear, such as the fear of flying or taking escalators or driving over bridges.  These intense fears (of flying, escalators, bridges, and many others) offer a kind of euphemistic protection against the real fear (i.e., that I am evil or bad) that hides behind many of the phobic manifestations of anxiety disorders. 

       Guilt also hides behind normal expressions of grief and the depression that typically goes with it as, for example, with the grief attending the death of a child or loved one.  In my experience, after the grief work, guilt begins to emerge in the form of deep regrets and self-recriminations about what one did or failed to do while the loved one was alive.  I think most of us encounter this phenomenon. 

       For all these reasons, it is difficult for us to look directly at the real source of our fear without shattering. It’s one thing to look at my fear of flying; it’s another to look at the fear of my own evil, to look my own Medusa in the face.  Even someone as powerful as Perseus couldn’t do that.  He had to see it as a mirrored reflection in his shield.  That’s one reason why we mirror ­–– so that people can see themselves from a safer perspective, in reflection as Perseus did, rather than head-on.


       Finally, I have talked only about guilt without mentioning shame.  Without some explanation and clarifying definition, there could be some confusion in my use of the words shame and guilt.  Therefore, let me explain my use of shame and guilt.  First, I need to comment about the distinction that some will draw between guilt and shame.  At the intellectual level, there certainly are distinctions to be made, and the differences are significant.  However, the differences at the visceral level are much harder to distinguish.  At the gut level, we experience these two feelings as identical. 

       Briefly, with guilt we are rejected for something that we did or did not do; with shame we are rejected for who we are.  Guilt can be explained as “experiencing myself as a bad person because I have done something bad or because I have fantasized about doing something bad.”  Shame can be explained as meaning “I am bad intrinsically.”  It is a sense of humiliation in which I am devalued as a person. 

       We feel guilt at transgressions of commandments and rules imposed on us by various authorities.  On the other hand, we feel shame because we fall short of some ideal appearance: we are not tall enough, or slim enough, or we are not pretty enough, or we have a crooked nose.  Guilt feels as though it is a violation of something God said; shame feels as though it is related to something parents said.  However, because parents are the child’s first images of God, to the child the two feelings seem to come from the same pool.  They get hit with guilt and shame long before they are able to make these fine distinctions.                                                         

       For this reason, it seems to me that the visceral feelings we experience from guilt and shame are identical. I am sometimes suspicious that the fine parsing of the technical and intellectual differences between these two concepts can serve as a defense against experiencing the underlying feeling.  There may be highly developed feeling individuals who can make this fine differentiation in feeling for themselves, but I think they are pretty rare.  For this reason, I lump guilt and shame together and simply call it guilt.

       Guilt is the only feeling that is palpably experienced by us as indisputable evidence that we have done something “bad,” that we have somehow “sinned.”  Although some may define sin as breaking only those rules prescribed by religion, our subjective experience in life asserts that that is not so.  Intellectually, we may make a distinction between ecclesiastical, secular, and parental rules, but viscerally and emotionally we often experience them identically.  For example, failure — in relationships, work, or art — makes us feel guilty emotionally, the same way we feel when we have sinned, which is technically defined as transgression of divine or moral laws.  We feel we are worthless or bad, even though we have violated no such laws.  Almost any loss of control, whether of anger, appetites of various kinds, or of our bowels, causes us to feel guilty. Technically we have not sinned, but we might as well have because we suffer as if we had sinned.  That is, our feeling of guilt from breaking a religious rule can be identical to our feeling of guilt from breaking a secular or parental rule.  We feel bad for violating either one.  Thus, psychologically the guilt we experience from violating any authority triggers a feeling that is identical to the feeling we have when we have actually sinned in the conventional sense of the word.  This identity of feeling happens to us psychologically because parents are our first image of God as well as our first authority figures.  As infants, out of our conscious awareness, we have lumped these three entities (i.e., parental, secular, and divine authorities) together in a single identity.  This identification remains unconscious all our lives unless dreams or other sources of unconscious contents reveal it to us.  Much of our moral compass is shaped by parental values that are inculcated in us from a very early age.  As a result of this early conditioning (and our identification of them with God and authority), we experience guilt from transgression of any authority exactly as we do “sin,” which as mentioned, is technically defined as an infringement of divine law.

       When “sin” and “guilt” are so defined, they cut a broad swath that envelops a widely varying catalogue of transgressions communicated directly and openly, by words, by disapproving gestures or, more subtly, by disapproving looks from authority figures (e.g., parents and grandparents).  These actions of disapproval —words, looks, or gestures — define for us, particularly in childhood, those thoughts, feelings, and actions that are “bad,” and we interpret this to mean we are “bad” if we do any of these things.  To be “bad” is to be “sinful.”  These collectively shared and institutionally sanctioned beliefs of what is right and wrong, as well as widely varying individual and subjective beliefs of parents and other authority figures, present us with an enormous moral minefield that must be traversed if we are to develop and fulfill ourselves.  It is a field that is fraught with the potential to wound us at every step.

       When, therefore, we look at sin and guilt in this broader way, the way we actually experience them psychologically, we can see their powerful underlying influence embedded in our religious and cultural soil, and we can understand why they can be such powerful deterrents to human development.  They can block our development, emotionally and intellectually, because much that is needed to live life fully is forbidden.


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Let me speak to an important point made by a correspondent in this exchange of e-mail, namely, the so-called “fundamental necessity to align ourselves with the good, the beautiful, and the true in all situations, whether it is coming from within our deepest selves or from the wisdom of the group.”  Aligning ourselves with the collective or with ourselves is not so difficult if the two are in agreement.  The problem is to find some way to determine which one is right, when they are in conflict.  Which one has the answer to what is good, beautiful, and true?  Resolving that conflict, I think, is one of the great challenges of individuation.  The matter is made even more complex when we suspect the right answer may be “bad” or “ugly” rather than “good” or “beautiful.”  As long as consciousness depends upon the existence of opposites, truth somehow remains relative. Truth, I suspect, is like a symbol that contains the opposites and yet is neither.  It honors both sides without being either.                                                                                                                                                                        

       An example of a truth that turns out to be ugly comes from Ibsen’s play, The Wild Duck.  The phrase brutal honesty is not in our language for nothing.  Truth can be mildly destructive, like learning too soon the facts about Santa, or it can be truly destructive, as in Ibsen’s play about a blind little girl who dearly loves her doting father, whose mind is poisoned by a meddlesome “friend” who poses as a crusader for truth founded on the claims of an ideal wherein life is lived “free from all taint of deception.”  He knows that the girl‘s father is not really her father, and he makes sure that this devastating truth becomes known to the father.  The truth leads to the father’s rejection of the little girl, who in her grief kills herself.  Lies can be kind as well as destructive.  So can truth.  This paradox may be what led Churchill to write, “The truth is so precious that it must be guarded by a vast bodyguard of lies.”  The older I get the more I come to feel that neither truth nor lies monopolizes the halls of “goodness.”

       We are hard-wired for guilt.  We simply can't avoid it.  And guilt, in my experience, is key to the psyche's self-regulatory system, which attempts to prevent any of the opposites or any of the instincts from completely hijacking the psyche and taking it over.  Guilt clearly arises when instinct goes too far.  I think it is in the service of culture, since we would probably have none if instinct ran riot.


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Regarding he intriguing question as to whether affect and instinct are the same: Over the years I think I’ve skirted around this question, but have never sensed it so clearly as when someone in this discussion articulated it.  I am aware that guilt arises from what I have always separately characterized as affect and instinct.  I didn’t put it together that instinct and affect may be the same.  Of course, guilt itself is experienced as an affect at its extreme.  I suppose we could think of guilt as an instinct amplified by an emotion, or we could think of guilt simply as an affect.  It simplifies things for me, if we call guilt an affect and call instinct “affect” when it is associated, for example, with the gorging of food, powerful sexual desire, or rage.

       In my writing, I have always referred to guilt as a feeling, and suggested that guilt, along with other feelings, plays a prominent role in the psyche’s self-regulatory system.  Other feelings that assist in self-regulation would include interest or disinterest, like or dislike.  These feelings, like guilt, regulate or attempt to regulate behavior by attraction and repulsion.

       I think I’ve read that Jung said there was no consciousness without emotion.  But I also suspect there is no emotion without opposites occurring in close proximity.  If we go from wealth to poverty or from health to sickness overnight, we feel the change with much more powerful feeling than if the change had occurred gradually over many years.  Drama that arouses strong feeling depends upon the occurrence of opposites in close proximity.  Music is dramatic when it moves from soft to loud, loud to soft, fast to slow, slow to fast, and point to counterpoint in close succession.  Since I suspect the working of guilt creates the opposites, I am led to think guilt may also create emotion.  I could think of it as the master emotion that creates conscious life, which for humans is the only life we know.  I think this very crudely and inarticulately explains why Jung said that “life itself is guilt.”  I wish Jung had explained his assertion about guilt and life.  I’ve had to guess why he said that, but I do think I’m not too far off the mark.


The hypothesis that love, rather than guilt, may be behind the “reassembling of the bones and adorning the animals with wreaths” rituals is, I think, a very valuable insight.  Forgiveness is one of the most powerful healers of guilt, and I think we experience forgiveness as an act of love — whether the forgiveness emanates from God, from others, or from ourselves.


Dr. Enrico Buratti, a friend living in Florence, wrote me that he believes that the importance of sin and guilt to the process of individuation and to the furtherance of human growth and development can be viewed as the probable basis for the sacrament of confession and absolution in the Catholic Church.  He wrote that “Psychologically, the fact that sins can be forgiven (even if such forgiveness is not acceptable to secular laws) has an important meaning and role for the soul.  The sacrament of absolution can be seen as a loving and open-minded position in which it is accepted that sin is a reality in human life and the sinner remains a person who cannot be banned from the religious community.                                                                                                 

       I wonder if love (expressed as forgiveness) might be the Self’s compensatory reaction to guilt.  It would make love and guilt necessary partners in individuation and human development.  An important piece of the work of analysis, in my view, is to help clients do just that, become conscious of their conditioning in all respects. Sometimes  dreams help in this regard.  For example, an analysand of mine had the following dream:


I am at an amateur play watching the stage.  There are two stark figures.  The Queen/Mother is on the left on a simple throne. She has on a gown with plain and simple lines. The King/Son is on the right, also on a simple throne.  The mother reads from a page and the son repeats it. The lines are poetic and nice but not original.  They are both saying lines written by someone else.


This dream set off a process of discovery in which he began to become conscious of how much of his beliefs were scripted; it gave him a chance to become conscious that beliefs about what is “right” and “wrong” vary hugely among cultures and religions.  Some believe that blood transfusions are wrong.  Some believe that going to a doctor is wrong. Some believe dancing is wrong.  Some believe that abstinence is the cure for sexually transmitted diseases. Some believe drinking alcohol is wrong.  Some believe touching one’s genitals is wrong.  Some believe fantasizing about sex is wrong.  Some don’t believe any of these things are wrong.  It goes on and on to include changes in doctrines that forbade eating meat on Friday and then didn’t.  By seeing that the truths he inherited differ greatly from the truths others inherit, his belief in his inherited truths began to weaken to the point that he could question them and have a choice about the ones he as a grown man would embrace.  The new consciousness he was achieving comforted his guilt.  For me, it is the existence of these widely varying moral beliefs and our tendency to inherit them that makes an examined life so important; otherwise we are chained to the somber reality of the “givens” that obstinately shape and direct our lives.

       Of course, we don’t know whether we are born with a moral compass or not.  I suspect that we are born with a capacity to feel guilty, but that we are mostly taught what to feel guilty about.  A dream like the one above reinforces that possibility. I believe after all these years that we are probably born with the capacity both to be moral and to transgress morality, born with an urge toward collectivity and an urge toward individuality, and we suffer from that conflict all our lives.  In the end, I think the individual is faced with the challenge of choosing himself what is moral or not, since I also believe there is no objective answer with which all will agree.  There are a lot of beliefs that different religions and cultures share, but there are also a lot that they don’t share.  I don’t think that the truth teller in Ibsen’s play was aligned with good and beauty, but I’m certain he felt he was.  I’m equally sure that many Nazis felt to the end that the 1000-year Reich was aligned with truth, goodness, and beauty.  Despite our wish for an ideal state where everything is aligned with truth, goodness, and beauty, reality and nature itself have always seemed to contain the ugly, the bad, and the untrue, as we might define them.


       When Jung looked at creation realistically, he could not avoid the conclusion that God had a dark side, a shadow, just as we do.  Perhaps we are afraid to see the truth because of the fear of irreverence.  At least, we fear to see the truth that all is not beautiful and good until some elevation of consciousness leads us to believe the truth that is right there before our own eyes.  Jung made an interesting observation about acquitting God for the way the world is:


Schopenhauer was the first to speak of the suffering of the world, which visibly and glaringly surrounds us, and of confusion, passion, evil — all those things that the others hardly seemed to notice and always tried to resolve into all-embracing harmony and comprehensibility.  Here at last was a philosopher who had the courage to see that all was not for the best in the fundaments of the universe.  He spoke neither of the all-good and all-wise providence of a Creator, nor of the harmony of the cosmos, but stated bluntly that a fundamental flaw underlay the sorrowful course of human history and the cruelty of nature: the blindness of the world-creating Will.  This was confirmed not only by the observations I had made of diseased and dying fishes, mangy foxes, frozen or starved birds, of the pitiless tragedies concealed in a flowery meadow: earthworms tormented to death by ants, insects that tore each other apart piece by piece and so on.  My experiences with human beings, too, had taught me anything rather than a belief in man’s original goodness and decency.  I knew myself well enough to know that I was only gradually, as it were, distinguishing myself from an animal.                                                                                                                                      

Jung came to realize the danger of ideals and their obstacles to development.  Sometimes dreams help protect us from the pull of cherished ideals that retard our psychological and spiritual growth and load us with guilt.


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Feelings provide the potential for a highly differentiated evaluative function.  Most people who come to me are suffering separation from their feelings.  They are often quite conscious of how others feel, but are quite unaware of how they feel.  And I have come to believe that the loss of contact with their own feelings is the primary cause for their depression.  They take care of others much better than themselves.  The earlier classification in the DSM of depression as an “affective” disorder and currently as a “mood” disorder suggests the underlying connection between feelings and depression.


       Jung’s high valuation of the feeling function was an important element that originally attracted me to Jungian thought.  His belief, that differentiating our feelings — often expressed as interests — and that following them will lead us to ourselves, resonated with me.  A much oversimplified way to express Jung’s idea might be to say, “You learn what to do next by paying close attention to what you are drawn to.”  Living by his idea is complicated because “interests” have to be teased out and differentiated from a host of sometimes competing and conflicting feelings/emotions.  After years of working with feelings in my practice, I have come to suspect that feelings, expressed as interests, are a kind of developmental potion that helps shape our lives.  This idea has led me to some thoughts that I outline below.


       Descartes’ “ I think, therefore I am” reflects a pervasive attitude in highly rational western societies. Here, rational thought is sacred.  Thoughts trump feelings as the respectable guide for decisions and action.  Feelings are treated as inferior and are seen more as nuisances that have to be tolerated than as helpful providers of direction for our lives. 


       I think many of us would agree that, in sharp contrast to the subordinate role of feelings in the patriarchy, they play a very important role in the Jungian model of psychological growth.  Jung came to regard feelings as the stars that light the path.  This was particularly true of feelings that express themselves as things we like and dislike or as things that interest us or not.  Access to these feelings is, in his view, essential for psychological development.  Guilt associated with the expression of feelings, particularly those unacceptable to the ego and conventional values, is a formidable obstacle to our full development, because many feelings get buried in the shadow and remain there.  This high valuation that the Jungian model accords feelings is not generally shared in our society.

       As I have claimed earlier, feelings and emotions are extremely important servants of the self’s mechanism for maintaining psychic equilibrium. The self appears to use feelings and emotions to keep one side of the opposites from hijacking the psyche and driving the other side out.  Guilt is one of the most important feelings the self uses to accomplish this goal of homeostasis.  We see this in simple examples where we feel guilty about some behavior and, then, feel equally guilty about the opposite behavior.  The purpose of the guilt is to compensate, to move us toward the opposite that has been left out.  We miss the point if we think guilt has only a moral function.  It can be morally neutral.


       Guilt is not the only feeling that helps the psyche maintain balance.  We experience many opposites where guilt is not the feeling that is constellated. For example, when we are in conflict with ourselves or others, we can begin to yearn for harmony.  These feelings attempt to bring us back into balance where neither conflict nor harmony is entirely excluded.  The psyche appears to be inherently just.  When one part of it is in danger of being left out, guilt, repulsion, or attraction work to draw us toward the excluded opposite. We could generalize by saying any self-regulating system depends upon the existence of countertendencies. The ego can’t supply self-regulation. Ego regulation would simply result in a one-sidedness that would reflect the ego’s narrow and intolerant values.                                                                                                                          


       Although we are greatly attracted to our rejected opposites and to the creation of our wholeness, we are also repelled.  It is one of the great complications of our dual natures.  We encounter strong resistance along our way toward redeeming our repressed opposites.  Fortunately, the self, in its purposeful way, can actually be quite wily in achieving its aims.  It uses feelings to seduce us into a process that we need for our growth.  It sets up a painted lady or a dashing man to draw us toward what is missing.  One way to express this phenomenon is to say that the self uses feelings, particularly interests and sexual feelings, as a “developmental potion” that attracts us to our opposites.  We get “hooked” on development by our feelings.  Most of us do not have to be told that we often are most powerfully attracted, sexually, to someone quite different from our selves.  This is not news.  While we may fall in love with our opposites, they are not always who we marry. They may be friends, with shared interests and values, or with similar education, social, and economic backgrounds.  They may see that their marriage will help them both.  This is not news either.  In my experience, however, this practical matching of similarities frequently, with sufficient time, leads to extramarital affairs, in an effort to experience something different.  In societies where arranged marriages are the tradition, straying, particularly by the males, is widely accepted, or at least is not challenged.  We need contact with opposites to develop ourselves, and if our practical selves are unwilling to make such contact, then nature will eventually seduce us with irresistible feelings of attraction to that opposite, even if we do not want to be so attracted.  The missing opposites in our lives represent our developmental deficiencies, and it is feelings that draw us to them.

       The recovery of the missing opposites plays an essential role in the development of personality.  The role of feelings in facilitating this is crucial.  For one thing, the ego appears to have a kind of allergy to anything that is not acceptable to it.  Therefore, it has a natural resistance to those opposites that lie outside the conventional fence.  When the resistance of the ego becomes so great that it begins to impede development, however, its resistance is overcome by compensatory feelings of attraction that increase until the opposites are in close proximity.  It is just at this point of closeness that the feelings reach sufficient intensity to pass through the threshold of awareness and seduce the opposites into a creative embrace.  Both in our inner and outer worlds, feelings draw us near our opposites.

       If we live in frigid Canada and fly to Miami, we experience a fabulously good feeling when we disembark from the plane.  We may think the wonderful feeling is due solely to the warm tropical weather and to the lush vegetation.  We may like it so much we begin to look at real estate and dream of living there.  If we stay in Miami long enough, however, we might begin to see that our feeling is much less intense than the feeling we experienced when we first arrived.  If we already live in Miami, driving across town doesn’t give us the same intensity of feeling as arriving from Canada.  If we are observant, we probably would come to realize that it is the contrast between the opposites, not merely one of the individual opposites itself, that produced the good feeling. Both poles of the opposites are equally important in creating consciousness and feeling.

       We often harbor the illusion that the good feeling was produced solely by the positive pole of the opposites, e.g., the arrival in warm Miami.  We tend to get stuck in one side of each pair for long periods of time.  We hold onto jobs, relationships, locales, or political or religious beliefs long after the real feeling and nourishment have disappeared.  The openness to change, which was a part of childhood, had become a distant memory.  We become flat and depressed, and growth slows.  Gone from our lives is the animation that comes from movement and change.  Nature, however, comes to the rescue with feelings that jump-start our idled growth and development engines.  It is as if the self has embedded opposite feelings in every experience in life, including love.  It embeds feelings of attraction and repulsion that serve its goals.  The self appears to do this to preserve its integrity, the totality of its structure.  Any time one believes the pleasure experienced was due solely to one of the opposites, the other opposite is in danger of being left out.  The totality of the self, however, does not want to become half a self in which one of the pairs of opposites is missing.  It makes no difference to the self whether the part is acceptable to the ego or not.  The ego, on the other hand, is more comfortable with a partial structure.  That is probably why politicians say things like: “You are either for us or against us.  You are either on our side, the side of good, or their side, the side of evil.”  This single-sided stance is easier to understand than the dual, ambivalent reality that we have, like it or not.  Life really would be easier if it were not so ambivalent.  It is simply easier to hold on to one side with both hands.                            

       Holding on to only one side allows us to concentrate our strength.  In doing so, however, we dilute our understanding.  It is neurotic to make “easier” the purpose of our life, because making life easier often means we must leave part of it out.  Life doubles everything.  We cannot have one thing without another.


       In my view, just as the individual organs of our body serve a purpose beyond themselves, so our feelings serve a higher purpose: the growth, development, and survival of the psychic self.  The goal in the first instance is to create a physical self that is complete and whole.  The goal in the second instance is to create a psychic self that is complete and whole.  The wholeness added to individuals, of course, also adds to the wholeness of humanity.


       It is possible to see in the experience of falling in love how our self tries to protect itself.  When one of the opposites is missing, whether it is viewed by the ego as positive or negative, the self appears to facilitate recovery of the missing opposite by attracting us to someone who carries it for us.  But falling in love is always a mixture of conflicting feelings, of attraction and repulsion.  The love part, we know, feels wonderful and positive; it is the falling part that suggests something fearful, something out of control, something negative. One fears at least two things.  First, one fears losing the loved one, even before actually entering into the relationship.  If we have lost a loved one before, falling in love makes us vulnerable again to this painful possibility.  Second, we fear losing part of our self.  When we truly fall in love, we can become obsessed with pleasing our partner, at catering to every need and wish.  We lose part of our self in the process because we ignore our own needs and wishes.  The relationship can become one-sided.  In such a case, the self (of the one who is loving and catering to the other’s needs) cannot tolerate it because half of it (its own needs and wishes) is being ignored.  Displeasure and dissatisfaction will arise, as we begin to experience some of the earlier feelings about these heretofore disliked opposites (e.g., their “selfishness” or their tendency to criticize us or to dismiss our views) that we had before love came.  If we do manage to fall in love and hold onto ourselves, it will probably be a powerful transformational experience.  When we fall in love we fear who we will become even while we want to grow and change.  Somewhere deep inside we know that life as we know it will never be the same if we fall in love, even if we don’t get lost in the pleasing/reacting against the other.

        Love is a specific example of a general difficulty in speaking of feelings.  Because of the compensatory, contradictory, and ambivalent nature of feelings, they are tricky to talk about and difficult to pin down.  They are unapologetically non-verbal and what we say about feelings is probably never entirely accurate.  It’s part of their beauty.  And like a mystery, we may not want to put our finger exactly on them for fear they will go away.  So, I hope I offer these comments with the humility they deserve.


While the parallel is not exact, there is a similar attraction/repulsion mechanism at work in the physical world that can help us visualize what is occurring in our love relationships.  In thermonuclear fusion, the bringing together of two atoms that strongly repel each other produces energy.  To overcome this repulsion and fuse the atoms requires an enormous amount of heat (hence, the term thermonuclear).  Nuclear fission is the opposite of fusion.  Energy is released by smashing an atom, splitting it, and breaking it apart.  Thus, the coming together and the separating is a kind of dance in nature that has some similarity to what happens in the human dance of opposites.  Heat and feelings produce this dance among humans as they do among atoms.  I am not a scientist, and have only a basic understanding of nuclear processes.  Nevertheless, I cannot avoid the intuitive sense that there is a parallel between these and that feelings are to humans what fusion and fission are to atoms.  Feelings are responsible both for bringing people together and for driving them apart. The heat of fusion in the physical world corresponds to loving in the human world, both acting to bring atoms/people together in their respective spheres.  On the other side, the splitting of fission in the physical world corresponds to disliking (or not loving) in the human world, both acting to split apart or separate atoms/people in their respective spheres.  For a long time, I have felt that finding the optimal distance between partners is key to a good relationship.  That usually means, in my experience, a continual fusing and separating until we find just the right distance to keep the relationship in balance.


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I agree with another contributor to this discussion list when he writes, “If beauty, truth, and goodness were not intuitively apparent even to Jung himself, would he have been even able to perceive how the indecency of men and the suffering of innocent creatures is an affront to our sensibility, a deviation from what should be?”  I feel certain Jung had moral sensibilities. Where we might disagree is that I suspect he would also have immoral sensibilities. I believe we are as naturally endowed with the immoral as the moral.  Jung, I think, was capable of experiencing these conflicting opposites side-by-side.  This is much more difficult than experiencing these opposites one-after-another.  I do think Jung would not see the cruel fate of animals as a deviation from what should be.  I think he was much more interested in what is.  If we impose on ourselves a need to feel the way we should, we might never discover how we actually feel.  The feelings that don’t meet the ideal standard get repressed and simply vault out of the shadow unexpectedly and blindside us and others.                     

       It would seem to me that if we were simply endowed with a natural morality, then it would show up everywhere and the standards across cultures would be the same.  In that situation, it seems to me the case for objective truth, beauty, and goodness would be much stronger.


       In the case of my patient’s dream, I would have to admit the possibility that it also had to do with the script of analysis.  All of us who are trained as analysts and therapists must of necessity receive, as part of our training, a kind of script.  To get licensed, we often have to take standard tests.  After our training, we are then confronted with sorting out the part that is right for us just as we do with what our parents teach us.  It takes a lot of conscious work to do this sorting and we probably never break entirely from some kind of script.  But we can make progress, if we are sincere and truly wish to be an individual.


       Likewise, I don’t believe that religion is a matter of believing wholesale a certain dogma.  I suspect that the degree to which dogma is completely believed in any religious community varies widely among its individuals, depending upon the depth in which they examine their own lives.  The same would be true of political parties.  If we had to believe everything in any group in order to belong to it, I doubt you would even find anyone calling himself a Jungian.  As you probably know, Jung himself one time famously announced that he was not a Jungian.  I think that was a protest to the idea that you have to believe a rigid dogma in order to be a Jungian. 


All the best,



Jung Society of Washington

5200 Cathedral Ave., NW Washington 20016


Executive Director - James Hollis

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Images of mandalas throughout this site were created by Carl Jung's patients between the years 1926 and 1945.

Jung Society of Washington

Directions: The Jung Society of Washington is located in the educational building of the Palisades Community Church, From MacArthur Blvd., turn east (away from the Potomac River) onto Cathedral at the light between Loughboro and Arizona.  We are accessible via the Metro D6 bus line.  Entrance to the Jung Society library and office is from the side street, Hawthorne Place.

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