Dissociation and the Imaginal

One central difference between the trauma model and depth psychologies like CG Jung’s analytical psychology and James Hillman’s imaginal psychology is the centrality of the imaginal and soul for integration of the personality. Although many regularly experience an intense desire to create, if not a spiritual awakening, in response to trauma-focused psychotherapy, such experiences are not the primary reasons for utilizing a trauma-based approach. Rather, the focus is more often on behavioral change. Trauma models like structural dissociation attempt to increase mental efficiency and effectiveness, reduce phobia of traumatic memories, and lessen reliance on isolation as ways to avoid difficulties with intimacy. These are important to recovery and deserve attention. Resolving these effects of trauma are the foundation for a well-lived life and why I would like to see everyone with a history of trauma have an opportunity to utilize trauma-informed care.

Because trauma-focused therapy was successful for me, I gained the resilience I needed for continual self-exploration. The ‘deeper’ I went, the more I became concerned with fostering a relationship with soul and identifying how sexual trauma became an obstacle to my growth. More than getting over trauma, I wanted to become fully aware of who I was, fully mature, and fully responsible for my life. I did not want to feel like a victim or a survivor. I wanted to feel human. I wanted to feel connected with humanity and with all life. For these goals, the trauma model didn’t have the tools I needed. The depth psychologies, however, did.

The differences between the trauma model and Jung’s and Hillman’s depth psychologies cannot be attributed to the trauma model’s reliance on science, whereas depth approaches draw from the arts, religion, and the humanities. Jung was interested in conforming his ideas to evolutionary theory, and later in life he took an interest in ethology.⁠1 Nevertheless, Jung also asserted, “whosoever wishes to know about the human mind will learn nothing, or almost nothing, from experimental psychology.”⁠2 The phenomenon of mind has never been amenable to measurement. To understand mind, we must be willing to live its breadth and depth.

I see the primary difference between trauma-focused psychology and depth psychologies like Jung’s and Hillman’s to be the emphasis the trauma model places on the conscious self. This is what Hillman saw as Western psychology’s prioritization of the ego over all other mental experiences. Trauma-focused psychotherapies, particularly the model of structural dissociation and methods like EMDR, attempt to increase functioning and present-focused living while reducing intrusive, unconscious reminders of trauma. Jungian psychology, especially through the process of individuation, also emphasizes the importance of mature, conscious living, yet sees the optimal goal of psychotherapy to be the integration of the conscious and unconscious into a unified personality. Addressing trauma, especially if it has been dissociated or treated as a secret, is central to this process insofar as traumatic reminders impede the process of individuation. Imaginal psychology perhaps takes the most radical stance in that it focuses primarily on tending the soul. Hillman, for example, criticized modern psychology for being “engaged in ego-making and not soul-making.”⁠3

Despite the differences between these psychologies, they nevertheless share a focus on integration, and of equal importance, each attempts to resolve dissociation in its own way.

Dissociation became a psychiatric concept in the late nineteenth century. The French psychiatrist Pierre Janet was the first to use this term to explain the psychological characteristics of his patients diagnosed with hysteria. This antiquated and contentious diagnosis was predominantly given to young women. Janet was the first to observe they suffered from a physiological reaction to trauma. (The majority are now believed to have been victims of incest, rape, and other forms of sexual trauma.)

Janet introduced the term dissociation to identify the pathological state of being unable to integrate memories of emotionally overwhelming events. According to Janet, hysterics had “an illness of the personal synthesis” that kept them from forming an integrated sense of self.4 Dissociation became the clinical description of memories split from conscious awareness, yet nevertheless expressed unconsciously through the body and emotions.

Since Janet’s introduction of dissociation, the term has come to explain a multitude of experiences. Dissociation is used to describe mild states such as driving to work with little awareness of the morning commute, as well as the state of psychological escape during life-threatening events, such as combat, rape, and other brutal experiences. In severe states of distress, dissociation takes the form of out-of-body experiences, such as viewing one’s assault as if it were occurring to someone else.

All three approaches — the trauma model, analytical psychology, and imaginal psychology —address dissociation in different ways. The trauma model relies on a neuroscientific understanding of dissociation. According to this interpretation, dissociation is primarily a somatic response to a perceived threat. The explanation typically goes as follows: When the body (including the brain) instinctively organizes for survival, it activates defense responses such as fight, flight, freeze, submit, or seeking safe attachment (e.g., crying out for help). Since thinking about a threat while it’s happening slows down the survival response, energy is diverted from the frontal lobes, the part of the brain responsible for higher order cognitive processes, including creating coherent narratives. With the frontal lobes shut down, integrating unconscious emotions and sensory information into a coherent, meaningful account of the trauma is not possible. Resolution of the resulting dissociative fragmentation becomes the focus of treatment.

In the model of structural dissociation, this fragmentation is associated with the corpus callosum that joins the brain’s right and left hemispheres and inhibits communication between them. The corpus callosum is thought to act like a fault line, separating the right hemisphere’s unconscious memories, body sensations, and emotions associated with the trauma from the left hemisphere’s more analytical and emotionally muted approach to living. This structural dissociation makes possible splitting from awareness memories of the abuse (dissociated in the right hemisphere) as one attempts to get on with daily life (activation of the left hemisphere). Structural dissociation is used to describe traumas as varied as chronic childhood sexual abuse and a warrior’s exposure to combat.

In Jung’s analytical psychology, the unconscious and conscious naturally differentiate over the course of a lifetime. Infants begin with an undifferentiated psyche. As we develop and conform to societal norms and expectations, dissociation allows consciousness to become distinct from the unconscious. The unconscious then holds all that must be forgotten or ignored in order to gain membership in our communities. Dissociation also plays a role in keeping remembrances of past traumas hidden in the unconscious, although the unconscious continually tries to communicate its ‘secrets’ through dreams, fantasies, and reveries. At a certain point, usually in midlife, there is an opportunity to engage in the process of individuation, turning from a conscious-focused, ego-driven existence to establishing a relationship with the unconscious. The purpose of individuation is creating a unified personality. Dealing with memories of trauma is part of the individuation process. However, of greater concern is having the opportunity to unite the personality and live one’s life authentically.

Imaginal psychology, a branch of analytical psychology, is also concerned with unifying the conscious and unconscious (understood to be the ego and soul, respectively). Yet imaginal psychology is particularly focused on the dissociation of modern Western psychology from how psyche was originally integrated in ancestral, myth-based societies. According to Roberts Avens, imaginal psychology is “a struggle for a wholly new (yet most ancient and religious) experience of reality.”5

For early humans, aspects of psyche were personified through mythical motifs. Imaginal psychologists consider myths the language of the soul that help us make sense of ourselves by personifying the different parts of psyche. Hillman remarked, “To enter myth we must personify; to personify carries us into myth.”6 According to imaginal psychology, the psyche is naturally ‘multiple,’ and through myth we enliven the many aspects of ourselves.

Imaginal psychology attempts to return soul and the imaginal to their rightful place in psychological studies and psychotherapies. It rejects the belief that only through rationality and consciousness do we discover truths about the world and ourselves. Imaginal psychology also rejects the idea that the imaginal is at best fantasy, and at worst contributes to delusions and psychosis. Instead, it stresses the centrality of the imaginal for creating a true and meaningful life. According to Hillman, “Everything we know and feel and every statement we make are fantasy-based.”7

To me it makes sense to return to human origins to understand the relationship between dissociation and the imaginal. Dissociation likely became related to the imaginal during the Upper Paleolithic Era over 40,000 years ago.8 This was also a time when artistic expression, languages, and the first cultures began to flourish throughout the world.

Whether fortuitously or deliberately, early human societies discovered the importance of the group for integration following illness and trauma. Through myths and rituals, they formalized conditions that joined creative expression with a felt-sense of group unity that contributed to social integration — what French scholar Lucien Lévy-Bruhl called the participation mystique — which likely acted as a model for, and stimulation of, the integration individuals need when they dissociate in reaction to trauma.

Even today hunter gatherers use ritual as an opportunity for integration following emotionally overwhelming, if not life-threatening, experiences. For instance, the !Kung San, hunter gatherers of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, continue to use myth and ritual to respond as a collective to illness and injury of its members. Through the entire tribes’ participation in ritual and dance, they address the fragmentation caused by disease and trauma. When they unify as a group, they also foster the wholeness of psyche.

When we seek integration of emotional parts of our personality (structural dissociation), or attempt to unify the conscious and unconscious aspects of our personalities (analytical psychology), or tend the soul through myth (imaginal psychology), we revive the ancient connection between dissociation and the imaginal. Whether we are working with emotional parts associated with defenses (structural dissociation), complexes (individuation), or tending the soul (imaginal psychology), the opportunity exists to take advantage of the psyche’s anticipation of the imaginal as a natural response to dissociation, the bridge we take to reconnect with lost parts of ourselves.

Questions to ponder: In your own efforts at recovery, have you experienced a ‘spiritual awakening’? Have you been inspired to create? If you have been inspired to create or live spiritually, have you made creative expression/spirituality a regular part of your recovery? If not, would you like to? What changes do you need to make to put creativity/spirituality more central in your life?


1 Goodwyn, Erik D. (2012). The neurobiology of the gods: How brain physiology shapes the recurrent imagery of myth and dreams. New York: Routledge; and Ellenberger, Henri F. (1981).  The discovery of the unconscious: The history and evolution of dynamic psychiatry. New York, NY: Basic Books.

2 Ellenberger, p. 694.

3 Hillman, James. (1975). Re-visioning psychology. New York, Harper & Row, p. 48.

4 Dorahy, M. J., & van der Hart, O. (2007). Relationship between trauma and dissociation: A historical analysis. In E. Vermetten, M. J. Dorahy, & D. Spiegel (Eds.), Traumatic dissociation: Neurobiology and treatment (pp. 3-30). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.

5 Avens, R. (1980). Imagination in Jung and Hillman. In Imagination is reality (pp. 31-47). Dallas: Spring, p. 40.

6 Hillman, p. 16.

7 Ibid., p. xvii.

8 Fabrega, H. (2002). Origins of psychopathology: The phylogenetic and cultural basis of mental illness. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).