The Collective Unconscious

Photo of American Indian rock art.

Sexual trauma is never the victim’s fault. Nevertheless, the majority of survivors are ashamed and avoid parts of themselves that hold memories of what happened. Feelings of low self-worth lead some to self-isolate, and many never are truly open about who they are or their histories of abuse. These reactions to sexual trauma are the result of being scapegoated. And the consequences are profound. How many of us haven’t gone for our dreams in part because of fear our secret will be discovered? How many of us fear drawing attention to ourselves will lead to further scapegoating? We find ourselves settling for the shadows when we crave the light.

I haven’t found trauma-focused therapies particularly helpful with overcoming the effects of scapegoating, the remedy of which is regaining a sense of belonging. For those who suffer shame and alienation, social trust doesn’t come easily. Certainly, it is necessary to make efforts to find people and places where you are willing to risk being authentic and trust others. But when scapegoated, carrying the burden of shame, there is also the need to overcome the alienation that exists within oneself. Gaining an inner sense of wholeness and belonging is one of the rewards of CG Jung’s spiritually-oriented individuation process.

The power of spirituality is found in the ability to transcend states of fragmentation and alienation that separate us from our souls and the world. Fundamentally, the feeling of belonging to unus mundus (the one world) and connected to one’s soul are the same thing. When we feel we have found our deep connection with all life, or with a god, we also feel the presence of soul (for some, the ‘inner child’).

Jung noticed the spiritual impulse towards wholeness fell out of favor with the emergence of modernism. In its place, the West retained what he called a religious outlook: adhering to religious doctrines and practices, albeit without the transformative power of spirituality found in early human societies. He wrote, “People since times immemorial had a general teaching or doctrine about the wholeness of the world.” In the age of modernism, “the need for a meaning of their lives remains unanswered, because the rational, biological goals are unable to express the irrational wholeness of life. Thus life loses its meaning.”⁠1

Since the emergence of modernism, there has been a systematic push for a logocentric worldview. What defies explanation according to scientific rationality, such as spirituality and unconscious phenomena, have been devalued and marginalized. In the mental health field, madness was originally considered the failure to keep the rational and the irrational aspects of psyche — i.e., the conscious and the unconscious — distinct and separate. Jung was revolutionary because he saw the opposite was true: madness was the result of keeping conscious and unconscious aspects of psyche separate.

Jung upended the modernist agenda by reintroducing the original understanding of spirituality as a continual quest for wholeness. According to Jung, the unconscious contains archetypes that have emerged throughout human evolution and innately guide our growth as social beings. When we cease to live in accordance with archetypal instincts, we risk becoming fragmented, if not mentally ill. Jung claimed, “consciousness deviates again and again from its archetypal, instinctual foundation and finds itself in opposition to it. Then there arises the need for a synthesis of the two positions.”⁠2

The purpose of Jung’ individuation process is to create a complementary relationship between the two halves of psyche and to unify the personality. In states of integration, we are less inclined to present a false self to the world. We also are less likely to misunderstand the unconscious aspects of our own psyches. Jung wrote: “The aim of individuation is nothing less that to divest the self of the false trappings of the persona on the one hand, and the suggestive power of primordial images on the other.⁠3

Although today there is a tendency to associate the conscious and unconscious with the left and right hemispheres of the brain, respectively, Jung lacked research that supports such mapping. Instead, he divided the psyche into personal and collective aspects. The personal psyche consists of the ego and the personal unconscious — the beliefs, memories, emotions, dreams, and fantasies that arise from personal experience. In contrast, the collective psyche includes instinctual emotions and archetypes that are vital for the survival of our species. The collective psyche also contains the archetype of the Self, which Jung understood as the innate drive towards wholeness.⁠4

Imagery and emotions arising from the collective psyche can be overwhelming, especially following a traumatic experience (or when triggered by reminders of the trauma). Yet the collective psyche is also reparative, and can be a refuge from feelings of shame and alienation. Tragically, in our modern times most of us have not learned how to work with the collective psyche to overcome trauma, or regain our lost souls. Hence the value of Jung’s process of individuation and purposeful attempts to connect with the wisdom of the collective psyche. He wrote:

“The more we become concerns of ourselves through self-knowledge, and act accordingly, the more the layer of the personal unconscious that is superimposed on the collective unconscious will be diminished. In this way there arises a consciousness which is no longer imprisoned in the petty, oversensitive personal world of the ego, but participates more freely in the wider world of objective interests.”⁠5

We become aware of the collective psyche by engaging with its imagery and mythic properties. Jung believed the most fruitful approach was to examine symbolism found in dreams, especially those with an archetypal quality — what some call big dreams. He emphasized looking at series of dreams to identify the direction of one’s growth. Unconscious fantasies are also a great source of information. Through dream analysis, active imagination, authentic movement, and art, a relationship with the collective psyche is established that is integrative and deepens self-knowledge.

Jung did not consider the individuation process a lighthearted adventure. His own journey of the wounded healer was terribly frightening at times, and he worried he was losing his mind. Individuation typically involves an underworld journey, what some call the dark night of the soul.6 The encounter with the collective psyche can be overwhelming, mystical, and otherworldly. Yet by externalizing the images through expressive practices like art, disturbing emotions begin to lose their grip. This is also how we transcend the limits of our personal histories.

When we are no longer troubled by emotions and imagery, we have energy to live our full potential. We are not pulled into states of what Auguste Comte called excess subjectivity, in which mental focus and integration is continually disrupted by fantasies and intrusive emotions. Instead, the collective and personal psyches begin to work together as a totality, neither clinging to or pushing away beliefs, images, and emotions. All is flow. 

Is is not unusual for artists and other creatives to approach Jungian analysis as an opportunity to enhance their talent. Those who commit to individuation as a lifelong process will likely become more imaginative. Individuation also revives a childlike sense of play that kindles the joy of creativity. Yet Jung was adamant that the individuation process was not about creating art, but rather creating wholeness.7 Instead of a quest for self-authenticity, the purpose of individuation is feeling part of the collective:

“Individualism means deliberately stressing and giving prominence to some supposed peculiarity rather than to collective considerations and obligations. But individuation means precisely the better and more complete fulfillment of the collective qualities of the human being.”⁠8

The feeling tone of the “collective qualities of the human being” is an embodied relatedness, if not the numinous feeling of being united with unus mundus. This can also feel like being connected to god, or being one with nature. Such feelings also arise when we contact aspects of ourselves lost to trauma and begin to feel whole again. In contrast, feelings of alienation and shame more likely arise with memories and images associated with the personal psyche.

According to Henri Ellenberger, the archetype of the Self — what Jung considered the innate drive to wholeness — “is the eminently sociable part of the personality, whereas ego-domination is the source of disturbances in human relationships.”⁠9 The collective psyche compensates the personal psyche and our incomplete understanding of ourselves and human nature. The complementary relationship that emerges is humbling yet ultimately joyous when we feel a numinous connection with all life or a god. Through individuation, we also find our way to an inner sense of belonging that commits us to a greater good. Jung wrote in The Red Book, “there were things in the images which concerned not only myself but many others also. It was then that I ceased to belong to myself alone, ceased to have a right to do so. From then on, my life belonged to the generality.”⁠10

The inner sense of connection that emerges from the individuation process is more powerful than feelings of shame, alienation, and defilement that keep one stuck in the trauma of sexual abuse. Instead, found within is a sense of belonging, if not the courage to venture into the world with purpose and the feeling that you indeed do belong — all of you. 

Activities to try: If you are comfortable working with the contents of your sleeping dreams (some aren’t because of nightmares), consider starting a dream journal. Get in the habit of writing down your dreams when you awaken, or make a quick sketch of aspects of them. Similarly, pay attention to your fantasies during the day. Write down any that seem important or interesting to you. Record your dreams and fantasies in the present tense. For example, “I walk into a sparkly glass castle and in the center is a round pool where four dolphins are swimming gleefully….” 😉 To deepen the process, also record any feelings associated with the dream or fantasy.


1 Quoted in Kalsched, Donald. (2013). Trauma and the soul: A psycho-spiritual approach to human development and its interruption. New York: Routledge, 169-170.

2 Jung, CG. (1959). The archetypes and the collective unconscious. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 40.

3 Jung, C. G. (1999). Two essays on analytical psychology (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). New York, NY: Routledge, 172.

4 For further discussion of the characteristics of the collective and personal psyche, see Haule, John R. (2010). Divine madness: Archetypes of romantic love. Fisher King Press.

5 Jung, 1999, 176.

6 Jung, Carl. (1989). Memories, dreams, reflections (R. Winston & C. Winston, Trans.). New York Vintage Books, 191.

7 Ibid, 194-196.

8 Jung, 1999, 171-172.

9 Ellenberger, Henri F. (1970). The discovery of the unconscious. New York: Basic Books, 731.

10 Jung, Carl G. (2009). The red book: Liber novus. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

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