Jungian psychotherapy: between the symbolic and the imaginary

Enlightenment is not achieved by fantasizing about the light but by becoming aware of the darkness

“Carl Young.

Within the various schools of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy that emerged from the approaches of Sigmund Freud, and which are sometimes included under the term of deep psychology (psychoanalysis, Adler’s individual psychology and Jungian analytical psychology) is shared the premise of the existence of a psychic substrate containing unconscious factors which condition and determine the ways of thinking, feeling and acting of individuals.

The unconscious: repressed desires and collective patterns

For Freudian psychoanalysis, the unconscious is a conglomerate of fantasies and desires repressed by the individual in his process of adaptation to the social sphere. Therefore, it refers to content related to the personal history of the individual, giving particular importance to memory related to parental figures.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, creator of analytical psychology, partially agrees with this budget but maintains that in addition to the biographical content, in the unconscious it is also possible to identify elements that are part of the phylogenetic history of humanity. He then proposes that in addition to the personal unconscious, there is a collective unconscious made up of prototypes of experiences and behaviors shared by all human beings as a species.

The archetypes of the collective unconscious

These patterns of behavior, which Jung called archetypes, are closely related to instincts, in that they work as stimuli that force us to perform certain behaviors and promote reactions in us typical in the face of various circumstances of our life (emancipation of parents, forming a family, having children, seeking support, appropriating a territory, participating in the collective, transforming the social order, death).

Unlike instincts, which are drives with a relatively closed and concrete circuit of realization, archetypes behave in an open and symbolic way; but if it is not, it is also a source of discomfort and frustration.

Jung argues that it is possible to infer the existence of archetypes from their manifestations, one of which is the typical dramatic images and structures that can be found, with different cultural clothing, in mythological accounts. and fantastic from different places and times.

Myths show us how humanity has dealt with different critical situations, and although some of them are thousands of years old, they continue to resonate and impact our psyche as the challenges they face. evoke to follow us.

Jung points out that it is not often possible to present direct or indirect contact between peoples to explain the structural similarities of myths. It is further relevant that these typical dramas and characters also occur spontaneously in psychotic delusions and hallucinations, as well as in altered states of consciousness as an effect of meditative practices or through the ingestion of psychedelics. Some dreams whose content is not possible to relate to biographical aspects, they can also be an expression of archetypal images.

The archetype of the solar hero

Freud and Jung not only distanced themselves from their different conceptions of the unconscious, but also for his approaches to the nature of the fundamental energy that animates human beings: Libido.

As we know, libido is, according to Freud, sexual in nature, while for Jung, sexuality is only one of the manifestations of a much larger and more encompassing vital energy. Jung he then describes the libido as a creative energy, which is the origin and the motor of the universe. This energy manifests in human beings as a desire for transcendence, realization, expansion of consciousness. Jung discovered that this process of manifestation and unfolding of life energy is mythically manifested through the archetype of the solar hero. This archetype which is the prototype of many ancient and contemporary stories in which the hero’s transformation is told (The Odyssey, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings)

Through a series of journeys and adventures (embarking on a journey, fighting the dragon, descent into hell, death, rebirth), and the encounter and confrontation with other archetypes (shadow, animus-anima, old sage, the grandmother) the hero comes into contact with the forces of the underground world (the unconscious,), finds the sought-after treasure and returns to his place of origin to share the “light”, the wisdom, with his people.

Jung proposes to understand this mythical structure, as a projection of a psychic process of transformation and evolution to which all human beings are called. Every human soul is obliged to face a series of circumstances which lead it to manifest its vocation, its particular vocation, its unique contribution to the community, to the world. It manifests itself as a desire for knowledge, for going beyond, for totality. This evolutionary path is called the process of individuation and is also considered a symbol of the gradual transformation of the ego in its confrontation and adaptation to the forces of the unconscious and the outside world.

Affective complexes

Archetypes are humanized in individuals from what Jung called personal affective complexes. The complexes in addition to being imbued with archetypes, they feed on our personal experiences. They can be considered as a set of images and representations, emotionally charged, around a common theme (relation to the parent, power, eroticism, etc.).

Different circumstances of our life constellated, that is to say, make certain complex copper more relevant. A complex constellation alters our conscious perception and will, coloring itself with the traits of the corresponding archetypes added to previous experiences with respect to the same theme. Ancient demonic possessions and multiple personality disorders are expressions of highly constellated complexes. In these cases, they behave like massive invasions of the unconscious that oppress and nullify the functions of the ego and consciousness.

The complexes are expressed in our psyche in the form of constraints, needs, points of view, emotional reactions, disproportionate feelings of admiration or contempt, obsessive ideas. They have the power to personify themselves in our dreams and to generate events and circumstances in the physical world with analogous meanings (somatizations, accidents, encounters with people, repetition of types of relationships that end). The capacity for exteriorization of archetypes and complexes is at the basis of the phenomenon described by Jung as synchronicity.

Affective complexes they are considered to be the constituent particles of the unconscious psyche and therefore are not only part of the field of psychopathology. They work as if the animals live in our house, that if we ignore or neglect them, sooner or later they end up attacking us, causing us multiple damages. The alternative is to get in touch with them, to pay attention to their needs, because with time and effort we somehow manage to tame them, even being able to use their potential resources. The unconscious, whether we like it or not, will act on us, so the most appropriate is to dive into its mysteries.

This dialogue with our complexes, with our inner characters, which as we have seen are the expression of the drama towards the realization of our deepest being, requires the deployment of a symbolic attitude through imagination and creativity. .

Imagination and creativity as a dialogue with the unconscious

The imagination has been insulted by rationalist and materialist thought since the Enlightenment, considering it worthless to obtain valid and productive knowledge. Jung, however, joins the hermetic and phenomenological current which recognizes the realm of the imaginary, which includes myths, dreams and fantasies as elements that allow access to the paradoxical complexity of the psyche, to the depths of human nature and above all to this other sublime reality that inhabits and conditions us.


The imagination is recognized for the symbolic property of uniting and reconciling polarities; express, suggest and evoke the apprehensible; approach unclassifiable phenomena in an understandable way through concept and rationality. Analyst James Hillman offers the language of the soul to the imagination.

The imaginary manifests itself spontaneously in dreams and that is why its interpretation is a fundamental element of Jungian psychotherapy. too much it is possible to artificially induce the imaginary in the therapeutic space thanks to the technique of the active imagination. It consists in giving the opportunity to express itself to the content of the unconscious, using its capacity for personification.

It is then proposed to get in touch with our inner characters, to listen to them attentively and rigorously, to interact and converse with them as if they were real entities.

Ways to approach the unconscious

Our inner characters can be evoked through the image of a dream, of an intense emotion, of a symptom. Each of us has a modality that facilitates this communication. There are people who can hear voices, or perceive inner images, some express themselves through bodily movements in a kind of dance. For others, contact with the unconscious is possible thanks to automatic writing, a technique used by surrealists.

Jung differentiates idle fantasy from active imagination, pointing out that in the latter, the ego assumes an active attitude, that is to say, it does not passively and docilely obey the voices and images of the unconscious., But challenge them. The active attitude involves supporting and maintaining a tension with the unconscious, allowing the emergence of what is called the transcendent function, that is, a new birth, the emergence of a new attitude. , the product of this confrontation.

The transcendent function of the psyche is that which allows the reconciliation of seemingly irreconcilable opposites. It is the emergence of a third element or perspective, which includes and integrates the elements that have been challenged. It is a process of conflict, negotiation and transitional agreements.

The technique of active imagination is often used in the advanced stages of analysis, as it requires a structured ego that supports the tension of opposites and does not succumb to dissociation or identification with some of the contents of the unconscious.

Jung emphasizes that taking the subconscious seriously does not mean taking it literally, but giving it credit, giving it a chance to cooperate with consciousness, rather than automatically disturbing it. This cooperation of the unconscious is linked to the principle of self-regulation of the psyche, a fundamental concept in the Jungian perspective.

Imagination as a facilitator is the self-regulatory mechanism of the psyche

The psyche arises as a dynamic system of opposing forces (conscious-unconscious, libido-progression-progression, matter-logos), with an intrinsic tendency to maintain a balance. This self-regulatory mechanism implies a permanent interaction of compensation and complementarity between the psychic components.

The state of psychic equilibrium is regularly modified by the stimuli of the lability of the inner and outer world. this alteration it requires modifications tending to adapt to new requirements, favoring a transformation in the psyche at stages of increasing complexity and comprehensiveness. Neurotic symptoms (obsessions, depression, anxiety, accidents, somatizations, repetition of relational patterns, self-sabotage) are the expression of an attempt by the unconscious psyche in pursuit of this state of higher balance. An attempt to create awareness from stumbling blocks.

Dialogue with the unconscious psyche through the imagination allows the psyche’s self-regulatory mechanism to act without resorting to symptomatic phenomena. In a way, it is anticipating events and avoiding this Jungian phrase by which “everything that is not consented to will be experienced abroad as a fate”.

Self-regulation: one of the keys to the unconscious

The self-regulating mechanism of the psyche is called by analyst James Hillman our inner daimon. With this Hellenic concept he tries to allude to this force which leads us for good and evil to express our vocation, our particular vocation. Imagination and creativity are then a way to interpret the wink of fate, the signals of our daimon.

The development of the symbolic attitude which aims to encourage in Jungian psychotherapy through the imagination, allows us to escape the narrow literality of facts. This gives us access to subordinate logical paradoxes. It connects us to the deep polysemy of events through symbols, analogies and correspondences.

The symbolic attitude too it broadens our sensitivity and our willingness to respond constructively to whatever the diversity of life calls us to and to integrate and coexist with our shaded aspects. Dialogue with the unconscious allows us to become co-creators of our reality and not simple slaves or victims of circumstances.

Bibliographical references:

  • Hillman, J. (1998). The code of the soul. Barcelona, ​​Martínez Roca.
  • Jung, CG (1981). Archetypes and the collective unconscious. Barcelona, ​​Paidos.
  • Jung, CG (1993) Structure and dynamics of the psyche. Editorial Paidós,
  • Buenos Aires.
  • Jung, CG (2008). The complexes and the unconscious. Madrid, Alliance.

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