Discover more from Begin Again
The dangers of Jungian psychology
Is individuation a free for all process? Is the unconscious your friend? Are you that great or are you in an inflation? Read on to explore the major pitfalls of misunderstanding Jungian psychology.
I had already been in psychotherapy for a decent amount of time when I began working with psychedelics therapeutically five-or-so years ago. Deep in my “mummy and daddy issues” stage, I was ready to re-experience childhood memories, process trauma, or work on the nitty-gritty relational issues I was painfully aware of.
Instead, I was hit by an avalanche of symbols, imagery, and numinous experiences that barely made any sense to my rigid, atheistic mind. It was like my psyche was making up for a lifetime of little to no religious or symbolic activity, with no regard for my capacity to integrate it. And how could I? A handful of journeys had managed to completely disrupt my worldview. To top it off, I had a Kundalini awakening, which meant that ecstatic experiences continued to follow me in “normal” states of consciousness, even at work–often so intense that I lived in fear of having a psychotic break.
I left my job in advertising to retrain, but mostly to regroup and gain some understanding of what was happening to me. My discovery of Jung felt fated. I read Scott J. Hill’s “Confrontation with the Unconscious: Jungian Depth Psychology and Psychedelic Experience” and my unusual experiences started to make sense.
Studying Jungian psychology felt comforting. It reassured me that the world beyond the veil of materialism was just as real as the one in front of me. It gave me concepts to name the and categorise my experiences. It sparked a fascination with the unconscious that led me to my four-year training in transpersonal psychotherapy. But it also destabilised me. As a newcomer to the spiritual world, I was often so enthralled by these experiences that I didn’t really feel “here”. I felt crushed by shame when chasing the Insta-trendy “shadow work”. I believed individuation was for everyone.
And the veil between the worlds was sometimes so terrifyingly thin that I felt closer to the archetypes than to people around me.
As my understanding of depth psychology deepened, I became more and more skeptical about the popularisation of Jungian concepts on social media–and more humble about how much I thought I understood his work.
I saw how the proliferation of quotes, often shared without context, was at times promoting false, narcissistic, and sometimes harmful ideas. And I saw very little warning about the dangers of engaging with this kind of psychology unguided–or without, you know, actually reading Jung.
So, having understood a tiny bit more about his work, I thought I’d share the biggest pitfalls of engaging in this work without proper study and guidance. I hope you find it helpful and I’d love to hear what dangers you’ve come across in the comments.
Hey. I love writing this newsletter. If you love it too, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription for only £5/month or £50/year.
1. The unconscious is not your friend
Jungian psychology is a transpersonal psychology. It invites an understanding of the psyche beyond the material, everyday, conscious world to something much wider–the unconscious and its contents, the archetypes–a sort of matrix of consciousness. It’s an empirical science that relies on direct experience of the archetypes through dreams, fantasies, art, or visions (Jung wasn’t a fan of psychedelics but used active imagination which can induce similar experiences).
The study of the unconscious is not unique to Jung, although he is the first psychologist to create a science around its collective aspects. In truth, the unconscious has always fascinated humankind. Our encounters with it led to the creation of all of the world’s religions and mythologies. The gods and goddesses, spirits of the land, devils, angels, or fairies used to be part of religious or spiritual systems that helped individuals have a relationship with these transpersonal figures.
Even though these people had a less evolved consciousness than ours, they tended to the divine as part of everyday life. They feared and revered the unconscious. They innately knew their place.
Today, especially in the Western world, we’ve lost touch with our sense of the divine. Our prevailing myths tend to be narcissistic, materialist, and capitalist–and when we discover the unconscious, we often turn towards it with the same self-serving attitude. We identify with the archetypes and want to possess them, without giving anything back. We want to “make the unconscious conscious”, as the most popular phrase Jung never wrote keeps reminding us on every spiritual influencer’s page.
I believe that if Jung were alive today, he would say that our psyches are compensating for our rigid conscious attitude with an overpowering fascination for everything spiritual. We’re obsessed with consuming spirituality by indiscriminately doom-scrolling through a mishmash of religious figures and quantum babble, with about as much piety as a dumpster-diving raccoon (no offence to the raccoon community). We think we’re “awake” because we talk about heroes and goddesses, when we’re actually possessed by them.
“European ego-consciousness is therefore inclined to swallow up the unconscious, and if this should not prove feasible we try to suppress it. But if we understand anything of the unconscious, we know that it can’t be swallowed. We also know that it is dangerous to suppress it, because the unconscious is life and this life turns against us if suppressed, as happens in neurosis.”
While working with the unconscious is a crucial part of Jungian psychology, it also needs to be balanced with consciousness–study, critical thinking, and a life that happens here on earth.
In his book “Jung’s Map of the Soul”, Jungian analyst Murray Stein warns that romanticising the archetypes can lure us into a psychology of introversion–losing contact with the outer reality and becoming self-absorbed by our inner figures. This can become an obsession with “doing the work”, perfecting oneself, or being overly attached to “my healing journey”, without much regard for others and the natural world. In its more distorted expression, it can even lead to psychosis, where the ego is absorbed into the unconscious and can no longer separate the archetypes from reality.
It took me a few years and a handful of terrifying experiences to temper my spiritual newbie fascination for the unconscious. A part of me felt safer there, as I’ve written before, and it was only my growing knowledge of psychological theories that helped me understand that the wholeness I’m looking for has to be earned here, in consciousness; that wholeness over there means psychic death.
2. The myth of individuation
“It is possible to fail in the task of individuation. One can remain divided, unintegrated, inwardly multiple into deep old age and still be considered to have lived a socially and collectively successful, albeit superficial, life.”
Murray Stein in “Jung’s Map of the Soul”
When I started reading Jung, I believed everyone was individuating: that behind anyone’s struggles, there was a wholeness-seeking force working towards the person’s self-realisation. The belief sure helped me sleep better at night–but is it true?
It only takes a quick look beyond our favourable circumstances to see that some of us only get to cope with life. Some of us will only work on our core neuroses in order to find a good enough life, career, marriage, or family. Some may never expand our consciousness beyond that. And that’s okay–in fact, who’s to say that that’s not the point of life?
In her series of lectures on alchemy, Jung’s brightest student, Marie-Louise von Franz, challenges the idea that more consciousness is healing:
“If we try to become conscious do we fulfil the will of God, or go contrary to it? That is the hidden question.”
Marie-Louise von Franz in “Alchemy”
She reflects on whether gaining consciousness of our dysfunctional patterns is actually always useful. Her example may strike a chord: a young man who realises something unpleasant about his mother in therapy puts down boundaries with her. The mother is upset and blames the young man; he feels worse than before; plus, he’s now lost the support of the family and is isolated. Was that new consciousness worth it or would it have been better to let things settle on their own?
It’s impossible to give an answer. Individuation, as the process of becoming who you are, is a pretty tall order. Beyond the initial allure of specialness (Look, ma, I’m individuating! I’m sovereign!-blergh), the individuation that Jung writes about is a lifetime process, particular to the second half of life; it’s destabilising; and it’s not very Instagrammable.
Perhaps the most common and harmful misconception about the individuation process is the overemphasis on individuality. Indeed, Jung posited that it’s essential we become separate from our families of origin and culture. We need to separate from the collective unconscious and fortify strong egos–we need to know who we are.
However, the process doesn’t stop here. A slightly deeper reading of Jung unveils his own intuitions that consciousness may need to develop in further stages similar to the unitary consciousness he observed in the East. Although, as far as I know, Jung never concretised these stages in his theories of development, Murray Stein suggested that individuation may indeed require a stage of ecological consciousness:becoming un-divided both inside and outside.
In such a stage, the ego-Self axis is the mark of an individuality that has seen the bigger picture and knows its place within it. The ego thus becomes relativised, acting in service of the Self, the totality. It turns back towards the world, nature, community, and wishes to be an integrated part of it–not from a place of projecting old wounding into the outer world, but from a felt sense of belonging, unity, and duty towards the whole.
*from Edward Edinger’s book “Ego and Archetype”. The last two phases represent the stage of individuation, where the ego is relativised and in service to the Self.
It took me three years of reading Jung’s work and psychotherapy practice to understand that individuation truly requires a religious attitude. It has stages of development that cannot be skipped without painful consequences. It’s not something you do on the weekend, when you have an hour. And it’s deeply personal and private.
Plus, it never looks the same for everyone: in fact, misunderstanding the concept often leads people to “perform individuation”, behaving a certain way or seeking out certain experiences that promise to expand their consciousness. It puts a lot of pressure on achieving some sort of perfection or higher state, which ironically gets in the way of the process. It shames others who aren’t “doing the work” and merely living their imperfect little lives–but really, who’s to say that’s not individuation?
“The chief danger is that of succumbing to the fascinating influence of the archetypes. If we do, we may come to a standstill either in a symbolic situation or in an identification with an archetypal personality.”
Frieda Fordham, in “An Introduction to Jungian Psychology”
In Jungian terms, inflation is a state where the ego, coming into contact with an archetype through a dream or a visionary state, identifies with it. You’re no longer experiencing the archetype of Christ, you are the Messiah; you’re not coming in contact with the Great Mother, you believe you are destined to be a mother and should have children asap.
Obviously, inflation can feel really good: it often feels like having an exaggerated sense of self-importance, grandiosity, or a belief that you possess special powers or knowledge. But it can also feel soul-crushing when the ego is overwhelmed by an exaggerated sense of badness when connecting to a negative archetype, like the devil.
And even though we’re all prone to inflation from time to time, this tends to happen to weaker egos and those who trod the Jungian path without guidance and adequate knowledge of the unconscious. A strong ego anchored in embodiment and a strong sense of self (through conscious values, a flexible relationship to the unconscious, an accurate self-image, self-knowledge, humility) is less likely to be overtaken by an archetype or might snap out of it quicker. Equally, working with a trained professional can lend us that strong ego and protect us from inflation.
I remember times at the start of my journey where thoughts of my specialness were creeping up in my mind after a mystical psychedelic experience. After a powerful meditation where I spontaneously experienced the crucifixion of Jesus as if I was going through it myself, I sensed a small part that wanted to hold on to that as mine–a little Gollum stealing the ring for himself, my precious, mine. And even though I did my best to reground myself, for a week I felt like I was in a dream and struggled to keep up with regular daily tasks. A part of me didn’t want to come down to earth.
The danger of identifying ourselves with archetypes is that our ego simply can’t hold them. Archetypes can possess a weaker ego and thus we lose perspective, critical thinking, or basic functioning. I’ve sat in enough psychedelic circles to see people so enthralled by the medicine that they’re convinced everyone should try it (I’ve been there myself); or, better yet, that they have finally found their vocation as healers just by coming in contact with the healer archetype in their experience.
I now know when an archetype is taking hold of me by noticing a mysterious and somewhat manic wave of energy that pulls me towards something I wouldn’t normally pay attention to. My body and mind feel restless, like I’m literally possessed by an urge or an idea. If I recognise it and work with the energy, I’m usually transformed by it–this is how I ended up studying psychotherapy, learning the tarot, or coming up with some of my greatest ideas. But my ego remained fairly steady throughout, critically examining the path, investigating the options, making sure it’s not a wildly irresponsible decision.
However, if I lean into it, I’d usually lose balance. Life would feel like a dream–my ego overpowered and inundated with unconscious content. Everything would feel like a synchronicity, to the point where life becomes overwhelming. I’d lose interest in basic tasks like eating, sleeping, hygiene, or staying in contact with friends. In worst cases, I image I could feel grandiose, which would be dangerous for my clients.
In fact, I believe one of the most dangerous people you could meet is a therapist or “guru” in an inflation: at best they would be rigid, directive, and obnoxious. At worst, they would disregard boundaries, become controlling, manipulate clients for their own benefit, become cultish, or blame clients for their perceived lack of progress. I could keep going, but we have plenty of Netflix documentaries to show how that plays out.
4. Shame and shadow work
And then there’s the darling practice of all Insta-coaches, shadow work.
There’s probably no Jungian concept that’s misinterpreted as much as the shadow. What at first glance looks like the dark and unpleasant qualities we don’t like about ourselves, through study turns out to be much more complex and entirely individual. The shadow is merely the alter-ego: if we think of ourselves as patient, it might be impatient; if we think of ourselves as cold and uncaring, it will be sensitive and affectionate.
The shadow is also dynamic. It evolves as our ego consciousness does–in fact, the key characteristic of shadow traits is that they could easily belong to the ego if they were integrated. However, they become split off whenever they don’t match our current conscious attitude. And the more they’ve been in the shadow, the more “primitive” they are–undeveloped, unadaptive, and most likely overwhelming.
But this nuance is rarely seen online. The most common misunderstanding I see is around “integrating the shadow”, as if it were a goal to be achieved–in just a few weeks, with a pre-recorded online course that happens to be priced in angel numbers (sadly it’s never £666). But shadow work isn’t merely about having awareness of those hidden or repressed traits. It’s not about getting rid of them. It requires acceptance and rechannelling through discipline. For as long as we’re alive, we’ll have a shadow.
“The shadow has to have its place of legitimate expression somehow, sometime, somewhere. By confronting it we have a choice of when, how, and where we may allow expression to its tendencies in a constructive context. And when it is not possible to restrain the expression of its negative side we may cushion its effect by a conscious effort to add a mitigating element or at least try to do it kindly and be ready to bear the consequences.”
Edward C. Whitmont in the essay “The Evolution of the Shadow”, part of “Meeting the Shadow, the Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature”
There’s also very little talk of ego strength before working with the shadow or the potential of retraumatisation. Delving into the shadow prematurely can reveal repressed emotions, memories, and trauma that may be difficult or overwhelming to face. Without adequate guidance, we might find ourselves in a negative inflation, completely identifying with dark or evil archetypes within.
If we lack healthy coping mechanisms, we might rush to “fix” our state through addictions or even self-harm, feeling even more shame than before. We might become incredibly self-critical, judgemental, and even suicidal, losing contact with any good parts.
So how do we do shadow work safely? Personally, I wouldn’t seek it out–in my experience, shadow contents tend to emerge on their own through our dreams, relationship triggers, falling in love, or our daily outrage. Instead, I prefer to focus on ego strength: practicing healthy coping skills, my ability to sit with discomfort, self-compassion, and a good sense of humour to laugh at my ego’s arrogance.
Humour is particularly important: I have always found great enjoyment in stand-up comedy that consciously plays with the edges of political correctness. I’ve also found improv comedy to be a safe space to engage and embody shadowy traits for everyone’s amusement–a humbling practice I recommend to everyone who tends to take themselves too seriously.
The more I’m aware of my innate goodness and humanity, the more likely I’ll be open to a shadowy trait reminding me that I’m not perfect, but I can be complete.
The list isn’t complete, but it’s enough for the moment. I may, once I gain more knowledge and experience with it, expand on my initial explorations of how the harmful ways the increasingly popular misunderstandings of masculine and feminine, fuelled by some polarity teachers, are promoting old patriarchal values under the guise of liberation.
I hope that this essay inspires caution, as well as an increased interest in engaging more seriously with Jung’s writing. If his work achieved anything, it was to reveal how small our ego consciousness is compared to the infinitely mysterious unconscious. The work demands humility and mastery. I am myself learning that (and not always succeeding).
If you’d like to explore the application of Jungian psychology, I created a community dedicated to the study and exploration of dreams within a safe and ethical container.
Dreamwork Circle comes with a 2-hour introductory workshop in Jungian dreamwork followed by monthly tutorials on other dream themes, monthly Zoom gatherings, weekly in-depth demonstrations of dreamwork, and daily guidance with dreams. My aim is to provide safe and ethical practices for working with your dreams, as well as my ongoing support as you’re learning this art and science.
There’s 17 of us already in there and our next meeting is this Friday, at 7pm–join us!