perfected friendship:

rethinking our approach to inner relationships

Even though it may seem that we — the ‘I’ or egoic selves — are ‘in charge’ our inner world, it is likely that we ‘govern’ at the pleasure of the many psychic presences within.

We generally come to imaginal work with an aim in mind. Something in our lives doesn’t feel right. The matter might be serious: we have an addiction, a domineering depression, a physical illness with a psychosomatic component. Or it might be that we want to pursue inner growth, the Jungian path of individuation, perhaps.

So it is that we come to meet the figures of our inner world, the denizens of our dreams, the citizens of our community of complexes. But we may not always receive the welcome or reciprocal interest we had hoped. Why do some inner figures distrust us? Or why, after we’ve met them the first time, do they fail to reappear when called again? We only want to feel better — don’t they get that? Don’t they want to feel better, too?

The root of these glitches may not be with our inner figures, but in our approach to them. If we treat these encounters as transactions, rather than the starting points of relationships, maybe it’s not so surprising that these figures view us in a transactional, at-arms-reach sort of way, too.

Aristotle opens the door

In his writings on ethics, Aristotle describes three kinds of friendship:[2] pleasure-based friendship, utility-based friendship, and perfected or completed friendship, known as teleia philia.[3] Each has a greater or lesser degree of stability, and demonstrates varying degrees of reciprocity.

Aristotle is plainly discussing those relationships we have in the material world. But I would argue — as would therapeutic traditions like Internal Family Systems[4] — that external relationships are not the only sorts of connections we have. Let’s consider our dream lives: the figures we meet there often feel familiar, as if we’ve interacted with them before. We have some relationship with them. When we later dream work with these figures and dream images in active imagination, we advance these relationships from the unconscious territory of dreaming to regions where we can speak, can interact, can make ethical choices, including those of how we approach our relationships.

On this basis, Aristotle’s views on friendship might be very relevant to our discussion. If we enter into imaginal relationship, how do we want to go forward? What do we ‘want’ from these friendships, and do we hope these friendships will last? If so, we might choose to be more deliberate about how we approach these connections, and Aristotle offers a model to do just that.

3 types of friendship

Shared pleasure

Let’s begin by looking at the first form of friendship, one based on shared pleasure. Friends whose connection is pleasure-based might be be rooted in a shared, beloved experience — an enjoyment of baseball, for instance, or an inexplicable mutual drawing together, as in cases of unconscious projection. Though these relationships can be warm and heartfelt,[5] they may only last as long as baseball season — or until the energy drops out of the mutual projection. In essence, pleasure-based friendship lasts only as long as the pleasure lasts.


Friendships of utility exist where people meet one another’s needs in some way. Based on ideas of exchange, these friendships may include networking-type relationships, where each can give the other a ‘hand up’ in their respective professions. Two mothers who become friends because they can share childcare responsibilities may be largely involved in an instrumental friendship.[6] Again, this sort of friendship isn’t terribly durable; it exists only for the time that each friend’s need is both present and answered.

Teleia philia

Aristotle’s teleia philiaperfected friendship, has a different orientation, completely. Rather than need or desire, the completed friendship is rooted in virtue. These relationships orient around seeking not just one’s own good, but also the good of the other. This means that I care about what happens to you for your own sake, rather than because of any personal interest I might have. While pleasure and utility might play a role in such connections, they are not the foundation of the relationship. As a result, these relationships endure.

The perfected friendship seeks arete, or excellence, on all levels. It will conduce to goodness[7] because each party considers what it really means to be a friend, and works at continually perfecting their friendships. Neither person is a means to an end, and both ‘show up’ consistently because this is simply how one treats one‘s true friends.

Such friendships also display a balanced, but not instrumental, reciprocity — each partner gives because they have the capacity to give. At the same time, there is a sense that these friends are equals; each regards the other’s status within the relationship as equivalent to their own.

When we come to active imagination to meet a symptom, a dream image, or some other inner figure, what are our intentions? As noted above, I would suggest that we generally seek some kind of instrumental connection. We invite psychic presences into dialogue because we have a goal in mind — essentially a desire to create a relationship of utility.

Let’s say we’ve been distracted, having trouble concentrating, forgetful. We turn to active imagination, hoping to figure out just what is taking up our mental bandwidth. It turns out that a creative inner figure is frustrated because she needs to express herself through art-making. All right, we reply, I’ll create time once a week for art making, and maybe I won’t feel so distracted. And, behold, it works! I have been useful to my inner creative, giving her time for art. And because her energies are being spent fruitfully, I feel less distracted, and am better able to go about my daily tasks. Great!

But this is clearly a friendship of utility. Our interest in the relationship mainly exists to the degree our respective problems are resolved. At this point, I may not really be respecting the autonomous selfhood of this inner figure, who is undoubtedly a subpersonality, or complex, with her own range of perspectives and desires.

Now, if all goes well, maybe that suffices for us. But for how long can such a relationship last? Most friendships of utility peter out, in time. And then, maybe we’re back where we started. If we want to move forward, a real intention toward a more perfected friendship may be in order.

Carl Jung offers the idea that we may, in fact, have an ethical duty, a responsibility to work with the images and figures of our inner worlds.[8] Coming into our wholeness, essentially the work of individuation — is a task which demands something more than simple utility. And an important part of that work is attending to psyche with the deep respect that it calls for, including a full commitment to treating imaginal persons an encounters as real.

If we truly do believe in psychic reality, and that there is such a thing as a perfected — one might say, individuated — friendship, don’t we have a responsibility to cultivate inner relationships in this way? And even more than a sense of duty, there is a virtue and a joy in being a good friend, in giving fully within friendships not because of what we receive, but because caring relationships are one of the treasures of living.

cultivating perfected inner friendships

One key way to seek out deeper inner relationships is to begin when we don’t need something, when our only motivation is to explore our inner world and get to know the figures who appear there. Even if we use a dream image as a starting point for an active imagination, we can come to the imaginal work with a sense of openness, setting expectations aside. 

Along a similar vein, we are far likelier to create balanced relationships with our complexes when they are not constellated — meaning, triggered and ascendent in our psyches. During such times, ego-complex and subpersonality can ‘overlap’ (Internal Family Systems theory might call this blending), so that we’re more like an emotional jumble than two differentiated figures. It’s hard to have a warm, thoughtful conversation when everyone is on high alarm. For this reason, it is can be helpful to offer our first first ‘hello’ when things are on an even keel.

Once we have connected with someone inside, it’s great to introduce ourselves and share our reasons for stopping by, but what about them?

Not everyone inside will want to answer questions, but some may be pleased or fascinated that you ask, for instance:  Do you need anything? Is there anything you’d like me to know? Or, simply, I’d like to get to know you better. Can you help me understand what it feels like to be you?

It is also important to recall that, though it may seem that we — the ‘I’ or egoic selves — are ‘in charge’ our inner world, we are single community member among many. Even if we hold a leadership role in our imaginal neighborhood, it is likely that we ‘govern’ at the pleasure of the many psychic presences within. If we are to strive toward the Aristotelian ideal of friendships of equality, this realization is an important tool. When we are one complex among many, and we have no special status, we can come to inner relationships in a true spirit of egalitarianism. With access to this sense of balance, we can then ask whether we are developing inner relationships on the basis of pleasure, utility, or in pursuit of a greater, perfected friendship that will contribute to the work of individuation.

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