what is

the unconscious?

Though depth psychologists were not the first to consider the idea of an unconscious portion of mind, they were the theorists who developed the concept into an area of dedicated study, empirical research, and therapeutic practice. Among these thinkers, Carl Jung was a central figure in developing our understanding of the unconscious psyche, and much of today’s ‘common knowledge’ about the unconscious derives from his work. In this article we will consider Jung’s approach to the unconscious: what it is, how is structured, and how it operates.

Unconscious to whom?

To understand the difference between the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche, we must begin with an important figure: the egoic self, the part of ourselves that we experience as ‘I.’ When we speak of what is or is not conscious, we are generally defining our terms relative to this egoic ‘me.’ With this understanding, we can begin with these simple classifications: the conscious psyche holds everything that the egoic self is aware of, while the unconscious contains all those things that the ego is unaware of, including things forgotten and dissociated, as well as involuntary biological functions, and those things that cannot be grasped consciously.

Before we wade into the waters of the unconscious, it is important to understand that this division — conscious versus unconscious — is not an anatomical one. There is no part of the brain which hold exclusively conscious contents, nor one which houses the material we call unconscious. Instead, the depth psychologists invite us to think conceptually and experientially. Some things we are aware of, and some things we are not. These domains constitute the conscious and the unconscious, respectively.

At the same time, it will also help to keep in mind that there is no ‘wall’ between the conscious and the unconscious. More likely, these experiences exist on a spectrum where, on one end, things are highly conscious, at the far end, are highly unconscious. Between these polarities exist states of greater or lesser consciousness, low or increasing unconsciousness.

Mapping the territories of the unconscious

Now that we have an image of a psyche roughly divided into the conscious and the unconscious, we can we can focus in on the unconscious more particularly. If we are going to take Jung’s view, this means we consider that the unconscious as consisting of two territories: the personal and the collective.

The personal unconscious

There are a number of things in our unconscious mind which are unique to our individual lives:

Here, then, is the overstuffed closet of things we mentally pick up and set aside, the things that we perceive and accumulate, but may not have a present use for. This pile of ‘stuff’ has to do with our inner and outer experiences of the world, and is essentially, personal. It is unsurprising, then, that we would find this storehouse in a place Jung called the personal unconscious.[3]

But this this collection of flotsam is not all that we find in our depths. There are other regions in our personal unconscious, and they are full of life. The area commonly known as the shadow exists here, too. This is the place where we put those things that our egoic selves reject — the parts of us that are intolerable in the conscious areas of our lives.

In the shadow, we may find the traits that our parents found unlovable in us, and so, in order to survive, we felt we had to push them aside. Alternatively, we may find the qualities our culture finds repugnant, parts of ourselves which we must suppress in order to be accepted into the larger community. For whatever reason these qualities are excluded, they find their way into the shadow.

The contents of the shadow are less like an overstuffed closet and more like an orphanage, home to the wayward and unwanted. This is because, when such parts are often split off by a trauma or other injury, they can personify, taking on an independent identity within the wider unconscious, forming splinter psyches that Jung called complexes.[5] Here we see the development of subpersonalities.[⌘]

The figures of the shadow are seldom quiet within us, and we encounter our complexes both in our dreams and in our daily lives. Just because something is unconscious does not mean that we are unaffected by it.

The collective unconscious

Though complexes ‘reside’ in the personal unconscious, their roots originate in the area Jung called the collective unconscious.[6] This connection exists because every complex has an archetypal core around which a shell of personal experiences grows. Unlike the shell of the complex, these root archetypes are universal, belonging to the collective of humanity — hence the name collective unconscious.

The things we find in this domain cannot be grasped consciously. Their roots are numinous ones and they transcend the limits of any single ego. Because of this, we experience archetypes through archetypal images. These images are then ‘dressed’ in the ‘clothes’ they find as they pass through the territory of the personal unconscious — essentially, they adorn themselves in the images of our individual lives and the culture around us.

The unconscious speaks

The unconscious psyche speaks to us primarily [in] dreams and fantasies,[8] using a language of images. We might understand these images as symbols — packets of meaning that convey an archetype’s essence. Our artistic and creative works, too, can be understood as emissaries from the unconscious. In fact, as Robert Johnson noted: It is nearly impossible to produce anything in the imagination that is not an authentic representation of something in the unconscious.[9]

As for what the unconscious talks about when it speaks, it is common for dreams and other unconscious productions to attempt to compensate for areas in our lives where we are too one-sided.[10] We might think of this as the psyche’s attempt to create balance in a lopsided situation. For instance, if our conscious life is too strongly weighted toward work, we might dream that our family is isolated and in need of help. If we have been neglecting our artistic side, we may spend our dreamtime wandering a vast, empty museum, its walls aglow with spotlights directed at all the places where artwork should hang.

A very big iceberg

The psyche is sometimes presented as an iceberg; the small tip above water represents the conscious mind, and the unconscious is the far vaster body of ice below. There is so much that is unseen and the depths are so profound. Through inner work, however, these hidden terrains can be come accessible, initiating an intrapsychic dialogue that ultimately facilitates our growth and increases our quality of life.

[⌘] To be clear, there is an overlap between the concepts of the shadow and the complex. It is fair to think of the shadow as the area where our complexes reside, but it is also true to think of our complexes as the manifestations of our shadow.

⌅   references for this article