psychological terms & concepts

active imagination

A set of techniques used for engaging the images and figures of the unconscious psyche through imagination. Visual and performing arts can be forms of active imagination, as can conscious imaginal dialogue and adventures with inner figures.

what is active imagination?

Adler, Alfred

With Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, one of the three ‘fathers’ of depth psychology. Adler’s focused in large part on the psyche’s perception of power relationships, coining the the now-familiar term, inferiority complex.


Emotion; also how we ‘wear’ our emotions in our facial expressions and body language.


A pattern which recurs in the human psyche across diverse eras and cultures, similar to the concept of the Platonic Form. Thought to take its origin in the collective unconscious, the archetype manifests in dreams, fantasies and complexes, and in cultures as myth and folklore. Common examples: the hero, the Great Mother, the trickster.


The idea that our psyche connects things by way of likeness and metaphor. We see the principal of association in dreamwork when we consider a dream image and ask, “What does this remind me of in my waking life?” By considering these associations, we can develop a better understanding of what the dream might be ‘talking about.’

collective shadow

The manifestation of archetypal forces in the form of group behavior, often negative in consequence and generally denied, this shadow operates below the level of the group’s awareness. Embodied in ‘groupthink’ and mob mentality. Sometimes called a cultural complex.

collective unconscious

The wellspring from which the shared archetypal heritage of humanity is drawn. Also known as the objective psyche, it is placeless and timeless, providing the ‘ur-stuff’ of our myths, dreams and symbols.


The tendency of the unconscious psyche to counter-balance one-sidedness in the conscious, egoic life. Such one-sidedness may manifest as an overemphasis on a particular facet of living, such as work, or it may reflect over-reliance on a particular coping strategy, such as aggression or codependency. When such one-sidedness occurs, dream images and other unconscious productions may offer images highlighting a need for greater balance.


A normal part of the human psyche which holds collections of related memories, affects and beliefs. Generally understood to have an archetypal core and a more personal shell, they are sometimes called subpersonalities or parts. The alters of multiple personality (dissociative identity) can be understood as complexes with more profound barriers between them.

what are subpersonalities?

complex psychology

Complex psychology can be understood as a synonym for depth psychology. However, in terms of the research addressed here, complex psychology focuses specifically on developing relationships with one’s complexes as a means of improving quality of life.

what is complex psychology?


Roughly, the sense of awareness of one’s experiences, both inner and outer. Consciousness, however, has never been conclusively defined or explained. It almost certainly exists not as an absolute state, but rather a spectrum that includes full waking consciousness, reverie states, altered states, dreaming, deep sleep, coma, and others.


Used to describe the state when a complex is active. In some respects similar to a state of being ‘triggered.’ Perhaps best understood by illustration: Imagine that you are driving a large van. Your unconstellated complexes, or subpersonalities, sit in the rows of seats behind you. When a complex becomes constellated, it may either 1) take the seat beside you, perhaps advising or nagging you, and thus impacting your driving decisions, or 2) bump you out of the driver’s seat entirely, taking control of the van.

how does it feel when a complex is active?

depth psychology

The psychology of the unconscious psyche, pertaining to dreams, unconscious motivations, and imagination. Sometimes called Analytical Psychology, Complex Psychology or Dynamic Psychiatry, its seminal figures are generally understood to be Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Alfred Adler.

complex psychology


A process by which we ‘shelve’ certain, often traumatic, information differently than other information. In dissociation, memory may be ‘held’ separately from the feelings experienced at the time the memory was formed. Dissociation can, in many cases, be understood as a ‘safety valve’ that keeps us from being overwhelmed by traumatic or strongly undesirable experiences.

dissociative disorder

A diagnostic category comprising disorders characterized by a division of self, from self. Because of these divisions, there may be lapses in recall, sense of identity, or access to knowledge.

dissociative identity disorder


The practice of analyzing, exploring, and/or imagining into one’s nighttime dreams. Dreamwork may involve considerations of association, symbol, myth, and more.


The part of our psyche that we experience as ‘I,’ which experiences conscious awareness. Freud distinguished the ego from the id and superego, but Jung simply considers the ego, or ego-complex, to be one complex among many.


The tendency of things to, eventually, turn into their opposites. One might visualize this as being represented in the image of the pendulum swing, or in the Taoist principle of yin and yang, each giving way, over time, to the other.


The search for, or belief in, an absolute and firm foundation upon which all other ideas can be built.

Freud, Sigmund

With Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, one of the three ‘fathers’ of depth psychology. Freud is perhaps best known for his theory of id / ego / superego, his focus on the significance of dreams, his emphasis on the centrality of sexuality in psyche, as well as the now-famous Oedipal complex.


The study and practice of interpretation texts, which can include literary works, symbols, and even objects in the environment. Its study includes both how we interpret and how we are present our own work to be interpreted.


Coined by scholar Henri Corbin to distinguish it from the oft-dismissed domain of the imaginary, the imaginal encompasses the subtle territories within and between persons. Similar to the Greek onar (the world of dream, as opposed to the hypar, the material world), we engage the imaginal by way of the faculty of imagination.

what is imaginal?


The work of a lifetime, and probably never complete, individuation is the process of coming into our greatest authenticity. As we individuate, we welcome all the parts of ourselves — the shadowed, the hidden, the exquisitely fragile — and orient around the deep center (or centers) of our intrapsychic world.


The quality of being difficult — or even impossible — to speak about. The feeling that there are no words to describe a particular experience. Often accompanies numinous experience.

Jung, Carl Gustav

With Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud, one of the three ‘fathers’ of depth psychology. Jung’s contributions include development of the theories of the collective unconscious, the complex, and the nature and role of archetypes in the psyche.

lucid dreaming

The state of knowing that one is dreaming during sleep. Lucidity while dreaming may occur spontaneously, or it may be deliberately induced through a variety of techniques.

multiple personality

Also known as dissociative identity. Generally understood as a pathological state, multiple personality is the traumatogenic, intensified version of the normal and predominantly healthy plural psyche. In cases of multiple personality, however, the level of dissociation is more marked, and more pronounced ‘walls’ exist between parts/alters.

dissociative identity disorder

A model of the psyche which embraces the idea that we are made of many semi-autonomous and autonomous parts called complexes. Related ideas include polytheistic psyche, pluralistic psyche, plural self, and polycentric psyche.

what are subpersonalities?


A story, often but not always ancient, in which the dramas of the psyche are personified as characters and unfolded in narrative form. Legend and fairy tale often operate in a similar manner. Archetypal figures and situations are often clothed in story. Sometimes mistakenly understood to be ‘untrue,’ myths reveal the deeper truths of the psyche, its powers and propensities, its flaws and gifts. While mythic stories may vary across times and cultures, the underlying archetypes that populate them are universally human.

normative multiplicity

The belief that the psyche is foundationally and functionally made up of many, largely autonomous, parts, and that experiencing our inner worlds as diversely populated is neither pathological nor negative.



Having a sacred or spiritual quality, often associated with the presence of a constellated archetype. Numinous experiences are often ineffable.

participation mystique

The psychic immersion of oneself in an exterior object or person, such that the boundaries between the subject and the object become unclear.


The part of the psyche that shapes itself to meet the demands of the outer world. This complex has the sometimes difficult job of behaving in ways that feel — and, perhaps, are — antithetical to the deeper, authentic nature of the individual. Our persona, for instance, may present itself as a logical and fearless team player, while we more genuinely experience ourselves as timid, artistic, and introverted. Arguably, the persona’s function is to facilitate our survival, to create a ‘game face’ that allows us to integrate into the tribe.


The tendency of the parts of our psyche to manifest as persons, as seen most clearly in dreams. Also, a deliberate, often therapeutic choice to envision parts of our psyches as people, generally with the goal of creatively interacting with these parts to discern their needs or inner forces they represent.

plural positivity

A grassroots, largely online movement in support of those who identify as plural, experiencing their inner worlds as occupied by multiple inner figures. Embraces a variety of experiences of multiplicity, ranging from the normative to the disordered.

pluralistic psyche

A model of the psyche which embraces the idea that we are made of many semi- autonomous and autonomous parts called complexes. Related ideas include polytheistic psyche, multiplicity, plural self, and polycentric psyche.



A philosophical approach that values only those things that can be measured, dismissing any validity in the unmeasurable or subtle.


The tendency to see in others the behaviors and traits we, ourselves, possess but reject. Projection, once perceived can be withdrawn, which enables us to see others more clearly. Complexes function largely by projection, and so this phenomenon gives us an opportunity to discover and work with our complexes.


The totality of the inner world, encompassing conscious and unconscious, ego, shadow, inner figures such as complexes and psychic archetypes (anima, Self, etc.), and processes like thought, memory, perception, and more. Arguably, psyche can be understood to extend beyond the limits of mind, embracing somatic experience, the fields of projection and transference that exist between people, intersection with a collective unconscious and/or the wider experience of an anima mundi, or world soul.

psychic reality

The practice of holding the contents of subtle, inner experiences, such as dreams and active imagination, as possessing their own reality. A dedicated practitioner of psychic reality holds that complexes / subpersonalities have their own preferences and perspectives, and that these parts — as well as their viewpoints — are legitimate and real.


More than the study of the brain, or even the mind, psychology might more ideally be understood as the study of the psyche. This embraces elements ranging from conscious to subconscious, instinctual to numinous, egoic to transcendent, and personal to collective.

psychotic disorder

A diagnostic category comprising disorders characterized by a break with reality or, perhaps, a difficulty discerning what is real. For creative work on the idea of psychosis, consider the work of R.D. Laing.


An inner archetype, force, or over-complex that moves the psyche as a whole toward the individual’s greatest fulfillment, destiny or individuation. The concept of the polycentric psyche may, however, cause us to ask whether there is more than one teleological ‘center’ in the psyche — or perhaps more than one Self. If this is the case, it may be that a person individuates not in respect to a single Self or Telos, but, rather, may achieve individuation by way of numerous centers within the psyche.


The parts of ourselves — or the place occupied by those parts of ourselves — which get suppressed because we perceive them as dangerous, inconvenient, too fragile, or otherwise undesirable. The shadowing of our inner parts is not necessarily a conscious process, and often it is strongly interwoven with fears about survival or being excluded from the tribe. Complexes (with the exception of the ego-complex) are generally said to dwell in the shadow region of psyche, and can certainly be understood as shadow-selves.

shamanic journeying

The contemporary understanding of an ancient, indigenous imaginal practice in which a shaman engages in visions of the subtle/spirit realm, usually intending to undertake a task such as healing or repairing an individual or community’s alignment with the spirit world.


An image whose meaning is clear. A red traffic light contains no mysteries; it simply means stop. Compare to symbol.


A normal part of the human psyche which holds collections of related memories, affects, and beliefs. Generally understood to have an archetypal core and a more personal shell, they are sometimes called complexes or parts. The alters of multiple personality (dissociative identity) can be understood as subpersonalities with more profound barriers between them.

what are subpersonalities?


An image with an archetype — and therefore, a mystery — at its heart. Not limited to visual images, symbols express an idea that is not fully understandable or expressible. We may be able to interpret a symbol with some confidence, but the essence of a truly living symbol will always remain partly ineffable. Consider the disembodied hands in Baba Yaga’s cottage in the Vasalisa story; they ring with the numinous, but their meaning, while interpretable in many ways, can never be completely understood. Compare to sign.


The meaningful coincidence of events in the inner world with events in the outer world. In order to be a true synchronicity, these events cannot be causally connected. For example, to dream of a rainbow-striped van, and then to see a rainbow-striped van outside a prospective employer’s office might be understood as a synchronicity. To go online after the dream in search of images of rainbow vans, and to successfully find one, probably would not, because the online searching had a causal role in finding the image.


(also, teleological) A force that moves with aim or intention through a system. Such systems might include a living cell, an individual, a culture, a universe. Arguably, evolution has the teleological aim of increasing the odds of survival of a species. James Hillman’s daimon, as presented in The Soul’s Code, demonstrates a strong telos in directing the life path of the individual.

transcendent function

A capacity or process in psyche (and in the world) that considers two opposites held in tension, finally resolving them in a symbol or other ‘third thing.’ This deep and somewhat difficult concept is best understood by way of example. For instance, consider a college student who is drawn to major in art, but her parents are pressuring her to choose something more practical. The ‘opposites’ in this case are art versus practicality, autonomy versus obedience, soulwork versus practicality. Upon holding this ‘tension of opposites’ (rather than surrendering to one ‘side’ or the other), the student dreams that she gives a grandfather clock to her parents. Her dream-self feels a great sense of personal power in this giving act. Upon waking, this symbol — the clock — awakens in the student an a-ha moment. She understands that there are many gifts she can give her parents — spending time with them, among the most important — but that she must also retain her autonomy — choosing for herself which gifts she gives to her family, to the world. The transcendent function can be understood as both the process by which the student comes to her epiphany, as well as its outcome, the symbol which yields awakening.


A wounding to psyche, ranging in severity from a rough bruising to a psychic dismemberment. Traumas may be common or developmental — for instance, the first time one is separated from one’s mother for any length of time — or they may be exceptional — as with abuse, survival threat, or other catastrophe. Every trauma elicits inner-world responses and shapes the configuration of psyche.


Being caused by trauma.


The part of our psyche that operates below the level of awareness or consciousness, particularly in relation to the perceptions of the ego-complex. Sometimes called the subconscious, we most commonly interact with this part of ourselves as the source of our nighttime dreams. Much of depth psychology is involved with making unconscious material conscious, as with practices like active imagination.

what is the unconscious?