The Self

An illustration from Jung's personal journal "The Red Book"

An illustration from Jung’s personal journal “The Red Book”

The Self is one of the most well known of Jung’s concepts and is arguably the foundation stone of Jung’s Analytical Psychology. The idea that the unconscious has agency and purpose is something that sets Jung’s project apart from Freud’s Psychoanalysis. As Freud’s Ego is the experiencing and active agent at the centre of consciousness, Jung’s Self is the experiencing and active agent at the centre of the entire personality (both consciousness and the unconscious).

The self is not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of consciousness. [“Introduction,” CW 12, para. 44.]

As stated in this quote, for Jung the Self is at one and the same time both the centre (the organising principle) of the personality, and also the entirety (the contents) of the personality. Jung is very fond of paradoxes, and this is a good example of a Jungian paradox. In personal terms, the Self is both my essence and at the same time, the totality of all my being (past, present and future).

Another paradox when talking about the Self, is that the term can be used to describe the lived experience of Self (as described above) and is also used to signify an archetype. There has been some debate in Jungian circles about when to capitalise the word “self” in writing. One view is that when writing about the experience of the Self it should be rendered with lower case “s”, while in referring to the archetype of the Self it should be capitalised. As you can see I prefer to capitalise both usages, as, for me, it conveys and maintains the sense of paradox which is essential to the concept.

As an empirical concept, the self designates the whole range of psychic phenomena in man. It expresses the unity of the personality as a whole. But in so far as the total personality, on account of its unconscious component, can be only in part conscious, the concept of the self is, in part, only potentially empirical and is to that extent a postulate. In other words, it encompasses both the experienceable and the inexperienceable (or the not yet experienced). . . . It is a transcendental concept, for it presupposes the existence of unconscious factors on empirical grounds and thus characterizes an entity that can be described only in part. [“Definitions,” CW 6, para. 789.]

The Self as archetype, is the archetype of wholeness and meaning. Manifestations of the Self archetype can be found in ancient myths, songs from the radio, and in your dreams from last night.

The self appears in dreams, myths, and fairytales in the figure of the “supraordinate personality,” such as a king, hero, prophet, saviour, etc., or in the form of a totality symbol, such as the circle, square, quadratura circuli, cross, etc. When it represents a complexio oppositorum, a union of opposites, it can also appear as a united duality, in the form, for instance, of tao as the interplay of yang and yin, or of the hostile brothers, or of the hero and his adversary (arch-enemy, dragon), Faust and Mephistopheles, etc. Empirically, therefore, the self appears as a play of light and shadow, although conceived as a totality and unity in which the opposites are united.[“Definitions,” CW 6, para. 790.]

The ultimate goal of Jungian Analysis is to foster the increasing alignment of the Ego personality with the Self, a process known as Individuation. Contrary to some perceptions of this process as being a blissful enlightenment, it is actually grueling work, as the Ego does not generally welcome exposure to the Self. The Ego will tend to experience the Self as an unwelcome invader, or the perpetrator of an internal coup d’etat. This often leads to a neurosis, which although unpleasant, is the first step to greater correspondence of the Ego to the Self.

The ego cannot help discovering that the afflux of unconscious contents has vitalized the personality, enriched it and created a figure that somehow dwarfs the ego in scope and intensity. . . . Naturally, in these circumstances there is the greatest temptation simply to follow the power-instinct and to identify the ego with the self outright, in order to keep up the illusion of the ego’s mastery. . . . [But] the self has a functional meaning only when it can act compensatorily to ego-consciousness. If the ego is dissolved in identification with the self, it gives rise to a sort of nebulous superman with a puffed-up ego.[“On the Nature of the Psyche,” CW 8, para. 430.]

The negative outcomes of a weak or brittle Ego’s encounter with the Self can range from narcissism to psychosis. However, when an Ego that is both strong and flexible has an encounter with the Self it can lead to growth, not without the hard work mentioned above.

At these times, experiences of the Self can have the ecstatic feeling of elevated understanding, a bit like a religious experience. Jung believed there was no essential difference between the self as an experiential, psychological reality and the traditional concept of a supreme deity.

It might equally be called the “God within us.” [“The Mana-Personality,” CW 7, para. 399.]

Author: Stephen Garratt