Jungian Psychology for Storytellers
When I began working on my book about storytelling, my goal was to identify how some stories were able to make me feel good, and why others fell completely flat instead.
This led to some truly fascinating insights from storytellers like Stephen King, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and many others. But I didn’t guess how much I would end up learning about psychology.
Table of Contents
It makes sense that while a well-told story indeed requires some skill and planning, it arguably demands more from a psychological sense—in other words, our enjoyment of the story says just as much about us as the story itself.
I knew that something special was going on when a film reached its crescendo in tension. When the hero finally achieves his goal after struggling through a long, arduous journey. You can’t bottle up that feeling of awesomeness.
As it turns out, there are lots of very deep, ancient parts of the human brain that respond strongly to stories. They’re not a new invention, not by a long shot. Our most ancient ancestors shared stories before they began making buildings.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) showed that seemingly disparate cultures on opposite sides of the globe all created their own mythologies with striking similarities. Tribes in Asia created heroic myths resembling their Germanic cousins, and we can all see the similarities between Ancient Greek and Norse mythology.
Campbell knew that there had to be some psychological explanation for this incredible phenomenon, so he turned to the teachings of a psychologist named Carl Jung (1875-1961), who had written much on mythology and why stories are really an expression of the deepest parts of our psyche.
Campbell was hooked, and Jung became a major source of Campbell’s work on the power of myth: namely, how it can heal us, providing structure for our lives, and eliciting profound feelings of meaningfulness.
In this article, I’m going to describe the same concepts from Jung’s theories that Campbell found in his study into stories, and on the way, I’ll explain how they’re relevant for storytellers, with examples from real stories.
Who Was Carl Jung?
Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist who founded the school of analytical psychology, which came to be known as Jungian psychology. He was born into a strictly religious family but quickly became interested in Eastern philosophy, which emphasised looking at things from a broad perspective. These interests didn’t jibe well at all with the sentiments of the scientific community, and his early work earned him some notoriety as a mystic.
But after writing much in his early career, Jung’s work caught the attention of Sigmund Freud, a fellow psychiatrist and founder of the psychoanalytic movement. From Freud, Jung learned many new theories and the two men became good friends. Freud’s model of the psyche fascinated Jung, and he took it and added his own opinions about its structure throughout his later career.
But there were things they disagreed on. Jung disliked Freud’s insistence that all psychological complexes come from repressed infantile desires, and poked holes in this theory. Freud, quite a thin-skinned man, resented this and the division drove them apart. But it allowed Jung to develop his own theories further, and this path of individuation from the mentor would reflect strongly in these theories.
Jung despised dogma and Freud did not enjoy his followers questioning his theories too much. Jung’s father had been a devout minister, quoting the word of the Church’s teachings but practising none of them. Freud’s dismissive tone and absolute insistence in his theories brought back horrible memories for Jung. The split, while painful for Jung, proved to be profoundly necessary to his development as a person and a psychiatrist.
For one thing, Jung had a lot of faith in people’s ability to “just know” things without having to explain how they know them. We typically call this ability “intuition”, and fellow psychologists like Freud rubbished Jung’s ideas on it in the same way we often rubbish New Age thinking today. Freud considered himself a strict scientist, while Jung was much looser and more flexible in his approach.
After his split with Freud in 1913, Jung went into a length period of dark feelings and great uncertainty. He was nearing his forties, and today we might call such a period of reflection a “midlife crisis”. People openly criticised him for being an airy-fairy mystic. The academic world, along with Freud, turned his back on him as a kind of pariah, and he gave up his university post. Jung felt like his entire world had turned upside down—like everything he knew was suddenly unknown, and his worldview shifted so as to become entirely disorienting.
(He would later call this upheaval an “Ego Death”, but we’ll get to that a little later.)
Throughout this period of uncertainty, Jung turned increasingly to stories and mythology. Though he had long held a professional interest in their effects on the psyche, he found himself greatly comforted by the stories in great novels and ancient myths. He found that his patients would relay a story to him, and he would encourage them to go further. For these patients, being listened to so deeply, and paid so much genuine attention—often for the first time in their lives—seemed to have a curative effect on both them and Jung.
He realised that myths were stories that helped people to understand common psychological patterns and the way their psyche develops on the person’s journey through life. In other words, stories reflect our psychic development! They are projections of our deepest dreams and fantasies, expressing unconscious ideas in an accessible form.
During his period of crisis, Jung found many examples in literature of people who had gone through similar confrontations with their unconscious. These characters began appearing in his dreams, notably Siegfried, the hero from classical Germanic myths. Siegfried had rescued the princess by bravely fighting off a dragon with a sword. Siegfried had to confront the terrifying dragon head-on; otherwise he would not have been able to reach his goal. Throughout his life, Jung had long identified strongly with this story, as did most boys and young men.
But unexpectedly, Jung’s dream began featuring him killing Siegfried repeatedly! This induced profound feelings of guilt in his heart, and the first time it happened he cried and felt he was having a nervous breakdown. Everything he knew was disappearing, and the world was turned upside-down. He’d killed the very character he’d so strongly identified with. But gradually Jung decided that this was his unconscious explaining to him that he needed to walk away from the past—perhaps kill it—and start a new journey.
Jung’s intense study into his dreams and those of his patients led him to find common patterns. In one instance, he had a recurring dream where we would hold lengthy conversations with the gnostic sage Philemon. The old man acted as a kind of spiritual guide, leading Jung around a sacred garden of knowledge and experiences that Jung needed to experience gradually and step-by-step. In his dreams, Philemon explained to Jung that we do not generate our thoughts; they instead rest in the deepest parts of our psyche.
He saw Philemon as a source of vast knowledge and kept him as a kind of mentor figure. Jung looked up to the character of Philemon and filled entire journals with the stories they experienced together. Over a decade later, on a visit to India, Jung met an Indian man who had no problem relating with this experience—indeed he too had developed a kind of internal mentor figure in his dreams. As he explained his experiences, Jung watched as the ideas “clicked” in the man’s mind, as no further explanation was needed.
The strength of these dreams and later encounters confirmed to Jung that there were deep patterns written into our psyches, that we’re not always consciously aware of but play a large part in our behaviour and thoughts. In 1916 he decided to formalise this idea into a theory, but first, he had to solidify his arguments on the structure of the psyche. This would put his theories on a firm footing and help his understanding of these mystic yet profound dreams.
The Structure of the Psyche
Jung held that there were three layers to the psyche:
The conscious mind. This is where we’re aware of our own thoughts. It’s the place for logical thinking, cold analysis, and civilised behaviour
The personal unconscious. This is unique to the individual. It’s formed from our repressed wishes and impulses that don’t fit into polite society—e.g. sexual fantasies. We also store traumatic memories here, and material that threatens the ego.
The collective unconscious. This contains the parts of the psyche that every human is born with. This includes archetypes that we are able to instantly recognise without being able to explain it: the mother, the father, food, the sun, water, and more.
Unlike Freud, who analysed the mind in strictly isolated and scientific terms, Jung took a more holistic, Eastern view: that the body and the mind were actually one, equal but opposite parts of the greater whole. His model of the psyche allowed for both mystic dreams as well as very real facts of biology—it is hard to argue, after all, that we have certain innate traits built into us from birth.
Jung’s splitting of the personal and collective unconscious can be a little confusing at first, so I’ll attempt to explain what makes each part unique.
Think of the personal unconscious as our “precognition centre”. It contains facts, memories, and sensory information that we’ve either repressed or have merely never gained enough strength to make it into our conscious mind. The personal unconscious is made up of “complexes”, which can both be positive and negative. If we’re not aware of these complexes, they take control of us without us knowing it.
A common example of a complex in the personal unconscious is “I’m not getting paid enough at work”, a thought we repress because we’re not allowed to say it directly in the oppressively polite business world—but nevertheless acts out when we feel resentful of our boss and act rudely towards colleagues who are paid more than us. The goal of psychotherapy, as Jung saw it, was the ferret out these negative complexes and make them conscious. In other words, shining light on our ugliest repressed thoughts is the only way to truly heal.
Now, think of the collective unconscious as made up of two parts: archetypes and base instincts. Both of these parts prepare us for basic functionality in life. Instincts are why you don’t have to think about breathing, eating, drinking, or when to run away from snakes (or reach for the nearest club and defend your family). Archetypes help us to recognise things that appear in daily life—our mother, a wise elder, or patterns, like struggle and heroic journeys.
In forming his theory of the psyche, Jung realised a glaring fact: All myths and stories are projections from the collective unconscious. Think back to earlier in the story, how Jung found comfort in classical stories and dreams. I can relate to this: In 2015 I was going through a deep depression and found inexplicable comfort in the story of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I couldn’t explain it at the time, but the structure of the story provided me with a feeling of safety and deep validation.
Once again, think back to Jung’s split with Freud in 1913. Jung felt his entire world turn upside down, feeling disoriented as if he didn’t recognise the world any more. He went through an intense period of self-doubt, and it was only through deep introspection that he was able to emerge stronger. Sounds like most stories, doesn’t it? All hero myths involve some kind of struggle followed by an intense period of crisis, which the hero has to overcome through his bravery and skill.
This brings us onto the next pieces of Jung’s model of the psyche: the ego and the Self.
The Ego, the Self, and the Shadow
According to Jung, the ego is the centre of consciousness. It gives us our sense of identity. Think of a diagram with a small circle, inscribed inside it are the words “This is me”, and in the vast unknown space around it “All of this around here is not me”. The small circle is the ego. It is our prime differentiator from ourselves to the world around us.
We often think of ego as something negative, but for Jung it wasn’t so black and white. He saw the development of a strong, healthy ego as the prime task for the first half of our lives, building self-confidence and a firm sense of identity. It only becomes a problem when it over-inflates.
An over-inflated ego usually results in a dictatorial, intolerant personality. It sees itself as all-important, almost god-like. It sees itself as inherently deserving of respect and aggressively purges any attempts to suggest or act otherwise. Think of it as developing too strong a border between itself and everything outside it. Such people seem strong, but they’re actually terrified of what lies outside their known world, and so they seek to control every aspect of their lives and everyone unfortunate to enter it.
Jung saw the purpose of the second half of life as the healthy integration of the ego within the Self, which he defined as the totality of the psyche. This meant softening the bounds of the ego and exploring the dark, unknown territory outside it. Unfortunately, most people never achieve this, and stay grandiose and unaware of their true selves until the day they die. This should be regarded as a tragedy, because there is an unexpectedly rich beauty in the darker parts of ourselves.
This dark realm outside the ego is called the shadow. These are the parts of ourselves we don’t recognise as part of our identity, repressed down into our personal unconscious. We all have a shadow, and the less consciously we’re aware of it, the most it exerts control over our lives. Aspects of our personality that we’ve repressed can never be corrected and healed if they’re never identified.
Jung said that those who stand tallest and proudest in the sun’s light-giving rays cast the darkest and longest shadows, and I think that is both profoundly true and a good explanatory message.
The shadow is everything about ourselves that we’ve learned to hide from society. Common examples are dark sex dreams, desires of running away from everything, and urges to hurt people. The ego naturally wants to hide these aspects, but if they’re repressed for too long, then we project them onto others.
Projection is when you recognise one of your shadow aspects manifested by another person. For example, when you see someone being inconsiderate and you feel unreasonably angry at that, it’s because you strongly identify as a considerate person. Projection is a clear indication that there is some part of ourselves we’re avoiding and clamouring to break out into the conscious mind.
When we project shadow aspects onto others, the ego finds it easy to see others as evil, or otherwise in binary black/white, good/bad terms. When it happens, we often say that “something came over us”, when really it is us being more genuine than ever!
To achieve a healthy, balanced mind, it is necessary to recognise these parts of our psyche as parts of ourselves, and often mere awareness of them is transformative. But active “shadow work”, as it’s called, is as necessary as it is deeply rewarding. This involves active confrontation of our dark aspects by standing inside the shoes of the people we hate the most, and meditating deeply on thoughts that make us unsettled and uncomfortable.
I’m not recommending that you torture yourself. I’m recommending you identify the parts of your personality that are exerting unconscious control over your actions, and attempting to show you how to take control back from these demons. Shadow work is really about becoming more aware of every part of ourselves, even the bad bits.
The best method of dealing with your shadow is to watch yourself when you feel angry or resentful. These moments will often rise up as we work with others or browse social media. When you see a post from a relative that irritates you somehow, identify it and note it down. Think about why it annoys you. This will be uncomfortable at first, but it will tell you a lot about yourself, and your new awareness of it will make you calmer and more open-minded about it in the future. As Jung said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
I can’t reiterate enough times how important this is. If you think you are above reproach, full of moral virtue while others out there are evil, and you don’t understand how they can be, in your eyes, so stupid, then read carefully. Recognise now that all the problems you perceive as wrong with the world “out there” are really problems with yourself.
Accepting your darker aspects makes you more empathetic with those whose views differ from your own, understand their point of view rather than thinking them evil or stupid. It’s also a direct exercise in courageous, constructive self-honesty. We see ourselves more objectively, allowing us to make decisions with a greater awareness of our emotional traits that might otherwise colour our judgement. It is perhaps the most rewarding work we can ever do.
Shadow Work as the Basis for All Stories
This process of integrating our ego and shadow into the Self is something Jung called Individuation, and it is best summarised as the journey of inner exploration into our deep selves, confronting those parts of our psyche that most unnerve us. Sound familiar again? It’s a journey of personal development common to most stories.
Jung said that if we can learn to deal with our own shadow, then we have done something very real. We have shouldered our own tiny piece of the burden that rests on all of humanity, and are better able to go out into the world as whole human beings, accepting of others and with a new kind of empathy for humanity based in something real, not some vague, abstract notion of justice or morality.
The process of individuation cannot be considered truly complete until you learn to confront the scariest monsters in your unconscious. You’re afraid that deep down you’re lazy, or weak, or that your dad really was right—you’re nothing but a waste of space not worthy of his love. It’s likely that that just hit you right in the gut, and I deliberately did that to shock you into realising the impact that this self-reflection can have. But I’m not doing it to torture you. I want to make you finally confront the things you’ve been turning away from, putting away until a “later” that never comes.
Both mythic legends and great modern stories feature something like this: the character believes in a “lie”, then their world is interrupted somehow by a villain, and the character is forced to deal with this threat. In the course of the story’s journey, the character learns lessons that reveal his faults to him, and he is forced to use his own skill and cunning to move past this and learn the “truth”. Stories, particularly those centred around the Hero myth, all mirror the process of psychological development.
Most people totally ignore their unconscious aspects, but if they start to listen to the common themes in their dreams, watch what they find most irritating in other people, the unknown things they’re most afraid of, and then think about those things deeply, then they become stronger as people through this rigorous process of psychological development. They’re better able to deal with the inevitable problems of life, and more loving and understanding of people.
Like the hero who knows he has no choice but to face down the dragon, only we can take responsibility for confronting the most frightening aspects of our psyche. People can help us in a limited sense, but we cannot merely rely on their help. Become the hero of your own journey. As Joseph Campbell said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
Pick up your sword and charge in.
For this article I made use of my favourite short book on Carl Jung, Jung: The Key Ideas by Ruth Snowden. I highly recommend you grab a copy on Amazon.
Posted on: 5th April, 2019
Please check out The 24 Laws of Storytelling, my book that explores the principles that makes some books and movies great and explains why others fail. By reading my book, you'll gain the same strategies used by master storytellers such as Stephen King, Christopher Nolan, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and many more. Pick up your copy today.
Grab two free ebooks now and get weekly emails full of stories, ideas, and helpful writing tips:Join My Weekly Newsletter
Comment Rules: Let's all be cool and rational here. You're free to disagree or give criticism, but rudeness or nastiness aren't okay. Always use your PERSONAL name not your business name, because the latter looks like spam. Thanks for adding to the conversation!