KeywordsLife Experience Personal Growth Personal Life Uppermost Layer Topmost Layer
According to Jung, the topmost layer of the unconscious psyche is what he called the “personal unconscious” because it is filled with content derived from a person’s individual subjective life experience. This aspect of unconsciousness was in contrast to his conception of the collective unconscious which contained the archetypes and was not connected to personal life experience.
The personal unconscious is a structure in the upper layer of the unconscious made up of both repressed contents and other material which has been simply laid aside like memories. Since it is the gateway to the deeper collective unconscious, its contents must be accessed for personal growth and development.
The Contents of the Personal Unconscious
While all of a person’s life experience is retained in the psyche, consciousness is only able to attend to a limited amount of content at any one time, so much of it has to be put aside for later retrieval, if necessary. Jung understood the personal unconscious to be the repository of such material and that the role of the ego (as the center of consciousness) was to act as the gatekeeper in deciding what content should be attended to currently and what should be laid aside. This process leads to the initial components of the personal unconscious and in this way includes an individual’s memories and other psychic contents which can be brought back to consciousness at will. This part of the personal unconscious would coincide with Freud’s concept of the “preconscious,” that is, material which lies just below consciousness but which can be accessed and then attended to consciously by choice. But in addition to this aspect, Jung like Freud was aware that individuals repress into the unconscious (specifically, the personal not collective unconscious) content which consciousness experiences as unacceptable, disagreeable, disturbing, distressing, unwanted, and/or anxiety provoking – which can include material from infancy/childhood issues (as in Freud’s system). However, Jung also saw that new content was continually being added to the personal unconscious by way of ongoing life experience. In this way, the repressed content in the personal unconscious is seen as coming from the whole range of an individual’s unresolved complexes across the lifespan and not just from fixations derived from the oral, anal, and phallic psychosexual stages of development across the first 5 years of life as posited by Freud. As such, Jung saw the personal unconscious as “comprising all the acquisitions of personal life, everything forgotten, repressed, subliminally perceived, thought, [and] felt” (Jung 1921/1989: 485).
The Personal Unconscious and Individuation
In terms of both the individuation process and the sequential stages of Jungian analysis, Jung understood that the “the “personal unconscious” must always be dealt with first, that is, made conscious” (Jung 1936/1992: 62). This is for two reasons. Firstly, because the repressed content of an individual’s personal complexes must be addressed if they are to individuate, this occurs not “through intellectual knowledge only: what is alone effective is a remembering that is also a re-experiencing” (p. 62). Secondly, since the personal unconscious emerges developmentally out of the collective psyche, it must be made conscious “otherwise the gateway to the collective unconscious cannot be opened.” As Jung says, “the personal grows out of the collective psyche and is intimately bound up with it” (Jung 1966/1990: 279). Jung had come to the view that our psychic life begins in unconsciousness and that consciousness emerges out of it rather than the unconsciousness being derived from repression of material out of consciousness, as in Freud’ system. Consequently, he saw that determining a distinction between personal unconscious content and material arising from the collective unconscious is “far from easy . . . . So it is difficult to say exactly what contents are to be called personal and what collective” (p. 279). Nonetheless, despite the fact that a person’s personal psychic content residing in the personal unconscious grows out of the collective psyche, it has done so through a person’s subjective life experience, and this will be reflected in aspects of that person’s dream imagery. It is in this way that a person by attending to their dream imagery connected with their conscious life (as in images to do with events, people, and places they know) that the contents of the personal unconscious can be encountered, accessed and thus made conscious.
The personal unconscious occupies the uppermost layer of the unconscious and contains both repressed material and other content which has been put aside so as not to overwhelm consciousness. Given its place in the unconscious, it acts as a gateway to the deeper layers of the collective unconscious, the contents of which must be accessed for personal growth and development. Consequently, the first stage in the individuation process is to integrate into consciousness the contents of the personal unconscious.
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