Lead Article

The unpredictability of the soul: C. G. Jung’s contribution to a deeper understanding of conflicts. Lecture by Prof. Dr. Allan Guggenbühl (C. G. Jung Memorial Day, 6. Juni 2015)

The Inevitability of Conflicts

Allan Guggenbühl_3769_hohe AuflösungConflicts are more than differences of opinion or contentions. Conflicts are experienced as disturbances. They are events that the vast majority of people do not want. They are an aggravation, cause sleepless nights and can render our daily lives miserable. Although we all agree with this view, the conflicts remain. They are unavoidable and occur in all human communities, relationships and social forms. How can the discrepancy between the conscious will and the reality of our daily lives be explained? This talk will address this theme and the contribution of C. G. Jung his established discipline of Analytical Psychology.

First we should consider what conflict is: In a conflict not only are the differences debated but conflicts change us. We are no longer what we usually are. Our attitudes are not the same. Ways of behaving become evident that we normally would not display and would be too ashamed to show. Through conflicts we become estranged to each other. We often no longer even understand ourselves. There are a few typical features of conflictual situations. Mostly there is a narrowing of perception. We tend to tunnel vision, see and hear only that which conforms to our understanding of the origin of the problem and the culprit of the conflict. Conflicts lead to emotionalizing. Emotions take over.The result is that body sensations and feelings fuse, something we normally control without even thinking about it. But in a conflict situation the heart accelerates, we sweat, our hands tremble and some people become flushed. The muscle tone changes, becomes tense. We tend to attribute characteristics, actions or deeds to other people. We demonize someone, devalue them. “You never listen to me!” “You are just an egotist!” Conflicts also cause us to become fixated on solutions. Instead of considering several options we believe we know the definitive one which will solve the problem. “The pupil has to leave the class!”, “Israel must be annihilated!”, “The number of foreigners must be reduced!”

Conflict hides specific dangers, two of which we should be conscious: the dangers of decompensation and of escalation. With decompensation we lose control over ourselves, shadow elements take over and determine our behavior and thinking. We freak out and behave as we otherwise would not. With escalation the conflict leads to a conflagration. A harmless conflict becomes an existential catastrophe. This is also the case in a social context. Wherever people live together — or work together — conflicts are possible. Mostly they are not intentional. The vast majority of people however want to prevent conflicts, avoid them. Serious differences are tabooed or repressed. One pretends. People can therefore only live in societies where they each pretend or fool themselves. Each side confirms the self images, the noble intentions and lovely ideals. Possible conflicts or other motives are repressed. Societies, as well as relationships and smaller communities always have the tendencies not to look at conflicts. Other things are discussed and harmless problems and challenges are addressed. Serious and conflictual topics are ignored for the sake of peace. We have to because tensions can result and degenerate into concrete conflicts which get out of control.

On the other hand conflicts can be intentionally provoked. If people are too self-satisfied, have no conflicts, then the economy would not function and there would be no progress. Societies survive partially thanks to conflicts. Economic developments are known to be only possible when people are not satisfied and a conflict arises. They are confronted with alternative ways to attain their goals or new life styles are sketched out that outlive their own. People become dissatisfied and want something else. There is a conflict with one’s way of life or existence. People want a new, seemingly better car or a Handy or time to spend in a more beautiful place. Advertising in particular wants to stimulate this conflict which we resolve through buying new products. Without our tendency to be in opposition to our material surroundings there would be no changes. Dissatisfaction is the motor of material and social development. It leads to demands as well as to revolts and revolutions. The knowledge that some people live in luxury creates envy in others and the desire to improve their material situation. People want something different, find it is unfair that the rents are high, that there are no seats on the trains, that fields become constructions sites or that the boss doesn’t appreciate them. We imagine a better, different situation compared with our situation and it devolves into conflict.

It is interesting that we all dream of a peaceful society. This dream is very strong and makes us vulnerable to utopias. We dream of a revolution and the perfect society and are often ready to sacrifice and suffer for it.

A similar mechanism is at work in relationships. We often begin a relationship and are convinced that there is no disagreement that cannot be overcome. We understand each other and any difficulties can be resolve through discussion. Unfortunately it usually does not work that way. We are surprised. A character trait that had remained hidden emerges. As we do in societies, we tend to self-deception in our relationships. We feel ourselves into the self-image of the other, identify the characteristics which he or she claims to have and are convinced that we understand each other very well. We sit in the empathy trap. We tend toward self-deception and try to reduce conflicts and disagreements.

In human societies and relationships conflicts are as a rule taboo. We avoid them. If it comes to a conflict, to real disagreements, then there is naturally a problem. As a rule they are resolved by avoiding them or if the person works in the same company or institution, then by excluding that person. Reasons or valid arguments are easy to find. The reality of relationships and human society is that in spite of noble intentions and lovely words, conflicts are mostly latent or evident.

This can be seen at a glance in the present political situation and especially in the Near East. Conflicts are everywhere. Not only are we confronted by the horrible civil war, but also the waves of conflict, the wish of different European regions to split off from the motherland and the financial crisis. Conflicts are not only present on the macro level, but also on the micro level: Families break apart and we hear every day about violence in social circles. Why can’t people just be reasonable?

Because: according to self images and behaviors which individual people or societies have, there should actually be no conflicts any more. It has been said that we behave reasonably, discuss disagreements and seek compromises. Almost all people emphasize that they are for peaceful co-existence, prefer dialog to conflict and don’t want conflict. What was say does not correspond to reality.

The deeper reason is that our self-image, that picture which we have of ourselves, does not serve self-knowledge. The self-image is not a reflection of our personality but has another purpose. It has to enable us to live with ourselves. It has to euphemize our reality so that we can stand to live with ourselves. If we would confront the tendencies and aspects that slumber within us, we would probably have sleepless nights. We could not bear to be with ourselves because our self-image does not correspond to reality. Our self-image therefore has the task to reconcile us with ourselves.

In order that this self-deception succeeds there are a variety of defense mechanisms at our disposal: accusations, projections, externalisations. The most frequent is to objectify: we believe we have found an external reason for the conflict. We often consider a conflict to have begun because of an external reason: the tiresome boss, the neurotic wife, the problematic parents. We also often look to medicine for objective causes. In the old days we believed in the Incubus who came at night and changed us from within. Later we attributed conflict to a lack of faith or to demons. As technology arrived and became dominant, it was seen as the cause of conflicts in the new technical developments. The train was the vehicle of the devil. It is necessary to find an outer reason, error, to which a conflict can be attributed. With more psychoanalysis came the idea that the causes of personal conflicts lay in early childhood, the relation to parents, traumas. Today the neuroscientists have to serve this purpose. We believe the answer to be in our brains, mirror neurons, undeveloped frontal lobes, etc. The causes of conflicts are to be seen in the wiring in the brain. Because we cannot recognize and accept conflict per se, we look for an outer context to which it can be attributed. As so often, it comes down to a concrete explanation of the conflict. We try to unburden ourselves from the conflict by citing an external cause. It is interesting now with the neuroscientists. At the moment there is a neuro-hypothesis. Every second problematic quality is attributed to a deficit or specific aspect of the brain, although the neuroscientists’ findings are very vague and not very specific. They cannot as yet give any answers about the causes of conflict or suggest what we can do about them. Behind the neuro-hypothesis there emerges the typical defensive behavior. We do not want to confront the deeper, psychological background of a conflict.

C.G. Jung’s Understanding of Conflicts

The most important difference between people and animals is our ability for mental trips. By that I mean that we with our thoughts, our feelings and our perceptions are not obliged to remain in the here and now, but that we have the ability to transport ourselves into other times and situation. We can thus imagine ourselves as something else, either worse or better. To imagine other alternatives has as a prerequisite: the ability to enter an inner mental space. There is not only an outer world but also an inner world which we see with our inner eyes and to which we can listen with our inner ears. We are as people not only at the mercy of existence but are also able to study what our inner world says, how it reacts to outer impressions and actions. We can imagine how a situation might be better and want to impress this on the outer world. These inner worlds are for us often more important than the outer realities. The inner world is a reality, has its own power and influences in making decisions, attitudes and perceptions of the outer world.  We are therefore not just at the mercy of the outer world, but the outer world is a product of our inner world. The images that we carry in us influence our attitudes and moods. This is demonstrated among other things by we energetically try to realize our fantasies. If, however, they become true, then we are almost always disappointed.

We sit in front of our holiday house and that feeling of happiness just does not happen. That means: the fantasies are more effective than reality. Our inwardness is the deciding factor. This is what Jung has always emphasized.

In other words: we enrich the outer world with inner meaning. What we see, hear, feel and experience always encompasses as well an expression from our inner world. We occupy the outer world, other people and objects with material that stems from us, ourselves. The outer world is a surface for our projections. Hopes, wishes and even repressed wishes and instincts are experienced through the objects of the outer world. The problem is however that we do not realize this is happening. We attribute meaning unconsciously. The soul mixes itself into our perceptions and evaluations and decisions without our knowing it. We ourselves believe in the superiority of consciousness, the ego, and do not realize that there are unconscious processes in us that co-create and co-evaluate the environment with us.

That means that in order to understand ourselves, we have to interpret the outer world. Contents from the depth of the soul are hidden within everything we experience. We are naturally not conscious of this, because we – as I have described – in society always only reveal a small part of our personality. This does not change when we communicate with each other. As I have said: in most social situations we deceive each other and try to hide deeper motives. We have intercourse with each other but remain unknown to ourselves. We always experience only a part of that which constitutes our personality.

The world and the relationships in which we live are, according to C. G. Jung, always a garden of symbols. To Jung’s credit we are able to point out the effectiveness of symbols. The unconscious contents transcend that which we see and hear. Our world is therefore always also to be understood from a symbolic perspective. In order to understand these contents we need to understand symbols. We must learn to read symbols. It concerns images that have their own power. The influence us, attract us, change, motivate and exasperate us. Jung recognized that such symbols are important for us.

According to Jung so much depends on understanding this inner psychic space. We need therefore to have an idea of how this psychic reality functions. Such an idea can always only be a hypothesis or a model. It is based on outer or empirical impressions and becomes valid when combined with the inner observation. This ability to look inside while considering empirical reality is what distinguishes Jungian psychology. Thanks to Jungian psychology we are able to free ourselves from the facticity of outer reality and recognize the symbolic power of outer objects.

To look inside is the not accessible for empiricism, but always only realized indirectly through words and images. We can also not measure and count what is presented to us from within but only have to use implications and hints. Images are thus never clear and unambiguous but have something multifaceted. That is why Jungian psychology is not a science in the sense of today’s evidence based science.

If we dare to cast a glance at the inner world of mankind and assume that there is something like a soul, then it becomes evident that it is not one entity. The psyche of mankind is distinguished through contradictory and mutually exclusive tendencies. The soul is composed of paradoxes and contradictions. This is also what we can learn from the Red Book. Jung documents with this book his inner journeys. He himself dared to confront the chaos of the soul. Our contradictions express themselves in our swarms of wishes. Mostly it is not clear what we want and feel, although we behave as if this was the case. We want a family but dream at the same time of the freedom of the bachelor. We value the spirit, but allow ourselves to be influenced by money. Or we wish for peace and become bored when we are alone. Jung’s genius is that he didn’t attribute these contradictions to outer causes, but tried to understand them as intrapsychic qualities and to give them a language. He understood the soul to be something contradictory, difficult to grasp. We are therefore as people constantly exposed to opposites. If we are to approach the soul, then it will not be peaceful and harmonious, but differences collide and we become confused.

Jung tried to capture the opposites with concepts and ideas of the psyche. Polarities were important to him. With this he meant that ways of behaving, characteristics and qualities which would seem to exclude each other would yet contain a deeper connection. Consciousness and the unconscious, the persona and the shadow, animus and anima, they have to do with opposites which are energetically related to each other. The one pole rejects the other but is nevertheless simultaneously attracted to it. We want peace but are fascinated by violence. Because of the polar nature, seemingly opposites themes are very near: love and hate, peace and war, man and woman.

If we once look into ourselves, then we are in danger of triggering a conflict within us.

Jung’s View of Conflicts

Conflicts, according to Jung, are therefore the entrance path to the soul. The soul is designed on conflicts because we often sense the different and contradictory tendencies. Harmony and concord are easy ideals, but they do not correspond to the inner reality of mankind. They are concerned with deceptions that distract us from the inner polar realities. This is demonstrated again and again in our lives. We let ourselves be misled by ideals, wonderful images of how it should be and then are caught up by another reality. It is like a team of coaches that assert that we can get along together, be in harmony and know each other very well, and after six months one member is mobbed. Although we wanted it to be otherwise, conflict comes. Such conflicts are an expression of intrapsychic dynamics.

Because conflicts arise from intrapsychic tendencies, we land again and again in conflicts. We cannot bear harmony and peace because the contradictions which we feel inside want to be carried out or at least symbolized. Unambiguity often releases contrariness in us. If at a birthday party someone is praised too highly, then the others begin to think or mumble, he’s not THAT great.

The problem is that civilizations deal poorly with ambiguities. They strive towards clarity, want to express exactly what is what because otherwise there is loss of control and conflicts arise. We develop according to norms and guiding moral principles in order give direction and to feel secure. We want to know what is right and wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly. We want to know what is valid because this is what enables a community or society to function. Seen from his psychic constitution mankind resists civilization. Communities are therefore helpless attempts to curtail the flooding chaos that mold our inner world. If however they are too efficient and are organized with clear norms, then the repressed opposite threatens to become active.  There is then a countermovement because the other standpoint wants to be considered. Conflicts, according to Jung, are therefore often the result of human pride that we can master something. Power and the feeling of controlling everything cause problems.


Outer conflicts are closely connected with the contradictions of psychic and emotional processes. From the Jungian point of view most conflicts are not immediately resolvable. In order to prevent a destructive outcome we have to consider the intrapsychic dynamic. It is necessary to look inside in order to find a constructive way out. We often have to deal with repressed contents that becomes manifest through the conflict.

In personal conflicts this means that we must ask ourselves what that conflict has to do with us. Perhaps it is connected with our own life history, with an unresolved complex or problem. Conflicts swamp us. Mostly we are then helpless. We act out and fight the oppositional standpoint and want to be rid of the conflict. In order to get a conflict on to a constructive track it has to be contained. Conflicts are mostly only overcome when there is a vessel in which the opposites are lived and expressed in symbolic form. Containment can be in the analytical setting. We can sit across from an analyst and reflect on the background of the conflict. We can limit ourselves within the frame of this therapeutic ritual not only regarding the conflict and the possible solutions but also try to reach the heart of the conflict. What story does this conflict tell? Feelings, thoughts and even the dreams can give us a hint. The opposites can be identified and discussed. In an analytical setting we look for metaphors, images and myths which reflect the conflict. Thanks to this procedure it is possible to expand the horizon and to understand that conflicts are not only a personal problem but also have deep and often archetypal components and connections.

Often the process is more important than the immediate solution. For example this is seen in conflict between the sexes. There are two sexes in this world and they will never entirely understand each other. We cannot solve the man-woman problem without eradicating one sex. It is however important that we continue again and again to struggle with these opposites, that we tolerate them and not demand a quality or characteristic of the other. For this reason Jung developed the concepts of the Animus and Anima. We have both poles in us, masculine and feminine characteristics. We identify normally with one sex but carry the other pole within.

Images and stories are needed to grasp the intrapsychic dynamics. Jung thought that mythologies and literature could often do this better than dry, scientific theories. The Greek dramas of the gods are demonstrations of such opposites as are the plays of Shakespeare. Intrapsychic dynamics are presented in these archetypal dramas. We can learn from them something about psychic processes. Hamlet is the epitome of the doubter or Falsstaff as the archetype of the bon vivant, a hedonistic attitude toward life.

Because the human psyche contains contradictory tendencies we are all fascinated by conflicts. For example we experience conflict not only as a fire alarm but also as an act of freedom. It attracts us. Violence fascinates because it shatters the seeming one-sidedness of our conscious life. We can explode the other opposing position. It can be seen with children when they play Ego-Shooters. They are fascinated by such games because they notice the paradoxes of human existence and have to deal with them. Through violent games they unburden themselves, recover from the stress of having to think and act in a one-sided way.  The desire to be free of the one-sided human existence is seen also in our tendency to run after ideologies, even when they are very problematic. Stalin and Hitler were held in awe by intellectuals. We believed in a new mankind, a new epoch in which we would be free of the contradictions of human existence.

In Individuation Jung saw a way to deal with our contradictions. Conflicts can lead to renewal, can point to a way out of the dilemmas of human existence. Jung was convinced that by turning to the images, stories, symbols that are produced by a conflict, a way out of the conflict is indicated. We must therefore develop the ability to imagine. Differences should be allowed and should rather serve as inspiration and source for the imagination and not lived out as raw conflict.