The Collective Unconscious – What is It, and Why Should You Care?

The collective unconscious was a radical concept in its time. Created by Carl Jung, it’s the idea that separates him from Freud.

· for Freud, personal experience exists to develop who we are.

· For Jung, personal experience exists to develop what is already within us.

I’m wholly of Jung’s opinion – our experience is what we use to build on, and to develop ourselves so we fulfil out potential. The concept of the collective unconscious is one of his most important contributions to psychology … and so to coaching, at least for me.

Jung’s ideas are now both acceptable, highly useful and much used in many different kinds of scientific thought, however often when people use them and clothe them in their own dress – as I will here – far too few of those who use them attribute them to Jung. It makes me wonder how many people nowadays actually know that the concept comes from him?

So, what is the collective unconscious?

Jung’s concept suggests there is a layer of our mind that is largely unconscious to us, although we can touch it and draw on when we learn how. It’s a layer of our unconscious mind that we’re born with and that connects each of us to the history of thoughts and behaviours of all of humankind.

My own experience suggests it also connects us to the consciousness of everything, scientific discoveries over the past 50+ years show this too. For instance, the concept that we can all reconnect to nature is one that’s promoted everywhere nowadays and is vital if we are to succeed in changing how we live in order to work with and maybe even slow Climate Change. And, if we put ourselves (as far as we can) back into the mindset of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we can realise just how necessary the connection to the whole of our past is if we’re to know in our bones how to forage and hunt.

Quick aside – hopefully you don’t have the concept that our ancestors were all Ugg-Ugg, stupid savages. When you delve into the archaeology you see that in many ways that had much better and far less stressful lifestyles than we do now. It most certainly wasn’t a “survival regime”, they had time to perfect the skills that enabled them to carve beautiful objects like this – the Swimming Reindeer in the British Museum. It was carved from mammoth tusk some 13,000 years ago in the Magdalenian period, in what is now France. So, our ancient ancestors were at least as bright as we are, possibly even more so.

Jung got the idea of the collective unconscious after a dream. He dreamed he was in a house, with the first floor well decorated and organised (the conscious personality), and the ground floor more medieval and dark (the personal unconscious). Below those was the basement. Here he saw signs of primitive culture and ancient skulls and called this the collective unconscious.

I love this idea and it fascinates me because there are so many traditional stories all over the world that speak of “ancestral records”. We have our own here in Britain in our own ancient stories and traditions that speak of the wisdom of the ancestors. It’s a world-wide concept. Jung enjoyed the ideas of ancient traditions too and by no means disparaged them but worked with them in developing his own concepts.

The idea of a vast field of knowledge and wisdom going back to ancient times that we can all access when need, and that allows us to understand our experiences as part of those common to all humanity is so necessary to sanity. It helps us connect, not just to others but to our inner self, and to all other human beings. That helps dissolve the stranger-feeling, and the imposter syndrome, there were and still are others like us, and there will be in the future. From the evidence of the old stories it seems our ancestors knew this, possibly much better than we do.

They’re like hooks to hang things on while we spend more time digging for deeper understanding.

Jung called the contents of the collective ‘archetypes’. Archetypes are universal concepts we seem to know instinctively, Jung described them as “identical psychic structures common to all”. That again shows how vital the collective is in helping us understand we’re not little islands floating tillerless in a directionless ocean, but connected points of individuality, who can all work together. Archetypes show us that it’s true, we can have the same thoughts and ideas as other people we’ve never met, even though they come from an entirely different culture and background. And the gods only know how much we need that right now!

So why is it ‘unconscious’?

Well that’s partly because the way it works is – at the moment – apparently beyond our mental control, and we don’t understand it. The human brain can be very isolationist and it’s first answer (for many people) to new ideas it doesn’t understand is “No!” so our brains reject the ideas that don’t fit into our current world-view box. Most people are not brought up to enjoy newness and strangeness, and not being in control, so to work with something that seems incomprehensible is also very scary.

The archetypes are mostly dormant inside us. Jung said they’re “the deposits of all our ancestral experiences but [and this is important] they’re not the experiences themselves”.

They’re rather like blueprints, patterns, outlines, prototypes, and models; they’re examples that we at first unconsciously choose to act out, usually when triggered by a life-happening, challenge or crisis. Because each of us is unique, as is what happens to us, the way we use and manifest collective unconscious is individual it us as well.

Jung agreed with Freud’s idea that personal experience shapes us. But he did not believe, as Freud did, that we’re born as a blank slate and are only a product of our experiences. Jung found that perspective very limiting – as do I – and it really doesn’t fit with reality. We have all the past at our backs, an “archetypal potential”. We just need to learn how to access it, and I can help you with that.