Jungian Therapy

Carl Jung (pronounced YEWNG) was a practicing therapist early in his career. During this time he initially defended Freud and then broke with Freud over Jung's refusal to accept Freud's sexual theory. Jung developed an approach to therapy that is in some ways similar and in some ways completely distinct from Freud's.

What was Jung's approach to therapy? What was a "complex" to Jung?

Like Freud, Jung tried to uncover unconscious problems or complexes. In Jung's use of the term, a complex is literally a grouping of parts around some central emotional theme. For example, if you had a leg amputated as a child, you might develop a complex about it. Your complex might involve all the thoughts and emotions built up over a lifetime about the absent leg and the impact it might have had on people's reactions to you, your opportunities in life, or anything else relating to the amputated leg. Unlike Freud, Jung did not assume most of these complexes were sexual in nature. A complex was due to some twist or turn in life that had a big emotional impact on a person.

How did the idea of complexes relate to the idea that everybody had a "story"?

Jung believed that everybody who seeks therapy has a story. To help you, a therapist has to learn your story.

The patient who comes to us has a story that is not told, and which as a rule no one knows of. To my mind, therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal story. It is the patient's secret, the rock against which he is shattered. If I know his secret story, I have a key to treatment. (1965, p.117)

Like many other therapists, Jung was influenced by some of his earliest patients. In one case, described in Jung's biography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, a woman was admitted to the hospital suffering from depression. Some of the doctors diagnosed her as a schizophrenic, which would mean the outlook for improvement was very poor.

What was the woman's "story"?

Jung suspected the woman was not schizophrenic but was suffering from "ordinary depression." He decided to try his own therapy method.

I undertook an association experiment with the patient. In addition, I discussed her dreams with her. In this way I succeeded in uncovering her past...and this information revealed a dark and tragic story.

Before the woman had married she had known a man, the son of a wealthy industrialist, in whom all the girls of the neighborhood were interested. Since she was very pretty, she thought her chances of catching him were fairly good. But apparently he did not care for her, and so she married another man.

Five years later an old friend visited her. They were talking over old times, and he said to her, "When you got married it was quite a shock to someone—your Mr. X" (the wealthy industrialist's son). That was the moment! Her depression dated from this period, and several weeks later led to a catastrophe.

The catastrophe was that, during a visit to a local river used for washing clothes but known to be unsafe for drinking. She observed her children drinking the river water, but she did nothing to stop them. Shortly thereafter her two-year-old son got very sick and her four-year-old girl, her favorite, died of typhoid fever (which comes from dangerous bacteria in water). Jung wrote:

From the association test I had seen that she was a murderess, and I had learned many of the details of her secret...

In essence, Jung concluded that the woman unconsciously "murdered" the children because they were produced by a marriage to the wrong man. This story was the rock against which she was shattered, as Jung put it. Now Jung had to decide how to treat the woman. Should he tell her what he had discovered? Jung thought his colleagues would have recommended against it, but he decided to confront her with the truth.

I decided to take a chance on a therapy whose outcome was uncertain. I told her everything I had discovered through the association test. It can easily be imagined how difficult it was for me to do this. To accuse a person point-blank of murder is no small matter. And it was tragic for the patient to have to listen to it and accept it. But the result was that in two weeks it proved possible to discharge her, and she was never again institutionalized. (Jaffe and Jung, 1965, p.117)

How was this example typical of Jung's therapy approach?

This case history contains many elements of typical Jungian therapy. First, it was tailored to the individual. Jung recognized the variability of the individual and did not start out with assumptions about a problem. Second, Jung undertook to bring the patient's hidden story to the surface. Third, Jung used the technique of word association, which he pioneered. He had the patient respond to words with the first associated word that came to mind, and this gave him important clues. Fourth, the woman proved to be suffering from a complex—a network of related, emotionally powerful thoughts and memories. Fifth, by allowing previously unconscious contents into consciousness, by increasing the woman's knowledge of her own unconscious self, Jung achieved a therapeutic result.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey