The Perils of the Unlived Life

By Jason E. Smith

The Unlived Life of the Parents

One of the most potent forces upon the psyche of the individual, according to C.G. Jung, is the unlived life of one’s parents. By this he means the potentials of the parents that have remained unrealized and the personal qualities that have never been developed or expressed.

Jung, however, is not speaking of those things that have been attempted and missed, but rather those things that were never even chanced:

“that part of their lives which might have been lived had not certain threadbare excuses prevented the parents from ever doing so.”

houseIn other words, the unlived life is that aspect of one’s life that was avoided due to such factors as fear, willful unconsciousness, or an excess of conformity.

The well known example of this is the father who puts all his hopes onto his son to become a professional athlete, fulfilling a dream that he himself did not have the courage to pursue.

For the child, the unrealized dreams of the parents create an oppressive environment in which they must live, like an untended home with a crumbling foundation and a leaky roof.

A Dream Deferred

But it is not just future generations who are impacted by an individual’s unlived life, of course. It is not just our parents’ unrealized potential that affects us, it is our own. Everyday in my consulting office I work with people who are struggling with their own choices not made, risks not taken, dreams deferred.

To be sure, there is often a strong correlation between a person’s own unlived life and that of their parents, and part of the therapeutic process is about becoming aware of the impact of the past. Inevitably, though, there comes a moment when the person I am working with becomes impatient with looking for the cause of their dissatisfaction in the past or in something outside of themselves.

This moment of turning within, of groping toward a sense of personal authority and responsibility is a turning point in the therapeutic process, and strong indicator of a positive outcome.

The Refusal of the Call

The experience of the unlived life correlates to what Joseph Campbell calls “the refusal of the call.” Life calls us to participate in its process of continuous becoming, the perpetual cycle of death and rebirth, and if we shy away from this calling we find ourselves, in Campbell’s words, “walled in boredom, hard work, or ‘culture.’”

“Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests. Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or ‘culture,’ the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved.”

cracked earthWhat can be so challenging about this situation is  that the unlived life can look like a successful life. This is often what keeps a person stuck in the endless round of hard work.

The common refrain for this person goes something like this: “I have a good job with a good salary. I shouldn’t expect any more than that, but I’m just not happy.”

But hard work is not the same as good work. Financial success is not the same as a meaningful life. The refusal of the call to meaning, says Campbell, is experienced as life drying up, becoming a parched and arid desert:

“His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless — even though, like King Minos, he may through titanic effort succeed in building an empire of renown. Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death: a labyrinth of cyclopean walls to hide from him his Minotaur. All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration.”

The One Harvest That Matters

The poet David Whyte describes this condition as the result of being busy with “everything except the one harvest that matters.” We live in a culture that is primarily concerned with busy-ness, but this constant activity is mostly used defensively as a means of preventing ourselves from feeling the uncomfortable disconnect from our deepst being.

“Overwork can become a kind of amnesia from which it becomes increasingly difficult to break.”

We are not nourished by work undertaken only for economic reasons. And even if a person is financially successful, whatever goods they can buy do not satisfy the needs of the soul:

“Those with busy lives, but bereft of the inner images based on the soul’s desires, have empty larders, and no fire in the hearth; they will starve if they are not fed something more nourishing.”

The Jungian analyst D. Stephenson Bond agrees with this assessment by Whyte and points us to the field from which the true harvest can come. It is none other than the power of imagination that already resides within us:

“One of the essential factors in psychological development is the link between potential and actuality, between what is dreamed and what is lived, between the conceiving self and the self-in-the-world. And the link is through imagination. The link is through playing.”

This, to me, is one of the great strengths of Jungian therapy. The methods that it makes use of for healing — dreams, active imagination, creative activities such as writing and drawing — are, in a sense, the experience of healing itself, in so far as they activate and express the imagination.

And so the healing question becomes “How can you recover a sense of play? How can you learn to believe again in the power of your own dreams?”

How do you play? What is your source of inner nourishment? Let me know in comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

jasonJason E. Smith is the founder of Heartsfire Counseling. As a Jungian psychotherapist, career counselor, and workshop leader he helps people discover the power of their authentic inner voice and to find ways to realize it in their lives. You can read Jason’s blog and find out more about his services at

Depression and the Call to Adventure

By Jason E. Smith

The Hero’s Journey

From the perspective of Jungian Psychology, myths and fairy tales are images of typical psychological experiences presented in story form. As Joseph Campbell demonstrated in his seminal book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the mythological motif of the hero’s journey is one of the most ubiquitous themes in mythology.

The journey of the hero is a journey to discover the deeper sources of life, to find renewal and a more meaningful engagement with life. It is the path of individuation in which the individual becomes aligned with the Self. “In a way,” says Jungian analyst Marie Louise von Franz, “the hero personifies the Self…the unified personality with all its strength.”

According to von Franz, stories about the hero are meant to inspire and encourage us:

“Now this unified personality is not what we are, but we identify with it when we listen to hero stories, to comfort and strengthen ourselves for the things we cannot do without help.”

The Call To Adventure

Joseph Campbell provides this understanding of the experience of hero’s call to adventure:

“Whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of life, the call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration — a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth. The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand.”

woodsThe journey of the hero begins with a call. Something in the life of the individual feels in need of a change.

It may be a job, a relationship, or a system of belief — some aspect of life that once felt meaningful, but no longer seems to provide sustenance for living.

For example, you may find that one day you look up from your desk at work, see all the activity taking place around you, and ask yourself that most dangerous of questions: Why?

“Why am I doing this? What’s it all for? Is this all my life is about?”

When you hear yourself asking these questions, you are hearing the call.

Stumbling Upon The Call

It may not always be clear what the call to adventure is leading toward. In fact, the goal is usually unknown. All that is known is that where you are is not where you want to be. And so a journey is needed.

Many of us, I suspect, imagine that the call comes in the form of a sudden revelation. Like Moses, we will hear the voice of God speaking to us from the burning bush and telling us what we need to do next. But more often than not it is not so clear.

Joseph Campbell teaches that the call to adventure is frequently something we stumble upon by accident. It may, in fact, appear in the form of an accident, a mere chance, or a “blunder.”

Blunders “are ripples on the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs. And these may be very deep – as deep as the soul itself. The blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny.”

The Jungian psychoanalyst, Aldo Carotenuto, in a book titled, The Call of the Daimon, writes of how the call usually begins in a feeling of being lost, what he calls an experience of the “shadows.”

 “A sensation of emptiness, that is, of loss and of something missing, often accompanies the shadows…It is important, however, to emphasize how the sensation of shadows is a necessary premise if the light of a meaning is to begin to shine, if something with meaning is to reveal itself.”

Depression as a Calling

tunnelGiven these reflections, is it possible to see in the experience of depression the first stirrings of our own call to adventure? The symptoms of depression, including feelings of hopelessness, loss of energy, loss of interest in one’s usual activities, and a pervasive sad mood are all also qualities of Carotenuto’s experience of the “shadows.” They may be signs that, as Joseph Campbell says, “the familiar life horizon has been outgrown.”

It is a natural response when confronted with such difficult feelings to wish, as many of my clients initially do, to “return to normal.” At the same time many models of therapy approach depression with the goal of “returning to a previous level of functioning.”

But sometimes there is no normal to return to.

Sometimes the “old normal” must be left behind and the journey to a new mode of living undertaken. The darkness of depression may be a signal that our life has reached a turning point and nothing will resolve our emptiness but to risk a new adventure.

As Aldo Carotenuto teaches us, sometimes the darkness is needed if we are to discover the light:

“A light cannot help but shine in the darkness. One could not speak of light and darkness if they were not complementary realities. The darkness that keeps us from proceeding along our way is the same that sooner or later allows a torch to shine in the distance.”

Another call to adventure on Beyond Meds: A heroines journey  See also: there is no such thing as a monolithic state called depression

jasonJason E. Smith is the founder of Heartsfire Counseling. As a Jungian psychotherapist, career counselor, and workshop leader he helps people discover the power of their authentic inner voice and to find ways to realize it in their lives. You can read Jason’s blog and find out more about his services at

Carl Jung on living an authentic life

By Jason E. Smith

Individuation and Authenticity

It could be argued that at the heart of Jungian therapy is the aim of experiencing and living an authentic life.

That is not the language that Carl Jung used, but it does express a central idea of his psychology, which he called ‘individuation.’ Put very simply, individuation is the process by which individuals become more fully themselves.

Individuation involves differentiating oneself from conformity with collective values, which does not necessarily mean rejecting those values. Rather, it means the ability to choose the values by which one will live instead of merely living out social norms in an unreflective and unconscious way.

In other words, the individuation process is a deepening and maturing of one’s individuality and sense of authenticity.

Discover Yourself

The authentic life begins, says Jung, with going within. This is not a popular undertaking, especially in a culture like ours with such a large bias toward extroversion, but it is a necessary one:

“Looking outwards has got to be turned into looking into oneself. Discovering yourself provides you with all you are, were meant to be, and all you are living from and for.”

twirlThat we can discover ourselves suggests that there is more to us than we know.  And this is precisely Jung’s point–we are mostly a mystery to ourselves. We do not know “all we are.”

If that is the case, of course, then we are probably only living part of what we were meant to be.

The mysterious part of our personality Jung calls “an irrational factor,” meaning that it is not under our rational and conscious control. It is, however, close at hand. In fact, it is “whatever you find in your given disposition.”

We are, one could say, both a great mystery to ourselves and the most intimately familiar thing:

“The whole of yourself is certainly an irrational entity, but this is just precisely yourself, which is meant to live as a unique and unrepeatable experience. Thus, whatever you find in your given disposition is a factor of life which must be taken into careful consideration.”

Learn From Traditional Wisdom

Giving careful consideration to what a person finds in their given disposition essentially frees that person from the dilemma of deciding whether their beliefs are “right” or not. A right belief is one that works, that is helpful to that particular individual, leading them to a meaningful existence:

“If you should find, for instance, an ineradicable tendency to believe in God or immortality, do not allow yourself to be disturbed by the blather of so-called freethinkers. And if you find an equally resistant tendency to deny all religious ideas do not hesitate: deny them and see how that influences your general welfare and your state of mental or spiritual nutrition.”

monkThe Science/Religion, Atheist/Theist debate is not new to our time and Jung, in his lifetime, lived both sides of it. He denied belief in god, while at the same time claimed knowledge and experience of god.

He taught that both “God” and “Matter” were symbols of something ultimately unknowable and he felt that insisting on the exclusive and dogmatic rightness of one’s personal view was a kind of “childishness.”

If you believe, believe. If you don’t, don’t. To Jung living an authentic life is as simple–and as difficult–as that.

Ultimately, Jung felt that a human life needed perspective and meaning and he felt that the wisdom traditions of the world could offer that kind of container:

“In case of doubt, try to learn from the traditional wisdom of all times and peoples. This gives you ample information about the so-called eternal ideas and values which have been shared by mankind since earliest times. One should not be deterred by the rather silly objection that nobody knows whether these old universal ideas–God, immortality, freedom of the will, and so on–are ‘true’ or not. Truth is the wrong criterion here. One can only ask whether they are helpful or not, whether man is better off and feels his life more complete, more meaningful and more satisfactory with or without them.”

Do Not Seek Happiness

Many today would equate the authentic life with a happy life, but Jung is skeptical about the pursuit of happiness. He has some thoughts about the factors that constitute a happy life, which include “satisfactory work” and “a philosophic or religious point of view capable of coping successfully with the vicissitudes of life.”

He warns, however, that we don’t always know what would make us happy:

“Nobody can achieve happiness through preconceived ideas, one should rather call it a gift of the gods. It comes and goes, and what has made you happy once does not necessarily do so at another time.”

In this statement, Jung sounds very much like Viktor Frankl, who taught that happiness should not be sought, but that, out of a meaningful engagement with the world, “happiness ensues.”

Furthermore, happiness cannot exist without it’s opposite:

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”

Instead of happiness, Jung’s prescription is to pursue something akin to what today we would call mindfulness:

“The more you deliberately seek happiness the more sure you are not to find it. It is therefore far better to take things as they come along, with patience and equanimity.”

The Inner Life is the Authentic Life

To accept life as it comes along with patience and equanimity, as any teacher of mindfulness would likely agree, is simple, but by no means easy.

For Jung it means having the capacity to adapt and adjust not only to life as it happens around us, but to the life force emerging from within us. For each of us, the authentic life is our own unique and unrepeatable self that is seeking to express itself in the world:

“The urge to become what one is is invincibly strong, and you can always count on it, but that does not mean that things will necessarily turn out positively. If you are not interested in your own fate, the unconscious is.”

goldenThis is a powerful statement and an important warning. “If you are not interested in your own fate, the unconscious is.” Our authentic life wants to be lived through us and we ignore it to our peril. But if we tend it and attempt to live it consciously–that is, if we work with it and not against it–then life can flow in a satisfying way.

The primary means, according to Jung, for aligning with this inner urge is by paying attention to one’s dreams. Dreams reflect the underlying pattern of which our lives are the outward expression. They give us access to the whole of who and what we are:

 “The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul.”

“Dreams show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse.”

Dreams, in other words, can lead us to our most authentic self.

An Unconditional ‘Yes’

So, what is the point of all of this? Why should a person strive to live an authentic life?

For Jung, when we walk the path of individuation, we find an unshakable foundation for our lives. We are no longer merely identified with the ego, but rather it becomes rooted in a larger life that gives us resilience, endurance and meaning in the face of the vicissitudes of life.

Here is how Jung expresses this idea in his autobiographical book, Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

“I might formulate it as an affirmation of things as they are: an unconditional ‘yes’ to that which is, without subjective protests–acceptance of the conditions of existence as I see them and understand them, acceptance of my own nature, as I happen to be.”

“How important it is to affirm one’s own destiny. In this way we forge an ego that does not break down when incomprehensible things happen; an ego that endures, that endures the truth, and that is capable of coping with the world and with fate. Then, to experience defeat is also to experience victory. Nothing is disturbed–neither inwardly nor outwardly, for one’s own continuity has withstood the current of life and of time.”

How do you live your authentic life? What ways have you developed that enable you to give an unconditional ‘Yes’ to life? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

Take good care.

More on individuation on Beyond Meds:


jasonJason E. Smith is the founder of Heartsfire Counseling. As a Jungian psychotherapist, career counselor, and workshop leader he helps people discover the power of their authentic inner voice and to find ways to realize it in their lives. You can read Jason’s blog and find out more about his services at

Carl Jung’s Words of Advice for the Depressed

By Jason E. Smith

Carl Jung was a prolific letter writer. Much of Jung’s writings can be very difficult reading, particularly when he digs deep into complex subjects like alchemy. But his letters are often poetic and reveal his humanity and his passionate engagement with the struggles of living an authentic and meaningful life.

The following letter, to an unknown woman, is an example of the poetic Jung. It offers words of advice for the depressed individual that go beyond our contemporary penchant for eliminating depression through medication. For Jung, depression is a messenger, an angel to be wrestled with until it reveals it’s secret blessing.

Being Forced Downwards

Dear N.,
I am sorry you are so miserable. ‘Depression’ means literally ‘being forced downwards.’ This can happen even when you don’t consciously have any feeling at all of being ‘on top.’ So I wouldn’t dismiss this hypothesis out of hand. 

From Jung’s point of view there is a hidden intention in depression. It “forces us downwards.” This is not, as it might sound, a punishment for arrogance, but rather a consequence of having become cut off from the human, instinctual part of ourselves.

Jung was wary of the technological advances of the twentieth century. He felt that our technology was distancing us as a race from the wisdom of our inner life.

In his own life, Jung would often retreat to his “tower” on the shore of Lake Zurich. It was a dwelling without electricity or running water. While staying at his tower he would chop wood and carry water.

“These simple acts make man simple,” said Jung, “and how difficult it is to be simple!”

It could be said that what Jung was doing in his tower was “lowering himself” so that he would not have to be “forced downward.”

Being Useful

In his letter, Jung offers his patient two alternatives. The first could be called the moveoutward and it involves such activities as work and experiencing beauty:

If I had to live in a foreign country, I would seek out one or two people who seemed amiable and would make myself useful to them, so that libido came to me from outside, even though in a somewhat primitive form, say of a dog wagging its tail. I would raise animals and plants and find joy in their thriving.

Recent studies have shown that Jung’s advice to make oneself useful can be a powerful antidote to depression.

He goes on to suggest surrounding oneself with beauty. This is a technique increasingly used today in such therapies as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) with its concept of “improving the moment.

 I would surround myself with beauty no matter how primitive and artless–objects, colors, sounds. I would eat and drink well. 

Unexpected Words of Advice for the Depressed Person

The second alternative could be called the move inward. This is the more difficult path of wrestling with the angel. This is the path of learning from one’s depression, not getting rid of it. This path reflects the Jungian perspective that the experience of meaning, even in and through depression, is a healing experience.

When the darkness grows denser, I would penetrate to its very core and ground, and would not rest until amid the pain a light appeared to me, for ‘in excessu affectus’  [in an excess of affect or passion] Nature reverses herself. 

In the next section of his letter the words of advice for the depressed become more challenging even as they become more poetic.

I would turn in rage against myself and with the heat of my rage I would melt my lead. I would renounce everything and engage in the lowest activities should my depression drive me to violence. I would wrestle with the dark angel until he dislocated my hip. For he is also the light and the blue sky which he withholds from me.

Jacob Wrestles with the Angel.

Jacob Wrestles with the Angel.

Jung once famously said that “one does not become conscious by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” The passage above reflects this approach. It is startling and unexpected to our contemporary ears, but Jung is not advocating violence. He is encouraging us to recognize our capacity for violence, to struggle with our own darkness. For it is only by recognizing our own darkness that we can stop projecting it on the world around us.

This acquaintance with our darkness–our failings, our stupidity, our all-too-human nature–is paradoxically healing, for it frees us of the impossible project of perfection and allows us to get on with the everyday business of living and loving as a whole and humble human being.

It is a challenging path, but a potentially enlivening and healing one, if we are able to give ourselves completely to the task:

Anyway that is what I would do. What others would do is another question, which I cannot answer. But for you too there is an instinct either to back out of it or to go down to the depths. But no half-measures or half-heartedness.
With cordial wishes,
As ever,
C.G. Jung

More on Carl Jung and his work on Beyond Meds:

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Jason E. Smith is the founder of Heartsfire Counseling. As a Jungian psychotherapist, career counselor, and workshop leader he helps people discover the power of their authentic inner voice and to find ways to realize it in their lives. You can read Jason’s blog and find out more about his services at