I spent many years trying to be as impervious as possible to the slings and arrows delivered by life, but then it became time to become pervious again.
Why? Childhood experiences led me to build a fortress around myself to defend against unexpected attacks. Maybe you did too. What you may not realize—I certainly didn’t—is that it walls us in even as it keeps aggressors out. When I began to scrutinize my inner defense system, I discovered that there was an inner Tyrant inside, running the show. I had thought he was my conscience or guide, with my best interests at heart. But when I read about Jung’s Active Imagination exercises and began to dialogue with him, I learned that this harsh, endlessly critical authority figure inside my head was neither my conscience nor my friend, but an inner persona who destroyed my confidence with his criticisms and often spoiled my relationships with others.
If you haven’t tried dialoguing with those parts of you that talk back or criticize or boss you around, you might find it worthwhile. Here’s what C.G. Jung said about them: “The essential thing is to differentiate oneself from these unconscious contents by personifying them, and at the same time to bring them into relationship with consciousness. (That is) the technique for stripping them of their power.” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections).
He developed an exercise that was later called Active Imagination to make contact with our inner personas or complexes. Jungian therapist Robert Johnson defines complexes in Living Your Unlived Life, as “clusters of experiential energy that hold us to repetitious patterns of response.” They limit our freedom and tie us down to the past. Hidden from us, they motivate or punish without our suspecting their power. Only when we recognize and differentiate them from the person we consciously believe ourselves to be can we begin to awaken to the scope of their influence.
So here is how the Active Imagination process works: first you choose a medium for this interchange such as painting, sculpting, writing, dancing, musical composition, or any means of self-expression in which the controlling consciousness is asked to play second fiddle to the world below the mind. This is because dreams, images and feeling states, as well as bodily reactions, bring what’s hidden in our unconscious into our everyday awareness. So a dialogue between our conscious and unconscious psyche, through any creative medium, helps us learn more about the personality fragments or complexes which influence our actions—whether we’re aware of them or not.
You can focus on a recently discovered persona, an emotional reaction, or a disturbing dream figure, offering it a listening mind or hand and allowing it to express itself through you. That means letting the brush or words move on the paper, the clay form itself between your fingers, or the body go freely into movement. This calls for unfettered expression without putting on your mental brakes. You’ll notice how your conscious mind will try to dominate, correct or deny any manifestations that appear. While it’s important for the mind to stay present as a witness, you try to allow into consciousness whatever’s flowing from an unknown source. That way, a part of yourself you’ve never been aware of can manifest itself while you watch.
I tried this in spite of the fact that my inner journalist, who prided herself on a probing mind that couldn’t be taken in, insisted, “This is claptrap! It’s me talking to me! How could anything new possibly come of it?” The fact that Jung himself had the same doubts gave me courage. He even said, “I was voluntarily submitting myself to emotions of which I could not really approve, and I was writing down fantasies which often struck me as nonsense, and toward which I had strong resistances.” (MDR)
Well, if he could try it, so could I. And if it worked for him, maybe it would work for me! The method I chose was writing on my computer. Luckily I could touch-type, so I closed my eyes, determined to suspend incredulity as I made an intentional effort to relax and type out a question to my inner Tyrant: “Who are you and why do you attack me so?” Then I pressed the CAPS LOCK key and wrote down whatever comments surged up in response.
The first answers assaulted me, full of accusatory words even as they revealed me to myself in unexpected ways. But a broader inner panorama opened up over time, as a whole cast of characters emerged in dreams and personas from the dark side of my being. The Tyrant came first, but soon a Frightened Child appeared, running away from him as fast as she could. Later other personas invaded my dreams, beating me up or involving me in untenable situations. Edward C. Whitmont’s poetic definition of dream images began to make sense: “Like a flower or a hurricane or a human gesture, (the dream’s) basic purpose is the manifestation and expression of (our) life force.” (Dreams: The Portal to the Source, Whitmont & Perera)
I soon met the Hero, Mrs. Rigid, the Ferret, the Editor, the Forgetful Child, the Woman in a Coma and the Lord of Discipline. If you want to know more about them and how Active Imagination changed my life, read my book, Taming Your Inner Tyrant: a path to healing through dialogues with oneself, or go to tamingyourinnertyrant.com for the reviews.
In any case, it’s hard to imagine how these personality fragments live small separate lives in us until you make the experiment. Yet each of them plays a part on the living stage of our days and nights. Jungian therapist Marie-Louise von Franz says in The Way of the Dream: “Our field of consciousness is entered all day long by complexes…If we watch ourselves, we are many people…One of the aims of psychology is to help people to get on with their inner family of souls without being possessed by them.”
As I continued to dialogue with my “inner family of souls,” firm attitudes I’d always thought were mine were revealed as fragmentary points of view. And somewhere along the way another voice began to emerge, along with a growing conviction that I wasn’t alone in my pain, anger and frustration. Behind these judgmental or suffering fragments, someone central in me was at work. A more permanent presence in this inner drama emerged, which Jung calls the Self.
Here are a few thoughts for the journey if you decide to make it:
BRING ALL THE COURAGE YOU CAN MUSTER: Analyst James Hillman tells us in Healing Fiction: “Entering one’s interior story takes a courage similar to starting a novel. We have to engage with persons whose autonomy may radically alter, even dominate, our thoughts and feelings, neither ordering these persons about nor yielding to them full sway. Fictional and factual, they and we are drawn together like threads into a mythos, a plot, until death do us part. It is a rare courage that submits to this middle region of psychic reality where the supposed surety of fact and illusion of fiction exchange their clothes.”
BECOME AN EXPERT ON YOURSELF With the attitude of a scientist exploring new theories, write down in a notebook what you think you already know about yourself. Who are you really? What do you like; don’t like? Have you discovered persona fragments like my tyrant that you recognize again and again? If so, remind yourself that these are personality habits and don’t reflect who you really are. They only indicate the way you deal with what you’ve been dealt by life. Then ask yourself why other people react to you the way they do.
BEGIN TO LISTEN TO YOUR INNER VOICES There’s a lot you already know about yourself that you don’t tune into. When you’ve written down your own opinions and remembered other people’s reactions to you, you can begin to ask your cast of characters what they think of you. They may have points of view that will startle you. Don’t justify. Listen to the comments your mind makes, the ones we’re often unaware of. If none appear, invite them. If an accusation comes at you, ask to have it explained. Tell the inner critics you want to understand why you do what they accuse you of. Ask them for help!
PREPARE TO BE HONEST It’s hard to listen to an unpleasant truth someone else tells you about yourself. What have others said about you? Did a friend (or enemy) make a comment that really hurt? Sometimes that’s a clue. Was there some truth in it? It’s much harder to accept what your own personality fragments say about you even when, somewhere deep down, you may already suspect it’s true.
GIVE YOUR PERSONAS A NAME Judge, Accuser, Tyrant, Terrorist, Pleaser, Little Friend of All the World, find a label for each of the fragments you dialogue with. That helps you to differentiate them from your own core of truth. They are members of the cast of characters in your human drama, some helpful, some hateful, some useful. Get to know them.
TRY NOT TO JUDGE THEM OR YOURSELF Self-accusations get very much in the way of this exercise. The scientist doesn’t spend much time criticizing the results of his or her experiments. You are on a voyage of discovery, so be open to new suggestions and surprises. Safe journey!