Psyche as Energy by Nora Swan-Foster

“The idea of energy is not that of a substance moved in space; it is a concept abstracted from relations of movement” (Jung, CW8, p. 4).

What I have always enjoyed about C.G. Jung is his creative integrative thinking. He was ahead of his time in many of his intuitive ideas, many of which continue to influence and enrich our understanding of the human psyche. We might overlook that Jung’s view on the psyche had important roots in theories of energy based in biology and physics; these concepts illuminated and supported his notions throughout his life work. He used the word “energy” not as a mechanistic idea, but as a metaphor and from these scientific principles he developed key concepts that make up analytical psychology. Differentiating himself from Freud by expanding beyond the drive theory and sexual instinct as the fundamental instinct, Jung named four other essential instinctual energies (creativity, action, hunger, and reflection), which he saw influencing the psyche. Because libidinal energy was no longer simply associated with the sexual drive theory, the term libidinal energy was initially interchangeable with psychic energy. Psychic energy is a foundational concept in analytical psychology that plays a role with understanding such things as complexes, symbols, the Self, and individuation.

Psychic energy is a dynamic force in our psyche that provides will and purpose and the potential for transformation. Because the psyche is “not quite a closed system,” the energy is able to move progressively and regressively between the unconscious and the conscious psyche. Inherent in the word energy is movement; there is an energy gradient moving from higher to lower or lower to higher while the speed and quality of this energy is also psychologically valued. The gradient, or flow, is “measured” by affect levels expressed through our body and emotions. Early on, Jung saw the evidence of psychic energy when it overwhelmed the ego with complexes during Word Association Tests. Not only do we have reactions through feelings and thoughts, but he noticed that complexes expressed themselves through somatic symptoms such has painful pauses, twitches, blushing or agitation.

When the psychic energy is progressive, there is an abundance of interest and creative zest mixed with a purposeful engagement with life; we successfully adapt our life to the world and we experience a sense of agency. An image for this is having ample money (symbolic for energy) to spend freely, allowing us to move confidently in the world. The energy regresses when we come up against something difficult to accept (a debt), which impedes the flow of energy, sending it into the unconscious. At this point a vast amount of energy may simply “disappear,” from consciousness and from the ego, resulting in lost interest in life, lethargy, doubt, ambivalence, and perhaps even depression. Although progression is more acceptable to the ego, the regression supports the development of consciousness and a renewal of energy. Jung said that regression was a “necessary stage of development” (CW8, p 37), supporting ones individuation from the collective and moving one towards wholeness. We go through many periods of regressed energy throughout our life.

When psychic energy regresses, autonomous complexes are constellated. The energy the ego used for adaptation in the world is now forming around an archetypal core, which is at the center of all complexes. When the complex in the unconscious is infused with enough energy it pierces into consciousness. The complex makes itself known through physical or emotional outbursts, somatic expressions, new creative ideas or passions. Complexes are like energy bundles; they are both inevitable and autonomous. In fact, complexes can often possess us or “have us” as Jung said, rather than us having complexes. Jung also described being “constellated” by a complex through the image of being “caught in a mousetrap.” Suddenly the complex takes over and we are literally caught in an autonomous psychobiological experience that can disorient us and leave us feeling exhausted.

So, when complexes are constellated and influence the ego a polarity of energy between the conscious and the unconscious is created. The ego consciousness attitude has one set of values and goals while the unconscious has its own agenda and energetic purpose. At this point we may feel such things as paralysis, conflict, overwhelm, disorientation or psychic pain from the tension of opposites and the rising complex; we long for the pleasurable ease we had prior to realizing that we forgot to pay our debt, for instance. While we suffer in the tension between the unconscious and conscious energies, the transcendent function may be fueled with energy, like a rocket that is fueled, to carry into consciousness some new understanding through an impactful experience. Jung conceptualized the transcendent function as a function that has a metaphorical structure that holds the psychic energy gathering in the unconscious. Now the psychic energy is switching directions and moving progressively towards consciousness once again. The transcendent function will transform the state of the psyche through the arrival of a transcendent symbol.  (Part II: Psyche as Image)

(Image of A Roman Spring in Bath, UK)