The Illusion of Self-Control

Behind the Curtain

One of the hardest things to truly grasp about C.G. Jung’s understanding of the human psyche is the notion that there are aspects of psychological functioning that take place outside the control of the conscious mind.

Behind the Curtain of Self-Control
To be sure, most people understand on a cognitive level what is meant by the unconscious. But it is another thing altogether to really feel into the experience that there is a realm of our being that is, was, and always will be beyond the reach of our self-control. The unconscious, as Jung often said, is “really unconscious” and it is very real.

While the drama of life seems to take place on the main stage, as it were, behind the scenes there is an enormous amount of activity taking place that has an undeniable influence on that drama. But just because it is in the background, that is, unconscious, we do not experience it as a part of our own being. In other words, it doesn’t feel like “me,” it feels like “not me.”

At certain times — for instance during particularly stressful events in our lives — this “backstage activity” can become so powerful that it is experienced as an actual presence, like a force or an energy that confronts us, disrupting our best intentions. 

We may call it fate, bad luck, or karma. If it’s really bad, we might curse God, or look for someone to scapegoat. In the past, people spoke of spirits or demons. As Jung points out, what we call it is not as important as how it affects us:

Whatever name we may put to the psychic background, the fact remains that our consciousness is influenced by it in the highest degree, and all the more so the less we are conscious of it.

The fact of the influence of the unconscious on our daily lives is a real blow to our belief in our powers of self-control. But we cannot deal with this situation, says Jung, by pretending that it doesn’t exist. Like most things in life, ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. It just makes things worse. 

Nor does it work to simply exert more will power, which is our usual way of ensuring self-control. The Jungian perspective is that we must learn to take this “not me” part of the psyche seriously and develop a relationship with the ‘Unknown Other’ within.

Who’s in Control?

A recent article in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences puts forward the theory that the thoughts and decisions that we experience as arising from our conscious mind are actually generated by the unconscious. 

For Jungian psychology, this is not a new theory, but an old, old idea. Jung made just this point over 80 years ago:

The layman can hardly conceive how much his inclinations, moods, and decisions are influenced by the dark forces of his psyche, and how dangerous or helpful they may be in shaping his destiny.

A similar idea was recently articulated by behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, in a Ted Talk given in 2008. In his talk, Ariely describes how something as simple as the way that a form is designed — a form used by the DMV, for instance — can determine whether people decide to become organ donors or not. 

In his research, Ariely found that people did not make the choice to donate their organs based on a rational decision-making process, or even on the basis of their values. The choice they tended to make was the default choice offered by the form. 

Some forms read, “Check the box if you wish to be an organ donor,” while others read, “Check the box if you don’t wish to be an organ donor.” In both cases, people avoided checking the box, effectively letting the form make the decision for them.

How is it that we cannot exercise our self-control even when it comes to such a momentous decision? It’s not a lack of caring about the issue, states Ariely, that causes people to leave the box unchecked. On the contrary, it is because we care a great deal. 

A decision such as becoming an organ donor is complex and difficult. “It’s so complex,” he says, “that we don’t know what to do. And because we have no idea what to do, we just pick whatever it was that was chosen for us.” 

Taking Off The Mask

Taking of the mask of self-control

Ariely’s research is indicative of just how little self-control we exercise when it comes to complex decisions. But what Jung is pointing to takes this idea even further. 

What Jung is describing is not just the complexity of the decisions we face, but the complexity of our very personality. He is not talking about our behavior; he is talking about our identity.

The “dark forces of the psyche” that Jung speaks about are the unconscious motivations, emotional predispositions, and conditioned responses to which we are all subject. 

They are those parts of our personality that we deny and that have been relegated to the shadow, as well as those parts of our personality that we do not yet know and which have not yet been developed.

Far from being a unified consciousness, the human being is a multiplicity. The ego thinks it’s the star of the show, but it is just one of the many characters that are driving the drama. These multiple figures are none other than the cast of characters that populate our dreams every night. 

For Jung, the first step towards a fully authentic life is to acknowledge our participation in this drama, to recognize that we are playing a role:

Our cerebral consciousness is like an actor who has forgotten that he is playing a role. But when the play comes to an end, he must remember his own subjective reality, for he can no longer continue to live as Julius Caesar or as Othello, but only as himself, from which he has become estranged by a momentary sleight of consciousness.

Giving Up The Illusion of Self-Control

So, what does all of this mean? Are we merely unconscious automatons deluding ourselves that we can exercise self-control? Is there no free will? Are we doomed to be forever manipulated by advertising, propaganda, and public opinion?

These are questions that touch on important religious and philosophical considerations. Put very simply,  Jung’s answer to these questions begins with the work of becoming conscious. The first task, he says, is to remember the multiplicity within:

He must know once again that he was merely a figure on the stage who was playing a piece by Shakespeare, and that there was a producer as well as a director in the background who, as always, will have something very important to say about his acting.

The next question, of course, is how does becoming conscious help? The paradox of the psyche is that it is in knowing and acknowledging our lack of self-control, that we begin to regain self-control. What is unconscious has the ability to take possession of the ego and become acted out in our lives. Therefore, we must become acquainted with the world within. As Jung declares:

But who can resist this all-engulfing force of attraction…? Only one who is firmly rooted not only in the outside world but also in the world within.

To become conscious however, is not to exercise control over the figures of our inner world, but rather to enter into relationship with them. It is about learning to relate to all aspects of ourselves with love and compassion – even those aspects that initially seem unlovable; perhaps especially the unlovable parts.

Ultimately, self-control comes from giving up the illusion of self-control. We discover what is truly “me” when we begin to know the “not-me.” This is a truth known to the mystics of all religions, that is, that you find your true self by growing beyond the self.

Jungian psychology is a powerful approach for helping people to do just that.


The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man by C.G. Jung, CW10, esp. pars. 327 & 332

Posted in C.G. Jung, Depth Psychology, Jungian, Psyche, Psychoanalysis.


  1. Wow! That was an excellent, in-depth article Jason, much enjoyed. You write so clearly about Jungian psychology, truly appreciated and your images and words blend perfectly, love the opening one in particular … evokes the magic and mystery of the ‘unconscious’ and of Jung himself. Going straight to the TED talk now. I have a feeling that you may enjoy my latest article too … ‘Journey of Love: The Fate of the Alchemist.’

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