Loneliness as a Theme in the Life and Writings of C.G. Jung


by Bill Callanan


Those who attended the inaugural meeting of the recently formed ‘Irish Analytical Psychology Association’ in late September this year heard the guest speaker, Dr Renos Papadopoulos, Professor of Analytical Psychology at the University of Essex, talk on “The Paradox of Personal Myth: Jung’s Relevance Today.” Renos returned throughout his address to the paradoxical nature of Jung’s thought, and it struck me in writing this short piece on Jung’s personal and professional stance on ‘loneliness’ that the notion of the paradoxical was especially apt when applied to this particular topic.


Analytical Psychology, along with the other ‘depth’ psychologies, attempts to open up the complexities of intrapsychic experience so that the underlying depths may be explored in all their richness. When such an analysis is undertaken, superficial appearances dissolve and the underlying layers of the psyche are exposed. The more gifted and creative the therapist, the wider and richer becomes the network of associations and unconscious connections which reveal themselves beneath a seemingly straightforward symptom.

Loneliness is most frequently associated with a sense of the loss of contact with other people, or with personal feelings of isolation, and is often counted among the factors which bring about depression. Considering the amount of unhappiness often attributed to it, I was initially surprised, on turning to Jung’s writings on the subject, at how few direct references to Loneliness they contained. (There are only about a dozen entries under loneliness in the index to Jung’s twenty-volume Complete Works.) When, however, these are taken in conjunction with the references in Jung’s 1961 autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, a more rounded picture emerges.

In Jung’s own life, we can see loneliness emerging as a constantly recurring theme at all the significant points. The seeds of the solitariness that was to characterise his whole life reach right back to the lack of any siblings during the first nine years of his life. Already he saw himself as marked out by the traits of sensitivity and vulnerability: “I played alone in my own way,” he tells us “I did not want to be disturbed
… I could not bear being watched or judged.”

Throughout his life, when in the throes of creative work, Jung retired alone to his lakeside Tower (built with his own hands), where his isolation ensured a more direct encounter with the forces of the unconscious which was to be his life’s work. Here he would often ‘play’ for hours with the stones by the lake shore while he waited for his ideas to germinate.

Aged eleven, the adolescent Jung was disturbed by terrifying dream images, such as that of an enormous one-eyed phallus located in an underground cave, and by inexplicable yet disturbing day-dreams which filled him with foreboding, such as the vision of an excrescence that threatened to come crashing down from heaven, shattering the roof of the cathedral in his native Basle. Such inner experiences filled him with such dread and shame that he knew instinctively there was no one, not even his beloved mother, in whom he could confide. “A strict taboo hung over all these matters, inherited from my childhood … My entire youth was dominated by secrets and induced in me an almost unendurable loneliness.”

Yet while the pain of such feelings of isolation clearly caused him much misery, in his later life Jung came to appreciate that “It is important to have a secret, a premonition of things unknown,…the unexpected and the incredible belong to this world. Only then is life whole.” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p327) It is almost as if loneliness is the price demanded by the Gods of those with whom they share some especially occult understanding. Loneliness becomes the school in which one is forced to learn to bear ‘one’s uniqueness as an individual’ – and indeed this theme provided Jung with the core of his later writings on the theme of Individuation.

The realisation that loneliness “does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.” brought Jung to the conclusion that “If a man knows more than others he becomes lonely.” Such loneliness, arising directly from an extension of consciousness on the part of the individual, can be compared to the punishing vengeance of God in the case of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or to the cruel fate suffered by Prometheus following his theft of fire from the Gods. “The revenge of the gods takes the form of the pain of loneliness, for never again can he return to mankind.”

At the age of thirty-eight, and having for nine years been a member of the medical faculty of Zurich hospital, Jung suddenly realised that a continuation of his professional career was no longer possible because of the unhinging effects of the confrontation with his own unconscious in which he was engaged. He decided that in fairness to his students, he should quit his teaching post. “The consequence of my resolve was an extreme loneliness… I felt the gulf between the external world and the interior world of images, in its most painful form.” (Ibid p 186) However, this feeling of isolation also gave him a heightened sense of his own life’s task: to show “that the contents of psychic experience are real, and not only as my own personal experiences, but as collective experiences which others also have … I knew that if I did not succeed, I would be condemned to absolute isolation.”

Only in old age, after a lifetime attempting to bring together the inner world of imaginings and the outer reality does Jung offer a final judgement regarding the inter-
mediary function that loneliness has played in the total picture of his life. The concluding sentence of his autobiography sums up the paradoxical role played by loneliness in bringing together Jung’s inner and outer experience: “In fact it seems to me as if that alienation which so long separated me from the world has become transferred into my own inner world, and has revealed to me an unexpected unfamiliarity with myself.” (Ibid p330)

Loneliness as an Issue in Jungian Psychotherapy

Sometimes when those suffering the pangs of loneliness turn to a therapist for help, they only find their problems compounded by the tendency of some schools of psychotherapy to treat such symptoms as some kind of infantile regression in the face of a particular trauma. Such an underlying negative response on the therapist’s part only succeeds in increasing the client’s self-loathing. Jung contrasts this with what he sees as the more important task of helping the client to bear the loneliness by understanding its place in their overall task of achieving psychic wholeness.

Even where loneliness can be seen as the consequence of a lack of adaptation to our life situation, (where for example, a man will experience his marriage as a series of misunderstandings and rows spiraling downwards to a point where the threatened breakdown drives him to seek help) Jung allows for the positive effects of such a breakdown in communications in that “after a time he will notice his isolation, and in his loneliness he will begin to understand how he caused the estrangement.” For Jungians, disturbances in outer relationships, say between husband and wife, often betoken a lack of ‘intrapsychic’ relatedness. Thus for the man, neglect of his inner contrasexual component (called the ANIMA by Jung) lies behind most external problems involving relationship with the opposite sex. (A similar fate befalls the woman who is out of touch with her ANIMUS.) Thus loneliness can be an indicator of some deficiency not only in our relations with others, but also can increase our awareness of some deficiency within our own ‘psychic economy’.

Even where, as in the above instance, loneliness can be understood as the outcome of some shortcoming on the part of the client, Jung sees cause for hope through confronting the pain involved rather than by avoiding it. “When egotism drives into complete isolation one can learn the healing lessons that are needed.” This can often best be done “by treating the forces of the ego as the strongest and healthiest power, and as one that wounds in order to heal.”

In his paper, “Psychotherapists or the Clergy” Jung addresses a problem characteristic of modern culture: that of loss of religious faith. For many people today, a return to their former faith is no longer a possibility, requiring as it does a renewal of belief in symbols which have become, for them, bankrupt. No longer protected by ‘Mother’ church or by a sense of belonging to a faith community, such souls exist, subjectively, in a state of ‘no-salvation,’ and can feel “threatened with a terrific fear of loneliness, that cannot be quenched by anything else… it disturbs, it makes you restless, and it gives you no peace.” To seek to convince such vulnerable souls that their condition is neurotic can be less than helpful. “We cannot go back to the symbols that are gone,” says Jung, adding that the only way forward ‘psychologically’ appears to lie in a common search for new symbolic forms through which the psychic condition of modern man might find adequate expression. If the counselor can give meaning to this sense of the client’s isolation by acknowledging that such loneliness forms part of a widely felt search for new religious meaning, there is a chance that the client may gain courage to continue their quest.

In both these instances we see Jung the therapist “treading with the patient the path of his illness – the path of his mistake that sharpens his conflicts and increases his loneliness till it becomes unbearable – hoping that from the psychic depths from which the destructiveness comes, rescuing forces will come.” It is in this context that Jung posits his most radical evaluation of the role of loneliness: “It is moreover, only in the state of complete abandonment and loneliness that we experience the helpful powers of our own natures.”

Bill Callanan is an I.A.P.A. Committee Member.