The Application and Development of C.G. Jung’s ‘Transcendent Function’ in the Therapeutic Treatment of Neurotic/Hysterical Behaviour and Applied in the Treatment of Attempted Suicide.

by Stephen Flynn

Jung describes the Transcendent Function as follows:

“There is nothing mysterious or metaphysical about the term transcendent function. It means a psychological function comparable in its way to a mathematical function of the same name, which is a function of real and imaginary numbers. The psychological transcendent function arises from the union of conscious and unconscious contents” (Jung, 1960:69).

Jungian key definitions

The Ego Jung states as the continuous centre of consciousness (Jung, 1960:87). Consciousness  possesses a threshold intensity which its contents must have attained, so that all elements that are too weak remain in the unconscious. Because of its directed functions, consciousness exercises an inhibition of all incompatible material, with a result that it sinks into the unconscious. Consciousness constitutes the momentary process of adaption.  A consciousness threshold of containment depends upon the intensity of the energy. It contains censorship, adaptation, directedness and ‘the definite.’ It assumes aims, objectives, application and coordination (Jung, 1960:69). The unconscious, alternately, contains all the fantasy combinations which have not yet attained the threshold intensity, but which in the course of time and under suitable conditions will enter the light of consciousness. Undeveloped people lack directedness and ‘the definite’, and Jung goes on to say that so too do the psychotic and to a lesser degree the neurotic (Jung, 1960:69). The unconscious contains not only all the forgotten material of the individual’s own past, but all the inherited behaviour traces constituting the structure of the mind.

 “These qualities are often impaired in the neurotic patient, who differs from the normal persons in that his threshold of consciousness gets shifted more easily; in other words, the participation between conscious and unconscious is much more permeable. As a result of the pressure on modern life the degree of conscious development can be so great that it can produce a self-injury through developing one-sidedness. This one-sided development forms the basis of neurosis.” (Jung, 1960:83)

Assumptions inherent in the Transcendent Function

Having read Jung’s Collective Works over a period of twenty five years, and applied his psychology in clinical practice for some fifteen years I found the Transcendent Function which is a heuristic gem for practice with psychiatric patients whose presenting problems include refusal to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion. This device addresses numerous difficulties around denial where the ego faced with conflict withdraws behind a whole barrage of defences manifesting as social dysfunction and/or obsessive behaviour that minimises or attempts to prevent contact with the personal unconscious (Jung, 1960:75.). I also have found this lack of adjustment can include deliberate self harm, attempts of suicide and alcohol abuse. Learning to give equal value to the unconscious is the task in hand and the Transcendent Function is about just this.

Before launching into what exactly Transcendent Function is there are several profound assumptions in Jungian psychology that if the reader may not have grasped and could result in profound misunderstanding. I offer the following explanations to aid clarity. Jung states that normal physical health is determined by a regulatory system. The regulating function keeps the body in ‘normal’ health, Jung claims, there is a, “regulatory function that strives to maintain normal psychic health, without which individuals can suffer various forms of suicidal disaster” (Jung, 1960:82). The unconscious is therefore basically friendly and strives toward psychic health of the individual. It has to be conceded that the Ego is likened to a boat on the ocean of the unconscious. However, one does not tempt the ocean to demonstrate its power and as we have found to our cost, no boat is unsinkable. Thus the dilemma and conflict that come from the demands facing modern man by society to conform, suppress the natural instincts of the individual. The ocean of the unknown continues to affect man and the problems of inhibited instincts erupt like a volcano in the individual and so too in the collective psyche resulting in mental illness and in the collective psyche as social unrest and warfare.

The final clarification is that Jung’s Analytical Therapy is progressive, whereas Freudian Therapeutic Analysis is regressive. The ‘Transcendent Function’ is a progressive heuristic device offering adjustment to prevailing events and ways of coping in the immediate future.

Application of the Transcendent Function in clinical practice

Application of Transcendent Function must involve supervision, but its underlying principles are no stranger to the action therapists who rely on more than just words to explore the dynamic between the conscious and the unconscious. The spontaneous eruption of the unconscious occurs, likened to walking in a psychic minefield, when embanking on problem solving where the next step might result in an emotional explosion of uninvited intrusion of the unconscious upon the Ego.

Jung states that “experience in analytical psychology has amply shown that conscious and the unconscious seldom agree as to their contents and their tendencies.”  He elaborates saying that this lack of parallelism is not just accidental or purposeless, but is due to the fact that the unconscious behaves in a compensatory manner towards the conscious. The unconscious intrusion into the conscious is “compensatory”. However, if consciousness addresses the intrusion it can become “complementary” to the psyche’ (Jung, 1960:69). Thus the Ego has to reassume a respectful confidence to continue in balance.

In simple but profound terms, you must have an attitude to everything. These techniques are intended to adjust the existing attitude to the unconscious to form the beginning of joint effort or conscious/unconscious-data. Art offers visual shape as the Transcendent Function demands image exploration. However, where the client has symptoms that are unknown to himself, vacuous as it were, there is a need to create a starting point. All Transcendent Function dialogue should be carefully observed and noted. Jung describes depression as an integral part of the individual psyche. It belongs to the person as a way of coping with his own unacceptable Self (Jung, 1960:82). The need to explore the mood, what brings it about and what is going on, can be achieved through noting the mood, by naming it as well as focussing on the affect. It is also necessary to maximise findings in concrete as well as symbolic terms.

The next problem is to capture the inner critic or judge. In my own practice through the use of psychodrama the dialogue between the self and the inner critic can create a catharsis. Another of Jung’s saying comes to mind here: ‘Where there is a low there is a corresponding high.’ Thus, the critic within can act as a damning god to the client. Consequently, if the client dwells in the ‘low’ then this damning god climbs the corresponding high within and gets little critical attention as the Ego is preoccupied with the ‘victim role’ and so the damning god rules unquestioned. The personality internalises the abuser role as a way of life, depending on blame and shame leaving the classic ‘s/he makes me’ which replaces control and responsibility. One of my clients coped with excessive bullying at school by internalising the abuse, accepting what was said of her to be true, thus internalising the abuse cycle within herself. Jung states that adopting this extreme, results in identification with collective (Jung, 1960:85). The internal abuse cycle offer a whole way of life resulting in accepting the unacceptable in themselves and others. In this malaise there is no need to make decisions or take responsibility for their own action. Compensating by taking on responsibility for the action of the abuser results in abdication of the power required to make and follow through decisions. This is not to say such people cannot be helped, but process of change does takes some considerable time and is well worth witnessing the changes. “The outcome has no conclusiveness- rather is measured in adoptive behaviour found in practice” (Jung, 1960:84).

Alternately, working with people who have an inflated Ego raises the notion of tolerance on the part of the psychotherapist as there is a loss of critical judgement in the client. Identification lies with the collective but on the ‘upper side’ this time and as above at the expense of individuality. The danger of over-inflation may result in taking on tasks beyond their individual capacity to cope.

Realisation that the collective norm promotes civilised man’s proper values also restricts the unconscious. The Ego is in danger of being overwhelmed and so needs to include all aspects of individuality and not just what suits the collective norm. The client, caught in a spiral of habitual behaviour patterns that are no longer efficient in coping adequately, needs help in adjusting to the prevailing one-sided attitude and behaviour. The need to integrate what may be considered by the client as uninvited intrusion from the unknown present, is only part of the problem, but so too is the need to explore the moral implications. Not to do so Jung states may result in a form of a schizophrenia or psychotic interval (Jung, 60:68). In the treatment of neurosis the presenting problem is the inability of the client to adjust.

The application of active imagination

Jung mentions one vital aspect of Transcendent Function, as ‘active imagination’ whereby the apparent haphazard frightening images from the unconscious are integral to the healing process. To participate in active imagination takes a little practice for some clients and is quite difficult for others. Imagine entering a landscape painting and meandering over the distant horizon and then encountering some being. The unconscious comes immediately into play. What emerges as the journey continues is utterly determined by the participant. Psychodrama is the upshot where theme and script become creativity and spontaneity in exploring the fears and trauma. The therapist needs to take such imagery seriously when applying active imagination in the analysand. The power of the story, either real or imaginary ironically is irrelevant.

To illustrate the importance of active imagination in practice reminds me of a case where the consultant psychiatrist asked me to intervene in an urgent case of pending suicide. On our first meeting the client insisted her father was present and that he has accompanied her everywhere since his death many years earlier. Within the therapeutic setting I accepted her truth as we explored her daily life accepting what was real for her. By all accounts he was a loving father when alive so he was to become a helpful figure in our work together. I ensured there was a seat for this invisible figure whenever we met and included him in our deliberations until eventually she saw her father siding with me. After several months work together, the client was able to let her father go to continue on his own after-death journey and she continued on her living journey. The active imagination of my client was given due worth and respect and worked through taking into account Jung’s advice and deliberations set below. She eventually met her first real lover, and lived happily. The client had no further need for the psychiatric out-patient services as she had readjusted her relationship with her personal unconscious sufficiently to move on.

The merits and value of active imagination have origin in antiquity too. In ancient Greece the Maenads of Dionysus used a form of active imagination. From the little we know such acting-out was also without script, but its theme has been reduced to mere frenzy. We can conclude with some degree of certainty that contact with the unconscious within the Dionysian teminos did take place and maybe had a little more value to it than frenetic. More pertinent perhaps is the use St. Ignatius put in the use of active imagination as a powerful force advocating a form of ‘psychic drama’ for adepts to gain insight into Christianity. The theme and script are identified and definite. This practice continues, promoted in special Roman Catholic spiritual retreats, whereby pilgrims prepare themselves to embark upon a prescribed fantasy journey back into some biblical event as if they themselves were participating or witnessing it personally, for instance the crucifixion. The integration into the psyche of the archetype, in this case Christ, through this prescribed fantasy journey obviously affects adherents’ adjustment to their own faith thereafter. Such practice is not for the feeble minded and needs careful control, as provoking an archetype without sufficient care and respect can become psychologically overwhelming with adverse effect resulting in a psychosis, fanaticism or mere indoctrination of participants.

Likewise the client in therapy needs skilful guidance through his own images by first offering structure and form. It is normal for the unconscious to produce the unexpected which may include some highly charged energy. What is encountered is not rational and presents initially as of little value. The psychotherapist’s task is to introduce the feeling tone to meet the unconscious raw image. The first entry of the conscious comes into play whose task is to explore, alter, to give shape and to strive to see clearly before individual worth or intellectual analysis and understanding. “Thus the validity of the drawing, painting, modelling” allows the riddles to be understood through its shape and form as steps toward integration (Jung, 1960:87).

There is a need to dig for meaning in the Aesthetic, that is, the meaning within the chance. Jung emphasises the need for realisation of the image, which must be seen, clearly first: thus, the power of art therapy in exploring the image. Powerful also are other therapeutic techniques including drama, modelling, sand art, music, dance, play, the written word as well as traditional discourse.

The most valued methods are determined by how useful they are for the patient’s modus operandi or psychological type to aid the ego-adjustment to the unknown image secrets. Eventually this dance between the Ego and the unconscious image forms a third, the Transcendent Function. The reason why it is necessary to learn from and respect the unconscious is that the Ego is totally dependant upon it as essential to psychic well being.

How the unconscious communicates to the Ego

Jung describes six common ways the unconscious communicates with the Ego. Dreams, he considers are the purest manifestation, but very demanding to understand and these are sometimes prophetic. Complexes form part of the personality or character and only manifest under certain conditions or stimuli. Suppressed trauma and difficulties lurk in the personal unconscious awakening at times when fear reaches a certain intensity. Fantasy, including daydreams occupies us at those times of tranquillity and waiting periods. Creativity, or out of the blue ideas, emerge when the human condition is perplexed or the situation demanding. And finally, spontaneity requires training of the client to let go of the critical inner voice.

Psychotherapeutic methods at the disposal of the psychotherapist to complete the Transcendent Function

The art therapists’ use of an image in the analysis brings together the unconscious and conscious allowing evaluation. Such process is also the domain of the genius. However with the client the purpose is to create stability and certainty as much as possible.  But where past habits of coping are of little use or inadequate, the healing of adaptation is required to compensate: thus the role of judgement and evacuation of the symbol via association and symbol (Jung, 1960:75). The use of drawing, painting or modelling can overcome the intellectual difficulties. The purpose is to explore the conscious/unconscious antagonism. During the process of observation, the psychotherapist should focus on working out of the symbol via association. When using Freud’s free association, avoid going off from the main disturbance or you will stumble across one of many complexes. For other problems that present difficulties Jung suggests the following remedies. “If there is no capacity to produce fantasies freely, we have to resort to artificial aid. The reason for invoking such aid is generally a depressed or disturbed state of mind for which no adequate cause can be found” (Jung,1960:82).

Another suggestion is to apply the idea of types. This ensures the inferior functions are given space to contribute, as it is through the inferior function the image breaks to consciousness. This is why the use of verbal, audio, written and sensation methods are so valuable in exploring what emerges. At certain times of the day difficulties may become evident, for instance nocturnal intra-version. Jung suggests exploring the personal traits from memory using the association of collective personal, family and ancestral traits, and the family way of doing things. Jung explains that the regulating factor requires the energy held within the intensity of the emotional disturbance. This is the very energy that the client should have at their disposal for adaptation. The psychotherapist should ensure the client does not devalue it rationally. The importance of acceptance and awareness and acknowledgment of a mood helps the client identify the unconscious energies assailing the Ego.

I add my own methods from practice that had complementary effect

A further useful tool is to explore impressions relating to the place and to explore the frequency and duration of these significant events. Actually visiting the place itself with specific intent to neutralize the terrain, or using visualization to do so can effect a realisation that the blame is not the fault of the place per se but rather what happened there. Occasionally I have given a client a piece of common quartz stone and asked them to place it where the disturbing event took place, thus altering the bad vibration of the place in the minds-eye of the client to good effect. Use of psychodrama techniques such as the use of an empty chair to explore relationships with significant others can also be beneficial. However the psychotherapist directing the drama should avoid taking on any negative role.

After application of some of the above methods and the meaning of the idea has been extracted, the Ego now relates to the new position. Ironically loss of previous behaviour patterns no matter how perverse will hold a certain degree of grief. Sacrifices on both sides of the conscious/unconscious divide have to be made. Compromise is at best ‘imperfect peace’. Jung states that he had, ’found some anxiety on part of the ego that it will change and therefore there is fear of loss’.

Jung summarises this position as,

“The confrontation of the two positions generate a tension charged with energy and creates a living, third thing-not a logical stillbirth in accordance with the principle tertium non datur but a movement out of the suspension between opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation”….” the shifting to and fro of argument and affects represent the transcendent function of opposites. (Jung,1960:88)”

Examples of adverse effects from suppressing the unconscious

Jung offered the illustration of Nebuchadnezzar’s seeking of power and how he eventually encountered his opposite, first in the dream vision leading eventually to his one-sided development. This resulted in his debased madness and loss of everything. Evidence of the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ behaviour, while not as extreme can be found.

One of my own case studies concerned a client who suppressed her experience of sexual abuse as a child. She strove to be the ‘perfect mother’ from Monday to Friday and became a drunken wayward over the weekends. One Monday morning the she awoke in her bedroom to find herself in the act of making love to a stranger who was none other than a boyfriend of her drunken wayward self. Eventually, through applying the Transcendent Function she was able to develop a third Ego between her two extremes and control herself like a coachman in control of two horses, one black and the other white. She was able to modify both behaviours, reside in the middle and stay on the road.

Some dangers for psychotherapists

Jung points out the dangers for the psychotherapist about over-evaluation of art-work or any product. In contrast if the psychotherapist allows preoccupation with ‘understanding’ of the material at the expense of the motif. The client’s preoccupation with either of the above is a reflection on their previous under-evaluation bias. It is not the value of the item per se nor is it about finding resolution that is relevant. The task for the psychotherapist is to focus and balance results in the following way.

  • Consciousness offers the unconscious its input which is form and structure.
  • Room must be left for spontaneity to emerge. The conflict between what the unconscious reveals, that which is complementary, and what the conscious offers, that which is compensation, must result in the dominance of the Ego leading to establishing the Regulating Principle.
  • ‘The Transcendent Function is about addressing this conflict’ (Jung, 1960:89).
  • ‘When there is a realisation by the client of their own previous one-sidedness there is a resulting element of pain before an abutment’ (Jung, 1960:93).

I advise clients to observe the situation they find themselves in, to look about themselves and witness their own mess. This awareness is fundamental to adjustment and initially painful to realise, as change also involves loss. Adjustment of the Ego, bringing about change requires support and interpretation. The latter emphasises the relationship between client and psychotherapist.

Transference has purpose too. It is important to understand this and the use of positive dependence as part of the process in developing the new attitude. Disappointment turns to bitter hatred of the analyst if a useful adaptation does not occur. Jung saw negative transference as a nuisance and tried to work though it to achieve goal. Transference is seen as another ‘tool’ in the Transcendent Function. (Jung, 1960:75).


Jung introduces to us the psychology of denial and how the use of action therapies such as art, modelling, drama and dance address intrusive diabolical behaviour helping the psyche interpret and understand thus creating balance. Jung’s psychology also reduces the mystic surrounding healing into careful adjustment of one-sidedness. He identifies the importance of the unconscious contrary to modern man’s values placed upon directness and what is definite. Depth psychology into understanding the nature of the psyche can continue to feed this heuristic device offering the psychotherapist more sophistication in helping the client to readjust to the demands of the modern world and perhaps modify the collective psyche of megalanthropic behaviour besetting modern man.

Stephen Flynn CQSW, EPC, IAHIP, now confines his practice to working with the clinically suicidal and is co-founder of Dia dhuit Suicide Prevention Ireland Ltd, (previously registered: Anamchara Suicide Prevention Ireland)


Jung, C.G. (1960) The structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul