Psychology in Writing: The Collective Unconscious – Writing Process

English: Universal archetype expression of the...

English: Universal archetype expression of the ancient legend Green Man. One of many modern renditions of the Green Man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Writing Process

There are plenty of resources out there for writers on archetypes, I included some in the introduction blog.  As writers we should not only be aware of archetypes, but aware of them at a meta-level.  It’s easy to identify the hero or the mentor archetypes in our writing, that’s writing 101, but there are several ways to incorporate archetypes at a deeper level in our writing.

At the meta-level, the first step for us as writers is an understanding of what makes up an archetype.  A generic hero will fit plot needs, but will not help tap into our reader’s sense of the collective unconscious.  We need to identify what are the common threads that make up the archetype of the hero, mentor, etc., so identifiable that readers across cultures would be able to identify with our characters.  As an example, for the hero we need to recognize that the hero as an archetype represents a return of balance for the community, has a sense of good, and because of these traits others will follow the hero.  Another example is the archetype of the fool who is represented by blind hope and frivolousness.  It’s at this level of understanding that we as writers can make our stories really resonate with our readers by tapping into the unconscious categories that our readers possess.

At the story level, a way for incorporating archetypes is having characters explore their archetypes, and encounter and challenge potentially faulty ones.  As I mentioned in the post on therapeutic presentation, our character may have an error in identifying healthy or helpful archetypes and may align with or get into relationships with the wrong people.  We can incorporate our characters’ working through, resolving, and developing new archetypes as part of their journey.  Another way to incorporate archetypes into our writing is by having characters change archetypes; like defense mechanisms, our characters are not locked into a single method of operating.  Our protagonist can move from a fool, to a hero, and depending on the length of the story, potentially to a mentor.  Along the way, our protagonist can represent an archetype without becoming the archetype, such as representing the outcast or rebel to advance the story or a particular story arch.

The basic reason to understand the collective unconscious is to gain an appreciation of the commonalities that all individuals share.  Through understanding these commonalities we can create characters and stories that resonate with our readers and lighten our writing load.  If readers at an unconscious level recognize our characters or themes then we can save effort in exposition and keep focused on the parts of our writing that make our stories move.  Both readers and writers want to be part of something bigger than their self, and nothing is bigger than being part of a shared cultural experience than connecting with the collective unconscious.

As always, from my couch to your pen happy writing!

And keep sending in your questions!


Psychology in Writing: The Collective Unconscious – Therapeutic Presentation

Therapeutic Presentation


Mother and Child watching each other

Mother and Child watching each other (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


When focusing on the collective unconscious in therapy the focus is primarily on the archetypes and the client’s identification and association with them. There is an entire branch of psychology focused on archetypal therapy.  At its root, this form of therapy focuses on a search for meaning through an identification with and exploration of different mythologies and their associated archetypes that make up the client’s world.  The role of the therapist is to help the client identify the archetypes present in her/his world and what they mean.  By understanding the archetypical structures that the client identifies with and what is possible through understanding other archetypes, the client begins to understand how to change through tapping into this innate themes.


Another way that archetypes can manifest in therapy is through a misidentification of an archetype that can lead to a reoccurring relational error.  An example would a client who has a non-supportive or abusive mother.  The client’s archetype for mother figure becomes an inconsistent caregiver, which may replicate in later relationships.  For example, the client may enter an intimate relationship with someone who is abusive or demeaning to them, but does provide some support, as the client’s archetype for mother/caregiver matches this person, the client may stay in an unhealthy relationship because of the appearance of normality.  The role of the therapist is to help the person reconstruct the archetype of mother/caregiver, which may include an exploration of myths, literature, or other examples of a positive archetype.  Based on the exploration of a positive archetype the client can then begin to change her/his own internal schemas.



Psychology in Writing: The Collective Unconscious – Introduction


Carl Gustav Jung painted portrait P1050156

Carl Gustav Jung painted portrait P1050156 (Photo credit: Abode of Chaos)

In last week’s blog we covered the individual unconscious, which are the unseen aspects of self that can affect behavior.  Carl Jung proposed that in addition to their own unconscious mind all individuals share a collective unconscious.  While the individual unconscious is unique to each individual, the collective unconscious is a shared system that all humans use to organize their personal experiences in a similar way.

The common organizing of ideas in the unconscious leads to universal themes and concepts that occur in distant and unrelated cultures.  Jung postulated that the collective unconscious was not developed across the lifespan by an individual but was inherited.  The common themes of the collective unconscious are referred to as archetypes; like the unconscious mind, individuals do not have ready conscious access to the archetypes, but they are revealed through events and experiences in individuals’ lives.  When an archetype is experience individuals unconsciously recognize it as what it represents and it appears as “mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind” (Jung, 1978).

Some of the common archetypes include:

  • The Hero
  • The Mentor
  • The Fool
  • The Seductress
  • The Devil

Expanded writing on archetypal characters, plots, and themes, can be found here, here, and here. (Or you can just do a Google search)

There is some question on whether Jung was speaking biologically or spiritually about the collective unconscious.  Some interpret the collective unconscious as something inherited through a species like a common arm.  This would mean that just as all humans share a similar bone, muscle, skin structure forming an arm, they also share similar unconscious structures in common.  Others interpret the collective unconscious as a tapping into the divine.  That there is a “universal truth” (e.g., the presence of a divine) that all humans are part of and can access through our common truths.  Either way, the collective unconscious has the potential to establish common ground when communicate within and across cultures.

Psychology in Writing: The Unconscious – Writing Prompt

Writing Prompt

Dream girl

Dream girl (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

“Our heart glows, and secret unrest gnaws at the root of our being. Dealing with the unconscious has become a question of life for us.” —Carl Jung

For today’s writing prompt, think about what your character is hiding in her/his unconscious that s/he can’t confront directly.  What is the event/thing/person that your character can’t face?  What happened in the past that contributes to your character’s inability to consciously face the event/thing/person?  How does your character manifest her/his unconscious mind?  Is it through dreams, verbal slips, free association, defense mechanisms?  What leads your character to gain insight into her/his unconscious process?  And now that s/he is aware, what does s/he do?  Confront it?  Suppress it again?

A new addition to the blog going forward–Want your writing to be seen by thousands of people?

Write a 500 – 1000 word story incorporating ideas and themes from this week’s blog and send it to me at  If your story is selected it will be spotlighted on Friday’s blog.  In addition to posting your story, you can provide any websites, twitter accounts, links to books, Facebook pages that you would like to be included following your story so that readers of the blog can follow and support you.  I’ll also promote the story on my own twitter and Facebook feeds.  The only thing I ask is that I have permission to publish the story on the blog and include it in a free Wattpad eBook (that will also contain all the aforementioned promotions still attached) so that readers of the blog can go back and easily find previous stories.

If you have any questions or comments feel free to email me.

As always, from my couch to your pen happy writing!

And keep sending in your questions!

Psychology in Writing: The Unconscious – Writing Process

Writing Process

English: sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912...

English: sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912), Unconscious Rivals, 1893. Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery Oil on panel Credit line: Bequest of Jessie and Robert bromhead, 1935 Accession number: K1248 Nederlands: sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912), Unconscious Rivals, 1893, in het Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How do we write about the unseen?  We’re probably not going to submit our characters to psychoanalysis during our writing (though it’s been done, and done well, so don’t completely count it out), so we have to be more creative about how we reveal our character’s unconscious mind.  For us as writers, knowing that the unconscious exists serves two purposes, it will help us better understand our characters and also help demonstrate growth in our characters.

In the previous blog post about incorporating mature defense mechanisms into our writing, we discussed how we want to see our characters move from lower level defenses to higher level defenses, and the way to do this is through our characters gaining insight into their unconscious mind so they can resolve underlying issues.  Understanding how the unconscious bleeds into the conscious mind can also serve to help advance plot points.  There are four ways that our characters can reveal their unconscious to both other characters and the readers.

The first is through what is called a Freudian slip.  When a character demonstrates a Freudian slip, they say one thing when they mean another (the classic joke is, when you say one thing and mean your mother).  An example of a Freudian slip in writing would be a character accidently calling another character, by a third character’s name (e.g., calling a current lover, by an old lover’s name).  Freudian slips can also be demonstrated through actions, such as the misplacing of an important object, e.g., the character misplaces a quest critical item as a manifestation of her/his unconscious fear or desire to avoid conflict.

The second manifestation is through an outburst.  This would come at a point of conflict with another character (usually a friendly character, not an antagonist), where because of the passion of the argument the character slips up and tells the person how they actually feel.  This is different from a Freudian slip, which is a processing error; an outburst is more in line with free association.  The character is so impassioned and going that s/he is not able to maintain her/his internal filter and s/he is saying the first thing that comes to her/him.

The third method of revealing the unconscious is through dreams.  When dreams are a plot point in writing it may be a guide instead of a psychoanalyst that reveals the underlying content of the dream.  There are many classic examples in literature of a dream providing the protagonist clarity of purpose and a deeper understanding of self.  The plus side of using dreams as a method for showing a character’s unconscious mind, is that, for us as writers, we can have dreams mean anything we want as a means to further our plot.

The last method of revealing the unconscious in our writing I’ve covered in the posts on incorporating defense mechanisms into our writing here, here, here, and here.  The lower level defense mechanisms especially reveal something about our characters unconscious process, such as their hopes and fears.  By showing our characters using defense mechanism we can give some insight into their unconscious processes.

One thing to keep in mind about incorporating the unconscious mind in our writing is to remember that it is unconscious.  Love and respect it.  We shouldn’t come out and say Bob (our protagonist) suffers from crippling repression of his feelings because of his conflictual relationship with his father as a child.  As we discussed in the introduction, the unconscious should reveal itself by its effects not by overt exposition.  The unconscious is an area of mystery, help preserve it for our reader; it’ll make for a better story and keep them around as they try to understand the why of our characters.


Psychology in Writing: The Unconscious – Therapeutic Presentation

Therapeutic Presentation

the first of the blots of the Rorschach inkblo...

the first of the blots of the Rorschach inkblot test (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the unconscious is below a person’s conscious awareness how is the therapist aware of it and how can the person begin to address it?  The unconscious manifests itself in its effects.  As we covered in the defense mechanisms’ blogs, they are a product of the unconscious; when a person is unable to deal with the reality of her/his situation the unconscious mind protects the person by employing defense mechanisms.  So if the pathological, immature, or neurotic defense mechanisms are deployed below conscious awareness the therapist must get at what is going on underneath these defenses to help the client resolve underlying issues, which will help guide her/him to the use of higher level defense mechanisms.

One of the most frequently associated ways at getting at the unconscious in popular culture is through dream analysis.  I personally have a different take on dream analysis, but I’m going to review the psychodynamic understanding of dream analysis.  In psychoanalysis, the theory behind dream analysis is that the themes of dreams and the images in dreams provide insight into the unconscious.  By interpreting dreams, the psychotherapist to the client the therapist provides insight into the client’s unconscious mind.  After the dream analysis the unconscious becomes manifest in conscious awareness and the client can begin processing and resolving her/his underlying unconscious conflicts.  Here’s a quick review of some popular dream themes.

Another method a therapist may use to uncover the unconscious is through free association.  The client is presented words in isolation, such as “cat”, “shame”, “mother”, to which the client responds with the first word that comes to her/his mind.  The theory being is that if the client is not actively thinking about her/his response then the unconscious will be manifested in her/his word choice.  So if the therapist says “mother” after a string of neutral words, and the client spontaneously replies “anger”, then the therapist and client would explore the root of that anger, e.g., is the mother an angry person, is the client angry at the mother?

The last method revealing the unconscious that I will cover is projection.  Projection operates on the theory that the client will place her/his unconscious thoughts onto a ambiguous stimulus.  One of the most familiar ways for doing this is the Rorschach test where the client indicates what s/he sees in an inkblot.  The client’s responses are recorded and then interpreted depending on the nature of the description.  Another test the Thematic Apperception Test, where the client is presented a neutral scene and asked to write a story about what occurred before the picture was taken, during the picture, and after.  The theory is that unconscious themes will immerge based on the story the client writes.  There are other projective tests such as Draw-A-Person, Sentence Completion, and Animal Metaphor you can read about here, but all operate on the same principle of having the person project her/his unconscious on ambiguous stimuli.


Psychology in Writing: The Unconscious – Introduction


Deutsch: Phrenologie

Deutsch: Phrenologie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the past two months we’ve covered the psychodynamic ideas of Id, Super Ego, Ego, and the Pathological, Immature, Neurotic, and Mature defense mechanisms, but we haven’t discussed where many of these processes originate from.  With the exception of Ego and some of the Mature defense mechanisms, a lot an individual’s psychological processes lie within the unconscious mind.

The unconscious mind is the aspect of self that a person is not consciously aware of it.  It consists of automatic processes that are not available for introspection, but cause an impact on behavior.  The Id and Super Ego both reside in the unconscious mind, and we’ve discussed how these aspects of self affect the manifestation of defense mechanisms.  As the genesis of these occur in the unconscious part of their mind individuals usually do not have insight into the why of their defenses.  These processes are below conscious awareness and just occur as repeating patterns of behavior.

The question then is, if these thoughts, behaviors, emotions, motivations are outside of an individual’s awareness how does the individual change and how does the therapist work with the unseen?  The challenge for therapists and clients is that only aspect of clients’ minds that is readily acceptable is the conscious mind, that which they are aware of.  The conscious mind makes up only a small fraction of their self.  The analogy that is often used for the unconscious mind is that a person’s mind is like an iceberg; only the conscious tip is visible to client and therapist with the majority of the personality laying below the waves in the unconscious.

In tomorrow’s blog I will discuss how therapists help their clients get insight into the unconscious so that clients can begin to work at a conscious level on their unconscious process.

Psychology in Writing: Mature Defense Mechanisms – Writing Prompt

Writing Prompt

Nash Latjke, the game's protagonist

Nash Latjke, the game’s protagonist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem.” – Virginia Satir

For today’s writing prompt, think about what events would prevent your protagonist from using mature defenses, and defense mechanism your protagonist could use that would lead to the most growth or help her/him be successful.  What would cause your protagonist to fail at using mature defenses?  What is the tipping point where s/he would not be able to continue coping and would need to employ one of the lower level defenses?  Which defense would further/help/repair her/his relationships with others?  Or which one could s/he use to get back on the path to successfully completing a quest?

Psychology in Writing: Mature Defense Mechanisms – Writing Process

Writing Process

English: Large Snow Lions protect the entrance...

English: Large Snow Lions protect the entrance to the Potala Palace in Tibet. (Chinese stone lions, imitating 15th century, constructed in the 1990’s) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mature defense mechanisms are what we hope our protagonists are using (at least by the end of the story).  As I noted in the first post on mature defenses, defense mechanisms are not static; it’s not as if once an individual starts using a particular defense mechanism s/he will always use that defense mechanism.  Some stable people occasionally use lower level defenses if they are lacking the emotional strength to use mature defenses.  Also, as I discussed in the previous posts on therapeutic presentation (here, here, and here), the goal of therapy is to help individuals move from lower level defenses to higher level defenses.  Change is possible and change is what we want to have in our writing.

We want to make sure our protagonists grow over their time with us between the pages.  If a protagonists starts out with no challenges and no room to grow, they become the superman, that is to say boring because they won’t fail.  The mature defenses can be used in two different ways in our writing to help keep our writing exciting and dynamic.

The first and most straightforward way to incorporate mature defense mechanisms is as a point of beginning.  Our protagonist may start her/his journey as a form of sublimation; an inability to continue to tolerate a perceived injustice may spur our protagonist into action.  In the same way, a protagonist may use anticipation to prepare for a negative life event or change that begins her/him on a journey; think about a final road trip with a friend who has a terminal disease, instead of grieving while the person is still alive, the protagonist and friend take a long desired trip.  Gratitude and forgiveness may also be starting points.  If gratitude is the motivator, the person may be seeking out someone that s/he feels s/he owes a thank you or token appreciation.  Conversely, the quest to forgive someone who has harmed the protagonist may be the genesis of action; s/he may seek out someone who harmed her/him for a sense of closure.

The second way we might infuse mature defense mechanisms into our writing is as a point of growth and maturing for our characters.  In earlier stages of our writing, our protagonists may struggle by using lower level defenses, such as the neurotic defense mechanisms.  As they grow, in order to advance in her/his quest the protagonist has to use more mature defense mechanisms.  Some examples would be moving from repressing emotions to thought suppression, from withdraw and isolation to forgiveness or mercy, disassociation to mindfulness or acceptance, reaction formation to tolerance, or regression to emotional regulation.  There are numerous combinations that the lower level defenses can be resolved with higher level defenses, it’s only limited by our creativity.  Just as in our own lives, there is rarely one singular solution or way to approach a situation.  In the same way, our characters’ way of dealing with issues may bring an ah-ha moment to our readers that builds their relationship with our characters and bestows upon us appreciate for our ability to be creative and surprise them.

As always, from my couch to your pen happy writing!

And keep sending in your questions!


Psychology in Writing: Mature Defense Mechanisms – Therapeutic Presentation

Therapeutic Presentation

English: Managing emotions - Identifying feelings

English: Managing emotions – Identifying feelings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Individuals who are consistently using mature defense mechanisms would typically not show up in a therapist’s office because they usually have their stuff together; if we see these individuals it’s usually as part of a couple and they can’t understand why the rest of the world is crazy.  So, taking a different approach, I’ll just discuss what individuals using the different mature defense mechanisms would look like in day-to-day life instead of on the couch.

The defense mechanism of humility helps an individual stay in check, and keeps her/him from thinking either too highly about her/himself or being too harsh.  This allows the person to recognize what is realistically possible for her/him, not feeling overly guilty when she/he doesn’t succeed, or acting impulsively without regard for others to get needs met.

Mindfulness is the ability to be present in the moment, open, and accepting of experiences.  The individual who is mindful does not dwell excessively in the past nor worry about things in the future.  This person accepts reality as it as and appreciates it as it comes.

A person who is applying the defense of acceptance is able to acknowledge and be at with peace with things that are beyond her/his control.  This person does not become mired in regret when something doesn’t go her/his way, s/he accepts the situation and looks for the best in it or figures out how to cope with the situation.

Gratitude is the ability to appreciate what one has.  Similar to mindfulness and acceptance, a person using gratitude as a defense mechanism finds the good in what s/he has and appreciates what is real and available to her/him.  This person chooses to ignore what s/he does not have and does not wish for things that could be.

A person who uses altruism as a defense mechanism finds joy in providing services to others without expectation for anything in return.  When a person does something good and expects something in return this can lead to anger and frustration about the failure of the relationship to be reciprocal.  When an individual does good work without expecting anything in return s/he avoids frustration and gets intrinsic joy out of the work itself.

The defense mechanism of tolerance is allowing the existence of things that a person may not approve of.  Again, this eliminates the frustration of expectations of others; the individual allows others to have ideas, while understanding that the ideas of the other do not diminish or alter the person’s core sense of self.  Disapproving opinions are external to the person, so her/his psyche is not damaged by others when using tolerance as a defense.

Mercy as a defense is the recognition of an individual having a place of power, and being in that place of power can be compassionate to others.

An individual who is able to use forgiveness as a defense mechanism is able to release resentment or anger towards others for a perceived offense without need for retribution or restitution.  Forgiveness is part of mindfulness; it keeps an individual from dwelling in the past so s/he can move forward.  Forgiveness also does not necessarily mean a repair of the relationship, it means that for the person employing it a release of resentment that may hold her/him back.

Those who use anticipation can prepare for realistic future discomfort.  This person does not ignore an upcoming potentially painful event, s/he prepares for how s/he will deal with the consequences or outcome so that s/he can address it appropriately when the time comes.

Humor is a high level defense mechanism.  It allows the individual to express pain s/he may be feeling but in a socially appropriate way that amuses others; a common example is self-depreciating humor.  This defense is in contrast to something like projection, where the negative emotions are released as anger towards others.

The healthy use of defense mechanism of identification hinges on the individual modeling positive aspects of another that are realistic for her/him.  Identifying with positive behaviors can help an individual identify what are positive traits and internalize them to improve her/himself.  Introjection similarly is contingent on internalizing positive ideas.  This defense, instead of identifying with a person, identifies with an idea so deeply that an individual integrates the positive aspects into her/his self.  An example would be internalizing moral ideas that guide social functioning.

A person who is using sublimation as a defense mechanism is able to channel negative emotions or instincts into positive actions, behaviors, or emotions.  A person using this defense is able to be constructive with her/his negative emotions, such as channeling negative feelings into art or sport.

Thought suppression as a defense is a temporarily delaying of dealing with negative thoughts or experiences.  In contrast to repression, the individual will deal with the emotions/experience later; they are only temporarily suppressed to allow an individual to function in the current moment.  This person is able to put her/his feelings aside in order to deal rationally with a present issue.

The last mature defense mechanism is emotional self-regulation.  Much like mindfulness and thought suppression, the individual using this defense is aware of her/his emotions (not repressing them) and is not victim to their whims (able to put them aside to deal with issues in the moment).  This allows the person to be fully present in the moment and deal with others in a socially appropriate way.