Carl Jung Depth Psychology Facebook Group

Ann Ulanov – The Danger and the Treasure of the Inferior Function

The Danger and the Treasure of the Inferior Function by Ann Ulanov

  The inferior function really is inferior. Itmay be a source of transformation, but we do not know how. We encounter it, but we do not understand it. It is like opening a door and being confronted by a rhino, or, for some, coming upon a mathematician talking in numbers in the basement. Yet from this least expected place and in forms that have nothing to recommend them, may come new life, regeneration for ourselves and for the times in which we live.

We are going to do something dangerous in this article by taking up the inferior function. It is dangerous because inferior really means inferior,

which the Oxford dictionary defines as “situated below, lower in rank, quality, placed at the bottom.” Synonyms for inferior flesh out its meaning: “poor, low- grade, mediocre, low-quality, second-rate, not up to snuff.” Worse still, we are trying to discuss inferior not in general, but as it applies to each one of us, to what Jung calls a function of our personality, a mode of activity and response in each of us that operates in a substandard way. This is dangerous because to touch what is inferior in ourselves makes us feel awful, and it incites this part of ourselves. In facing what feels substandard in ourselves, and to avoid going up into generalities as if we are not involved while all the time feeling vulnerable, I want to set some guidelines. As you are reading this article, imagine that I am talking specifically to you personally, to your situation, in your context (Atwood, 2007, personal communication).

It takes courage to do what we are trying to do. It is heroic to set out voluntarily to encounter this murky, touchy, undeveloped part of ourselves.

Alfred Jensen, Demonstration III, November 4, 1960. Ink and crayon on paper, 29rr  x 23rr  (73.7 cm x 58.4 cm). ⓍC   2008 Estate of Alfred Jensen / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo by: Ellen Labenski / Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

This article is based on a presentation made as part of the “Jung on the Hudson” series, July 27, 2007.

Alfred Jensen, Demonstration III, November 4, 1960. Ink and crayon on paper, 29rr  x 23rr  (73.7 cm x 58.4 cm).

ⓍC   2008 Estate of Alfred Jensen / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo by: Ellen Labenski / Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

An analysand reported a dream of opening an apartment door and being met by a barking dog. “What did the dog say?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he answered, “I don’t speak bark.” That is the inferior function! We come upon the unknown in ourselves; it barks at us.

To set this article in the context of Jung’s theory, I want to create some boundaries to contain us, to hold us, as we venture toward what we do not know and what we do not like; what we feel, when it touches us, is poisonous, immoral, illogical, entrapping. Jung saw the psyche as self-regulating, pushing toward completeness and balance. He hypothesized a theory of personality composed of four functions: two rational, that is, ways of evaluating expe- rience based on reflections that coalesce into making judgments—thinking and feeling; and two irrational, that is, ways of perceiving that subordinate judgment to perception—sensation and intuition. Jung says he can give “no a priori reason for selecting these four as basic functions, and can only point out that this conception has shaped itself out of many years’ experience” (Jung, 1971, par. 731). By function Jung means a mode of psychic activity that persists as the same under varying conditions, a movement of psychic energy (libido) in a habitual way by which we orient ourselves in the world.

The same would hold for his hypothesis of two basic attitudes, extraver- sion and introversion, as a “state of readiness . . . a definite combination of psychic factors or contents which will determine action . . . in a definite di- rection, or react to external stimuli in a definite way” (Jung, 1971, par. 687), one of which would be our habitual way of relating to reality. In extraversion we move psychic energy toward the object, adapting and making a place for ourselves in light of the object. In introversion libido turns inward toward the subject; we weigh the outer situation against our own subjective point of view. In keeping with this theory, one of the four functions will be the most developed and act as the habitual way in which we orient ourselves to reality, both outer and inner. The second most developed function will aid us, like a good sous-chef, in cooking up our work and our relationships. The third func- tion will be less developed, and the fourth will be undeveloped, appearing now and then in an autonomous, unreliable way, and if we get into a neurosis, it will fall into the unconscious almost entirely. That fourth is the inferior function. The attitude of introversion or extraversion will characterize how our dom- inant function operates, and usually the auxiliary second and third, but the inferior function will usually present in the attitude opposite to our habitual mode of behavior, making it all the more inferior because it is undeveloped and hence challenging.

To give the briefest description of the various approaches of functions and attitudes, we can use the activity of dream interpretation: Each would begin dream interpretation from a different angle.

The thinking type would look for the dream’s basic structure; the feeling type for the dream’s emotional  hot spot; the sensation type for  the  facts  of  the dream,

Jung contended that all the functions and attitudes belong to each of us, and we won’t get away with ducking out with only one or two. . . .

The pressure to individuate, to reach all the parts of ourselves and connect them into a living whole, will force our development what is there, the images, the action; the intuitive type, for the sniffed-out possible di- rections at which the dream hints.

The extravert would look at the dream charac- ters as referring to the real persons and our interactions with them, and the introvert would emphasize our sub- jective feelings or thoughts about those persons.

Rather than discussing all the various combinations of types and the archetypes underlying them, here we focus on the realm of the inferior and the heroic task of going into that terrain, not unlike a Harry Potter movie where ghosts and brooms and spectral figures fly about.

Jung contended that all the functions and attitudes belong to each of us, and we won’t get away with ducking out with only one or two. No. All of us must pay the whole bill. The pressure to individuate, to reach all the parts of ourselves and connect them into a living whole, will force our development of all these functions and attitudes within the limits of our personalities and social contexts. Equally important is that no one is a pure type but always a mixture. And the better we know people, including ourselves, the harder it is to type them, due in part to our own typology coloring our perception of others’ “otherness.” The theory of functions and attitudes is just that, a theory, not a fixed essence; it points to tendencies in us within specific con- texts that are, in turn, influenced by cultural customs and gender images. Also, at different stages in life different functions move to the forefront to be developed.

I feel protective of our differences and our vulnerability to being labeled. I find that too much talk about types can function as an intellectual defense against our task today, which is to approach the inferior realm. So I do not want to get into who is what type, including myself. Leave that unspoken, even unknown. Focus on the realm of the inferior, which, alas, we can all locate far too easily, because there we are touchy, given to take offense, subject to confusion and helplessness. We feel inferior, unable. We don’t understand bark. We open the door and a rhino faces us and Jung says over our shoulder,

There, that is your inferior function. What are we to do with this? What vocabulary, what caution, what way to relate to this other?


Inferior has a specific meaning and functions in specific ways. Whatever our typology, we all meet in similar experience when facing what is inferior. Our experience may be differently accented acccording to its being inferior sensation or thinking, but the inferiority itself is the same. Inferior means all that we do not have conscious access to, that which is not under our conscious will, but autonomous. We cannot put it to direct conscious use; instead, we experience it through disturbing effects on our consciousness. An emotion or illogical idea erupts into our daily functioning, an impulse takes over (Jung, 1963, par. 272). The quality of whatever bursts into consciousness is archaic, unadapted, primitive; as Jung says, “It refuses to come along with the others and often goes wildly off on its own” (Jung, 1948/1958, par. 245).

Such eruptions tyrannize others, and they walk on eggshells around us— which leaves us isolated. But these negative impulses overwhelm us. Because we are not in conscious relation to what stirs us up, we tend to project the cause into the other, whom we then blame. But the other experiences us as crazy or just plain difficult and to be avoided. Feeling misunderstood and unaccepted only increases our sense of helplessness in the face of inferior behaviors, ideas, attitudes, and emotions that seem to happen to us.

It is no better if we blame ourselves because we are in the realm of the archaic, and infantile fantasies overtake us. For example, a student, when trying to read a text she finds difficult, panics when she cannot understand it. Negative fantasies overwhelm her with a persecutory illogical causality that turns to the past or to the future: Her brain is burned out by her teenage drug use; or, she is suffering incipient Alzheimer’s which already afflicts her mother. These fantastic fears hijack her ability to stay in the present and marshal her resources to accomplish her assignment.

We need not look far for experience of our inferior function because it finds us. It is troublesome and feels imposed on us from the outside. The hall- mark of our encounter is that we feel stuck, and stuck in a familiar, repetitive way. Here I am again at an impasse, not knowing what to do, how to proceed, even how to think about how to go forward. I feel caught again, stymied, threatened. We usually resort to trying to use the inferior function accord- ing to our habitual way of acting and understanding. So if I am swamped by helpless feelings in the face of bewildering facts, then let me make a map, a list of what needs to be done. But the very helpless feeling so overcomes me that the list cannot be made, or I get interrupted in the attempt by negative intuitions of the worst that could happen.

For example, a woman awakening to her very cold house one winter Sunday discovered that the oil furnace had switched off. Knowing she was no good with such sensate tasks, she had paid extra for a policy that allowed workmen to come out on the weekend. They discovered no oil in the furnace! “How could this be,” she exclaims, “a delivery was made just recently.” “Maybe your oil tank, still an underground one and now illegal, has leaked,” they surmise. She reported that she went to pieces right there and then, yelling, “I can’t take this, I cannot do this, I cannot manage this,” feeling as if she were breaking down and could not catch herself. She imagined all the recently delivered oil leaking into the ground and contaminating the soil, a danger she had been warned against the previous summer when she was advised to dig up her tank and replace it with the now prescribed above-ground oil tank—a task she had forgotten to implement. That sensate task had just fallen out of her consciousness. Now she felt flooded with menace, shame, and self-attack.

The  danger  of  a  leak   and soil   contamination,   she had been told, was that the cleanup could cost upwards of $40,000. She said she wanted to run to her bed and pull the covers over her head. In a panic she grabbed onto a list of things to do. Imagining the worst, she arranged for a man to come daily to measure the oil after he filled the tank, to discern if the tank leaked.

This looks like she was trying to use her inferior sensate function, but she was actually conscripting it to the habit of her dominant, most developed function of intuition. The sensate-based question that got overlooked was, how come the recently delivered oil was not there? Could there be other explanations than the possibility of a leak? A connection to all the facts would help her feel calmer, so that she could consider alternative explanations of trouble in oil delivery or blockage of pipes or furnace. She learned a week later that there was no oil because the delivery man had shorted her order! He had run out and given her less than her supply. The point here is that even when we try to use our inferior function, it is not sufficiently under our control to be truly effective. We grab at it and do not give it the weight it is due, the reality of its otherness. We try to appropriate it to our habitual approach to things, to our dominant function, which then alienates us from that approach. In this example, had the analysand been able to consider a number of facts calmly and not pounce on the immediate solution of having the oilman come daily,

she would have saved herself that considerable cost and discovered that the oil company was at fault here in not delivering the due amount of fuel. It came out all right, but she felt she had been caught in a whirlwind, thrown about, out of control, behaving hysterically, exhausted when bumped back down to earth.


This inferior functioning, wherein we feel swamped and do not know how to get at what we are after, brings us to a sobering fact: When we try to make our inferior function conscious, it drags the whole unconscious with it (Jung, 1953, par. 193). Then we are in for it; we must deal with the unconscious, with the unlived life in us—not just the piece we need at the moment, but the whole tide rushing in, and its undertow, which threatens to pull us back out to sea. Hence, we fear pursuing the inferior function lest it drag us backwards into unawareness. We want to avoid our inferior realm and get other people to deal with it for us, in our stead.

Even more is involved. For the whole unconscious means the collective unconscious, not just our personal repressed contents or our unused capac- ities, but the materia prima, the original chaos, the slime and the animal realm from which we have come: “Its roots reach back as far as the animal kingdom” and it brings with it a “spirit of gravity” (Jung, 1948/1958, par. 245). This “fourth function has its seat in the unconscious” that mythology symbol- izes as “a great animal, for instance Leviathan, or as a whale, wolf, or dragon” (Jung, 1963, par. 277). Hence opening the door and seeing the rhino there is not only to see the otherness of the inferior function in oneself, but the symbolic carrier of the inferior, the other in everyone and the animal as the symbolic carrier of the Self. This can be both terrifying and a heart-stopping summons to our small ego to heed this “recalcitrant fourth” (Jung, 1948/1958, par. 280).

The “dark and objectionable” nature of this primitive chaos, this primeval animal, makes us feel not only frightened but repelled, as if soiled, threatened with something poisonous, a monster, a madness, the jaws of hell, the ghostly (Jung, 1988, p. 954). It can evoke in us vertigo, nausea, as if the earth is moving beneath us, or the depth of water is rolling under our feet (pp. 1022, 1029, 1088). In addition, in the unconscious everything is mixed with everything else, nothing yet differentiated or worked upon, but just “a disor- derly heap of possibilities” (p. 954). We are like Hercules facing the Augean stables; the heroism that exists in each of us is called into being.

The collective unconscious also means the psychology of the mob, the lowest human, when we are caught up in the crowd, with “all the vices and virtues of the collective man. There is something dangerous about it; it can overwhelm the conscious existence of the individual” (Jung, 1988, p. 1022). We feel unfree: “Inferior feelings that are now coming up . . . envelop him, encoil him completely and he will soon be possessed by them… ” (1184), but we are in it; this is our life. With more consciousness, we see we “have carefully picked our way until we have found the hot water in which we are sitting” (p. 823). The woman who could not think what the text meant felt it urgent to go back to school to feed the reservoir underground rivers of her work that had run dry. She put herself in the very situation where she had to face her worst anxiety of inferiority, for the sake of connection to something deeper.

The mob of the collective crowd is our mob, and the mob is our tribe in society, and the mob is all of us in the human family, and the mob is the animal world, all the mixing and merging with the “cold-blooded saurians, the deep- est down of all, the transcendental paradox and mystery of the sympathetic and parasympathic psychoid processes” (Jung, 1963, par. 279). Even vestiges of prenatal memory press upon us, and the voices of the ancestors, eery, fas- cinating, elusive, tied to the timeless, pulling us away from the immediate moment in the world (Jung, 1973, p. 94).

The undeveloped infe- rior function in us that lies in the collective nature of the unconscious can present it- self through any of the more familiar psychic complexes that Jung described as ego, shadow, anima, animus. For example, one analysand, in facing images of a woman as

compellingly attractive, also had to deal with “her” craziness. In his initial dreams his image of the powerfully luring woman included her psychotic episodes; then, in later dreams, “she” had shorter times of dissociation, then moods that could get hysterical or anger that could overtake her. Slowly, as this man worked hard to relate to the feelings these images and the experiences this woman stirred in him, her image harbored all these disseminated parts into a cohesive personality. A woman analysand, struggling against feeling washed away by self-doubt, often dreamt of having a soapy head, or the shower curtain wrapping itself around her head; once, a big hand grabbed across her head in the shower. Lacking an effective persona—in fact, rejecting the need to present herself in the outside world at all—this soapiness, this wet entrapment, pictured to her what happened not just to her thoughts, but to her capacity to think. A shadow figure can personify our inferior function and confront the ego, such as a young man almost obsessive about filing his index cards who dreamt of a raucous fellow who laughed as he kicked the

file cabinet, which then burst into flames. A woman who came for analysis said that she had fallen in love with her husband’s capacity to talk, in contrast to her own muteness, but now she thought she would choke him if he didn’t “shut up” and let her find her own words. We can find ourselves fascinated by a person who embodies our missing extraversion or feeling.

Our psychological task, which calls from us great and persistent courage, is how to find ourselves in that crowd, that collective. As Jung says, “Some- where you have the secret of your particular pattern” (Jung, 1988, p. 1401). Where we must look is toward the inferior function. In that specific struggle— to develop our way of thinking, to articulate our deep feelings apart from the conventional formula, to find our connection to the sensate facts of life, to connect to our intuitions of possibilities hidden in the present that would open up the future—we find ourselves engaged in the task of reconciling conscious and unconscious. In this task we go beyond what Jung calls “that mere taking apart stage which is quite rational and explicable” (Jung, 1988, p. 956); that is, asking where did this problem come from, how am I to understand it? Instead we must go further into a synthetic process, which means, literally, getting all the parts of us in our specific location in the world together. Like a heap  of jigsaw pieces, we try to fit them together, in fact, to grow the connecting tissues, to reveal the picture of the whole puzzle of us.


The inferior function that we prefer to repress, to “leave around the corner because it is so awkward and with the strongest tendency to become infantile, banal,” nonetheless “conceals all sorts of symbolic meanings and significant relationships—they are the treasure-house of hidden wisdom.” Jung likens them to the Cabiri, the dwarf-like chthonic gods symbolizing the mysterious, creative powers under the threshold of consciousness (Jung, 1963, par. 244; 1953, par. 204–205). In mythic tales these “godlets” also exist on Olympus, which Jung understands to represent the eternal striving of unconscious, un- developed impulses in the inferior function to rise from the depths to the heights, to unite the above and the below. In this sense, the unconscious con- tent, here in the inferior function, “seeks, and itself is, what I have elsewhere called ‘the treasure hard to attain”’ (Jung, 1953, par. 205).

More directly put, “The mystery always begins in the inferior function, that is the place where new life, regeneration is to be found” (Jung, 1988,

  1. 954). We find this mythological motif in all three of the monotheisms and in Buddhism as well. The outlaw Moses becomes the leader of the Jews; the savior in Christianity is born of an unwed mother in the muck of a stable; Mohammad thinks the voices he hears mean that he is going mad, until his wife and uncle persuade him to take them seriously; the Buddha deserts his

family and position to encounter suffering, transience, and death, by which he breaks through to enlightenment. As Jung puts it, “The redeeming power comes from the place where nothing is expected . . . in a form that has nothing to recommend it” (Jung, 1971, par. 440).

We find the treasure, or it finds us, in the inferior realm: “The functions that have lain fallow and unfertile, and were unused, repressed, undervalued, despised, etc., suddenly burst forth and begin to live. It is precisely the least valued function that enables life” (Jung, 1971, par. 444). We protest, how can this be! To discover a mathematician living in the basement who speaks in numbers and formulas we cannot even grasp—and somehow we are to unite with this other, this complete stranger who approaches life from a point of view not only foreign to us, but unknown—seems like utter nonsense. Or worse still, it is not a mathematician in the cellar who has a point of view, an expertise, a vocabulary, an orientation, but instead the lowest mob part of us where we are hardly individual at all, where everything to do with the sensate world, for example—schedules, work plans, papers, records, tax accounts, bills, and notations of their payment—just gets lost in a jumble. We do not only not organize them, we lose them. Our very employment is threatened by our inability to get a grip on organizing these basic facts of holding a job. Neglect of our body’s life is another example, where fear or forgetfulness keeps us from having checkups, taking necessary preventive procedures, helpful medicines. We would not neglect our pet the way we neglect our body.

But in the mob level of us lies a creative will, a spark, as often containing our wounds and always certainly our deficits. Those are the unlockable doors where whatever wants to come in, whether a god or the rhino . . . can reach us at any time. We have built up no defenses there.

a beginning of the new. The new never comes in the front door, civilized, adapted, ad- vanced, introducing itself, but always barges in through the back door, or comes up the cellar stairs, or through the window, disordered, bringing the treasure in a heap of stuff. But, Jung says, “the mob is the fertile earth or the incu- bator or the dung heap upon which creation grows. The black  earth:  the  black substance is needed in order to create something in reality” (Jung, 1988, p. 1021). The earth, the soil that heretofore made us feel soiled, is the undifferentiated stuff in the unconscious,

in the inferior function. The earth, like black aery compost, fertilizes the power of growth.

The seed of the new finds nourishment there, not in what is developed and differentiated into our dominant function. I think of the inferior function as often containing our wounds and always certainly our deficits. Those are the unlockable doors where whatever wants to come in, whether a god or the rhino, can reach us at any time. We have built up no defenses there. Instead, we are more like a child, open, accessible, and vulnerable. It is the vulnerability, the unobstructed access that makes us dread the inferior function.

These images of the earth and the child convey the ambivalent nature of this treasure, found in muck and in unguardedness. We could slip, slide into the mud; we could be badly hurt. The new powerful life may spring up, come streaming out of the unconscious, flooding into consciousness, washing away all the values we had built up. Or the new may call forth the dangerous and menacing aspect of the unconscious, the dragon that wants to kill it (Jung, 1971, par. 446, 448, 449).

These dangers protect against any fraudulence on our part, any delusion that somehow we are putting ourselves in the way of the inferior function. No. Life puts us there. The psyche puts us there in its ruthless urge to individuate. We do not have to do it, nor can we ape it or think we invent this encounter with the inferior function, that somehow it is on our schedule and under our control: “If one is there, one knows it; one does not need to ask. If not, one had better not dabble in things which are most dangerous and poisonous” (Jung, 1988, p. 954). For example, we might think we can talk about having a transference to the analyst, as if somehow we were on top of it. But the emotional vigor of a transference attachment shows that “the unconscious without pity holds [the person] to the transference because something else is demanded or expected of [him or her], some further development” (p. 956).

That further development is where the new comes in and where heroism is needed. The descent to the inferior function can go all the way to “the navel which denotes the place where the original life streamed into us through the umbilical cord, it is the place which is not well defended and which will eventually kill us, the place through which death will enter again” (Jung, 1988,

  1. 1197). Facing our inferior function is always two-edged: We dread delving too deeply, lest the chaotic nature of what we find unravels all the parts of us, so that our functions, hereditary factors, social and political locations, inner images, and ego and shadow parts will not hold together, but disseminate, scattering like so much confetti into the world and back into the unconscious (Jung, 1953, par. 322). Yet diving down is precisely what is asked of us, in a spirit of devotion, a humble attitude that gets us deep enough, to where the new trickles in.

Here we are the fool, the dummling of fairy tales, not the queen or the wise man, but the inferior one who does not know what to do, and so blows a feather and follows the direction it lands. Here we are dependent on helpers that others scorn, the animal or insect, the old witch, the dwarf. Here we are naı¨ve, open to what is there and what is not there, simple, unsophisticated, not knowing any better way. Looked at from our most developed function, we appear foolish, ridiculous, pathetic. But we are willing (hence the courage) to expose ourselves to the new in whatever form it enters, which usually is in the opposite attitudes and functions from those we have already developed. We have the courage to trust what comes in, without worrying too much whether we look silly and slow.

The inferior function, because it has been left behind, undeveloped, still has the qualities of original wholeness of the unconscious, which includes everything—the mystical and the realistic, the profound and the banal, the religious and the profane. Thus the inferior function possesses a tremendous concentration of life energy and can become a source of renewal if we can let it come up in its own realm and in its own way. The person with a developed feeling function, for example, has, in the inferior function of thinking, deep thoughts, but they are not conventional or logical in the usual structured way; they are original and tinged with the sense of the whole of reality. The person with dominant thinking function has profound feelings that escape verbaliza- tion but resonate with heartfelt connection to others and, through them, to   all others. The person with inferior sensation can find order at the deepest level and from there, learn to schedule appointments and order records. But all this takes time. The inferior function is slow compared to our conscious pace, a wordless animal to our verbal skills. To develop our inferior function requires sacrifice.


I want to include this notion of sacrifice in discussing the inferior function because, on the personal level, it feels that way. It costs us; we suffer, flail about, find ourselves in a not-knowing place for long periods of time, in the dark, unable to see what’s what, or whether anything is growing. To con- sent to be slow, a dummling, a not-knower, takes courage. We must sacrifice the swifter pace of our developed functions, live with fear that we are talk- ing to a frog. We must give up feeling on top of things, capable of mapping the best route, programming the stages of new development, how long it will take, and how we should proceed. For inevitably we want to approach the inferior function through our most superior one, and the sacrifice is to let the inferior work on its own initiative. We resist because it feels like an overthrowing of everything we worked so hard to develop and rely on. It

feels as if we must waste time. We give up the old to let the new come in. “When the inferior function begins to work on its own initiative, it is experi- enced by the personality as a crucifixion, a symbolic death” (von Franz, 2002, p. 91).

We  may  feel  that the dominant function on which we rely is exhausted, or un- workable, and that  shocks us. One analysand, for exam- ple, said that after working hard with her lawyer on her will, answering what seemed like endless questions  such  as “What if this or that hap- pened, then where does your estate go?”, felt she would faint. With her intuitive capacities   she   could  see  the  whole of the matter and plot her course. What did her in with the lawyer were the endless series of concrete facts. She said, “Though not a drinker, I imagined slugging scotch to go unconscious!”

Sacrifice imposed on us by engaging our inferior function also has a collective element to it, because in our inferior realm we dwell in the col- lective unconscious and in the collective of society. The symbolic death we must undergo to let the inferior side of ourselves develop has collective sig- nificance. On a personal level, if we assimilate our inferior function, it feels like symbolic death because it radically changes our personality. That which was neglected is now honored; that which was despised and avoided now has a seat at the table; that which we feared now brings us unsuspected gifts. Less hierarchy obtains; more equality reigns among the parts of ourselves. The ego does not get away with dominating the agenda; it listens to the shadow, the animus, the anima. The Self by its nature includes all the parts of personality.

Our personal sacrifice to include the inferior bears directly on social and political efforts to include all the different religions, national allegiances, economic classes. Jung goes so far as to say, if we do not undergo a symbolic death, genocide will result (Jung, 1956–57/1976, par. 1661; see also Ulanov, 2007, Chapter 9). Our personal struggle for integration of all the parts of ourselves contributes to building social space in which rivaling factions may each gain a voice and begin to converse instead of kill. If we do not suffer the symbolic death of our presumed hierarchies, the rivaling parts seek to cancel each other in blind murderous ways.


What is the treasure conveyed through the inferior function? Not only re- newed gushes of energy “but release from bondage and world-weariness” (Jung, 1971, par. 435). The inferior function that we find stupid, immoral, nonsense, Jung says, is “the only thing that contains the fun of living” (Jung, 1988, p. 954). Our consciously disposable libido gradually gets used up in our dominant way of functioning and begins to regress into the unconscious, stirring up what lies undeveloped in us and around us, all that is inferior. A division builds up: our superior adapted way of functioning versus the inferior. From our struggling to bear consciously the increasing tension of their con- flict, a symbol arises that halts the regression of libido into the unconscious, transforming it into a progression, forming an irrational compromise of the warring opposites that expresses both and neither in our own “individual way on which the Yea and Nay are united” (Jung, 1971, par. 169). This fills us with awe; the inferior function brings a sacred accent, a sense of being touched by the numinous. Whatever the symbol is, it conveys “the complete freedom to be what one is, and also the duty to be what one is… [and] releases every- thing in [one] that lies captive and unlived” (par. 453). That which was dead comes alive.

But all this begins with our diving down into the first beginnings of the in- ferior function in us, with that open childlikeness devoid of prior assumptions that allows us to see the new that brings with it “another guiding principle in place of self-will and rational intentions, as overwhelmingly powerful in effect as it is divine” (Jung, 1971, par. 442).

The symbolic death experience is trying to assimilate this new principle that works a fundamental change in our personality. Our superior function is no longer superior but has been ploughed under to mix with the inferior. If the change is successful, we are no longer this type or that type, but a living mixture of a bit of each type. Successful assimilation of our inferior function brings the symbolic death of the theory of types!

Examples of this change of personality are a new sense of the symbolic level of living. We risk the death of concrete achievements and identification with our formerly superior function. On the conscious level, we experience things as opposites—the inner and the outer, the personal and the collective, the concrete and the mystical. When the inferior function is more integrated, its slower, more unconscious nature leads to a reality where this splitting into opposites does not occur. The question of which is real—for example, the inner relation to what this person represents or to the actual outer person,     or inner realization of this truth or outer social action to plant this truth          in the community, or connection to a sense of timelessness versus realizing accomplishment here and now in space and time—these questions do not occur. They are the wrong questions! We reach another perception of reality as a whole where both points of view in those questions obtain.

You might object and say that this is just back to Square One, wherein the unconscious everything is everything else. Yes and no—because we are there now with consciousness, and that makes all the difference. We consciously can entertain the unconscious, not be immersed in it but instead be related to it. Consciousness can look at itself, at its own roots in the unconscious, not just through itself at other, so-called objects. Conscious and unconscious are not so divided; each irrigates the other.

The catch, I believe, is to get to the point, the nexus, the meeting of our personal inferior function with the collective, and the meeting of the human, both individual and collective, with what transcends us yet comes into us. This meeting point releases us to a fuller humanity, but this new is not real unless we are living it. Then what was dead comes alive. This is the treasure: the livingness of it.

Ann Belford Ulanov, Ph.D., L.H.D., is a Jungian analyst in private practice in New York City, and Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychiatry and Religion  at Union Theological Seminary. Among the books and articles she has written with her late husband Barry Ulanov are Cinderella and Her Sisters: The Envied and the Envying and The Healing Imagination; and by herself, The Unshuttered Heart: Opening to Aliveness and Deadness in the Self.


Jung, C. G. The collected works of C. G. Jung, translated by R. F. C. Hull. Bollingen Series

  1. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press Vol. 12. Psychology and alchemy, 1953. Vol. 14. Mysterium coniunctionis, 1963. Vol. 6. Psychological types, 1971.

Jung, C. G. (1973, 1975). C. G. Jung letters, Vol. 1 (1906–1950), Vol. 2 (1906–1950). G.

Adler (Ed). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ulanov, A. B. (2007). The unshuttered heart: Opening to aliveness and deadness in the self. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

von Franz, M.-L. (1971). The inferior function. New York: Spring, Analytical Psychology Club of New York.

von Franz, M.-L. (2002). Anima and animus in fairy tales. Toronto: Inner City Books.