A Tale of Two Elephants: Metaphors for the Unconscious
Because you are a hybrid creature, a mixture of the mortal dust of earth and the immortal breath of God, your thoughts and feelings are partly built from the body up. You carry the accumulated wisdom of your ancestors within you at the implicit level of reflexes, nerves, habits, feelings, and intuitions. “Our unconscious mind, like our body,” Jung wrote, “is a storehouse of relics and memories of the past.” This is why it’s possible to be a mystery to yourself, because you are not only a human individual: you are also an instantiation of human nature, a recent flower on an ancient rhizome, as Jung described it. You are full of undiscovered countries. You can sabotage your own plans, lead a double life, and be your own worst enemy; you can bury untold potential in your proverbial attic, and surprise yourself with bursts of strength or creativity (hence the revelation: “I didn’t know I had it in me!”). Your internal landscape is spacious and diverse. This can be simultaneously exciting and disturbing to realize.
In Jordan Peterson’s words, it’s terrible “to have that discordance between your instinctual being and your little fragile, half-witted conscious mind that thinks it’s in control. You’re not in control of anything, believe me… You’re an evolved creature, so God only knows what’s in there — 3.5 billions years’ worth of weirdness you can draw on, or that moves you where it wants to move you.”
People have developed some vivid images for the unconscious self (both of which involve elephants, oddly enough) and which are probably familiar to you. There’s “the elephant and the rider” in which the tiny conscious ego sits atop the massive unconscious “elephant,” assuming it’s in control when it’s really just along for the ride. There’s also the invisible “elephant in the room,” that unnameable, ignored, and rejected aspect of reality that takes up most of the space in the house and forces everyone to tip-toe around it. One can’t help but feel as though elephants secretly rule the world.
Jung had his own way of describing the unconscious — not as an elephant, but as an ecosystem, a lively internal community. You are not one simple, static thing: you are run by committee. Jung believed that the human psyche functions through opponent processing, similar to the way our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems calibrate between two poles (activation and rest), holding the opposites in tension. To the psyche, as to the body, opposites are not a problem — they are a necessity, the very foundation of life. The psyche is a teleological, dynamic balancing act that progresses towards the goal of wholeness by integrating opposing forces. A conscious ego requires the balancing presence of the unconscious, or it will run off the rails.
Jung’s insight mirrors the biblical wisdom tradition. “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens,” we read in Ecclesiastes. A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to keep and a time to throw away. This is the reality of all finite living creatures and systems “under the heavens.” We are called to cooperate with the wisdom of “both-and” rather than collapse into the simplicity and one-sidedness of “either-or.” This means that life — biologically, psychologically, spiritually, and socially — isn’t a contest with a winner and a loser, but a conversation. It’s not a debate; it’s a dialogue.
Meet Your “Inner Committee”
Jung identified a wide variety of these internal committee members in the human psyche. These facets make up our conscious self, our “personal unconscious” that’s unique to each of us, and the much older “collective unconscious” that constitutes our shared human nature. The psyche’s ecosystem includes the ego, the persona, the shadow, the instincts, the anima or animus, the archetypes, complexes, and the Self. It’s beyond the scope of what I’m writing here to delve into the meaning of all of these (visit This Jungian Life podcast if you’d like to fall down that fascinating rabbit hole), but the point is this: these factors are active within you whether you recognize them or not, so it behooves you to be introduced to these various parts of yourself and to dialogue with them.
Most of us struggle with inner fragmentation: we live at cross-purposes with ourselves, half-heartedly, lacking integrity. What we say we value and how we act don’t line up. Some of this discordance is due to sin (see Romans 7), but not all of it. Willingly making the unconscious conscious enables us to integrate our disparate parts into a cooperative, purified, rightly ordered, whole Self.
It’s common for your conscious self (your ego) to overestimate itself, to be unaware that it’s just the tip of the iceberg, to think that it is you—the real you, whole you. This one mistake can have a variety of consequences: you can become egotistical, get stunted by black-and-white thinking, find yourself trapped in self-defeating behaviors, or confuse your public mask with your real self and wind up a permanent fake. Yet there is grace built into our very psychic structure. “In each of us is another whom we do not know,” Jung said. “He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves.” Poke, poke, poke, goes the unconscious, pestering you like a sibling. You are not who you think you are. There’s a lot more to you than you know.
Your “inner other” may be rowdy, disagreeable, and opinionated; it may be life-giving, soft-spoken, and profound. Whether it appears to you as beautiful or terrible, you must engage yourself in a spirit of hospitality and curiosity. If you don’t, the shadowy and largely unconscious parts of you will possess you without you being aware of it, and you will forfeit your own agency. Jung warned that unless you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it “fate.” We can only ignore the unconscious for so long, and we run roughshod over it at our peril. The more we repress it, the more dangerous it becomes.
Carl Jung, an Elephant, and a Greek Philosopher Walk into a Bar…
If that invisible elephant of the unconscious knocks on the front door of your mind and you ignore it (when it’s relatively polite), it’s not as though it goes away forever or stops trying to get your attention. The midlife affair (or any number of other tried-and-true, life-imploding scenarios) is the immature scream of the inner “other,” wild with despair because its earlier protests were ignored. Some neglected part of you knocked on your front door, and you sent it away without a hearing. Now it’s showing up at the back door with some matches, ready to start a dumpster fire. When the stakes were low, when legitimate integration was possible, when a little honesty, humility, and creativity would have sufficed to make it feel at home, you refused to negotiate.
This is the essence of self-sabotage and hypocrisy. When we forgo the effort required to integrate the opposites within ourselves, and we live in a one-sided way for too long, we’re inviting the pendulum to swing in the other direction. Jung witnessed this self-destruction many times in his patients. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus called this enantiodromia, a running contrariwise. Sooner or later everything runs into its opposite. This occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life, allowing for an equally powerful counterposition to build up as compensation. What begins as a minor slip up can grow to monstrous and uncontrollable proportions.
This phenomenon shows itself regularly in the moral crash-and-burn of famous Christian leaders: they maintain a public persona of holiness, but this false face is compensated for by a sordid sexual life that eventually destroys their ministries, families, and reputations. Jung wrote, “It is often tragic to see how blatantly a man bungles his own life and the lives of others yet remains totally incapable of seeing how much the whole tragedy originates in himself, and how he continually feeds it and keeps it going.” In other words, give your unconscious shadow and instincts a seat at the table of your inner committee before it’s too late.