Problems, dilemmas, predicaments: a Jungian approach

Problems, dilemmas, predicaments: a Jungian approach

As long as one is alive, sane and living in the world you can be sure of having to face and negotiate problems. Much like death and taxes, problems come with the territory. To quote the Bard,

To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep

No more; and by a sleep, to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That Flesh is heir to?[1]

Although such poetic existential musings may not be our daily fare, we share an existence that is interwoven with such challenge. Most or certainly many problems can with some effort be successfully negotiated. We are by nature strategists and our evolutionary success as a species speaks to our ability to solve problems. Some problems however are bigger than others and recalcitrant to any obvious solution.

Carl Gustav Jung was of the opinion that,

all the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble. They must be so, for they express the necessary polarity inherent in every self-regulating system.[2]

In other words, broadly speaking, we face two distinct sets of problems.

  • The first set are problems that can be solved or resolved through one or other problem-solving strategy.
  • The second set are problems that do not submit themselves to any obvious resolution and are perennial.

We rightly should always start from the assumption that any problem presenting itself is a member of the first set – subject to resolution through the usual means at our disposal. Every problem in that sense is an engineering problem, we need to attempt to engineer or strategize, if you prefer, a solution. However, wisdom, is the awareness that some problems we have do not submit of any obvious solution despite our most sincere efforts. These problems we can then assign to the second set of recalcitrant perennial problems.

It is the second set that I want to focus on in this post.

In the terms of psychoanalysis, we might refer to this second set of enduring or repetitive problems as neurosis. This definition of neurosis is instructive here.

A poor ability to adapt to one’s environment, an inability to change one’s life patterns, and the inability to develop a richer, more complex, more satisfying personality [solution].”[3]

The discovery of psychoanalysis is that neurosis is ubiquitous. Contrary to what some might imagine, it is not limited to a few idiosyncratic personalities who visit the psychoanalyst. We all suffer from neurosis in one or other form and in one or other area, or areas, of our lives. Without discounting social and environmental factors, the experience of obdurate and enduring problems that resist our attempts at resolution, is an indicator of neurotic content. Neurosis is, in the words of the founder of psychoanalysis, “a repetition compulsion”.[4] This repetition takes one of two overlapping forms, I repetitively repeat a self-sabotaging behaviour. This is often done in a state of unconscious projection, in which I perceive it as happening to me, rather than recognising myself as the agent of the event. Or I repeatedly attempt the same solution to a problem that has consistently proven resistant to the repeatedly applied solution/strategy.

These types of problems are prime candidates for the psychoanalytic approach.[5] An aerial view of this approach was most elegantly provided by Jung’s paper, The Problems of Modern Psychotherapy.[6] In this paper Jung provides an overview of and insight into the four distinct and synchronous stages of healing or transformation in analytical psychology (i.e. Jungian psychology). He also shows how each stage relates to and represents a distinct school or approach to psychoanalysis.

This structure details the Jungian approach to the question of transformation and is uniquely suited to obstinate and recalcitrant problems or dilemmas. It involves four distinct stages:

  • Confession or catharsis (stage 1)
  • Amplification and illumination (stage 2)
  • Education (stage 3)
  • Transformation (stage 4)

Jung was also informed in his thinking about the four stages of transformation by the four stages of transmutation in alchemy: Nigredo, Albedo, Citrinitas and Rubedo.

The alchemical model is metaphorically telling. The alchemical expression, the verdigris (rust) on the coin is through our magistery (transmuting or curative power) changed into our most true gold is most apt in describing the Jungian approach.

Our gold is not the common gold. But thou hast inquired concerning the greenness (verdigris), deeming the bronze to be a leprous body on account of the greenness it has upon it. Therefore I say unto thee that whatever is perfect is that greenness only, because that greenness is straightaway changed by our magistery into our most true gold.

The paradoxical remark of Thales that the rust alone gives the coin its true value Is a kind of alchemical quip, which at bottom says there is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection. To round itself out life calls not for perfection but for completeness; and for this the ‘thorn in the flesh’ is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent.[7]

What is extraordinary about this idea, which lies at the heart of Jungian theory, is that error, fallibility, mistakes, problems, dilemmas et al. are not only valuable, but the most valuable of our experiences. It is less about reconciling ourselves to these issues as form of compromise, but rather that they hold the key to our most profound and sublime experiences of ourselves, our relationships and the world.

This, I trust you will agree, sounds promising. It offers us a radically different and significantly more empowering way of viewing issues that ordinarily are experienced as distressing and belittling and such experiences can and often do detract from our sense of self-worth. Viewed through this lens the problem takes on the character of an empowering challenge. It opens the door to the proverbial hero’s journey. It becomes the prima materia (primal material) to be used in your own process of alchemical transmutation.

It is toward this end that our work in Applied Jungian Psychology[8] is oriented. The Four Stages of Transformation being an explicit case in point.

The above said, I have over the years of teaching this method, both online and real world, realised that one may, and I often have, assumed too much. I recognised naturally that a solution to the problems presented are difficult to come to, hence the value and utility of our work. But I incorrectly assumed that everyone more, or less, knows what their problem is! This was, at least through the lens of psychoanalysis, naïve. This post along with a greater general emphasis on this aspect of the method or theroria[9] is an attempt to remedy this oversight and to address this essential step in the process.

If some of what is said, seems redundant or obvious, I beg your indulgence. I do not wish to assume anything and want to lay this process of identification out step by step, starting at the very beginning.

The nature of problems, dilemmas and predicaments

By the terms: problem, dilemma, predicament, we are referring to an issue that causes you distress, anxiety, frustration, shame, anger or recrimination and, possibly most importantly, longing or desire. A situation you are dealing with in which you are dissatisfied with the status quo. A situation you are facing that you (desperately) desire to see changed, resolved, fixed, done away with and so on.

If there is honestly nothing of that sort in your life, if everything in your world is to your satisfaction, then this method and approach is not for you. Its application would not only be redundant but may do some harm. This process is aimed at those with a definite problem, or a recurring issue, if you prefer, that they wish to address and ideally change.

A problem of this nature takes the form of an internal dilemma or paradox. Some forms it might assume can be mapped out in this fashion.

  • I am here but would like to be there.
  • I have this but want that.
  • I want this and want that.
  • I want this but believe that.
  • I believe this and believe that.

Where “this” and “that” are mutually exclusive, e.g.

  • I am here working underground in the proverbial coal mine but wish to be there – a member of the executive.
  • I am old but wish to be young again.
  • I want success, love, abundance et al. but do not feel worthy of it.
  • I want to be in a relationship and want my freedom.
  • I want to enjoy a glass of wine in the evenings (it feels as if my sanity depends on it) but believe I may be developing an alcohol dependency.
  • I believe in charity, kindness and empathy and believe that God helps those who help themselves and the majority of those in need of my charity have created their own misery – or some such paradoxical set.

The above are arbitrary examples and not meant to be representative in terms of content but of form – the form the type of problems we are referring to may take. The universal characteristic is that problems of this nature create a dichotomous situation between what obtains, the status quo, and your desire. Such issues are marked by a degree of inner tension and existential suffering.

Identifying your specific problem, dilemma or predicament

There are a few markers you should consider in identifying your specific problem. I will split these into two sets. Set 1 had to do with distress.

Each question should be read as – that which causes you the most…

  • Discomfort
  • Unhappiness (misery)
  • Distress
  • Anxiety (fear).
  • Frustration (anger).
  • Shame

Set 2 has to do with desire. Consider the following questions.

  • What is your greatest unfulfilled desire?
  • What is your most deeply held fantasy?

Reflect on both sets of questions. The key here is non-judgmental honesty. It is awfully difficult to get to the core of the issue in question if you are not able and willing to ask these questions with an open mind and heart. Try to avoid at this stage of the process being dictated to by your prejudices. Later in the process at the stage of ‘education’ we consider the nature of the desire and its relationship to the ego’s ethical stance. However, it is essential to the efficacy of this process that you achieve the highest degree of (ruthless) honesty in considering the questions posed.

Once you have considered both sets of questions, refine and distill the issue by considering the following.

  • Can you identify a convergent issue in each set?
  • Can you identify a convergence between sets 1 and 2?

Before you answer in the negative take some time. It often requires a period of reflection to identify convergent themes, particularly where unconscious content is concerned. What you are looking for is a red thread, a theme or issue in which your answers or at least your most significant answers coalesce. This is not to suggest that you only have one dilemma and corresponding desire. However, for the purposes of getting this process off the ground, you want to articulate your most significant issue.

As a type of litmus test once you have identified the issue, consider if it is affectively (emotionally) charged? An absence or low level of emotion in relation to the issue is less than ideal. If this is the case, you may want to consider re-looking at the investigative questions. What you are after is something emotionally charged. This acknowledged, access to emotion varies and it is not uncommon for something deeply buried in the unconscious to fail, at least initially, to provide its corresponding emotional charge.

Once you have the issue, work on an articulate and relatively succinct description of it. You should not need more than a single paragraph at most, and it can be as succinct as single sentence. A rule of thumb is the more economical the expression the higher the degree of assimilation. However, don’t sacrifice expression for the sake of economy.

A final thought on the expression of the issue. Treat the expressed problem as a placeholder for a deeper and more profound issue. Whatever you have expressed, allow for a shifting, deepening and increasing sophistication of the issue to emerge over time.

You have identified the problem. Now what?

The short answer is that in doing this you have taken a quantum leap forward in consciousness. In this sense I am first and foremost a Lacanian, the pièce de résistance of analysis is the articulation of your deepest desire. This is what you have already accomplished by doing the exercise in this post. You now know what the problem is, and what you most deeply desire.

Psychoanalysis is the art and science of honesty. Relational honesty to be sure, but first and foremost honesty with yourself.  This process of identifying your problem is an exercise in honesty. What you decide to do with this newfound level of self-understanding is entirely up to you. If I could offer a final word of advice though, whatever you do, don’t hide from yourself. If psychoanalysis teaches us anything its that the act of hiding rarely turns out well in the long run.


With that I bid you adieu,



[1] Hamlet, Act III, scene I, William Shakespeare.

[2] C. G. Jung. CW 13, par 18

[3] Boeree, C. George (2002), A Bio-Social Theory of Neurosis

[4] Sigmund Freud, (1914), Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through

[5] I use the term “psychoanalytic” here tor refer, not to Freudian psychoanalysis exclusively, but to depth psychology broadly.

[6] Jung, C.G (1929). ‘Problems of Modern Psychotherapy,’ in The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol 16 The practice of psychotherapy 2nd edition. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

[7] Jung, C. G., Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Works, vol. 12, pars. 207-208.

[8] And in Jungian psychoanalysis.

[9] Method or practice of contemplation, to be distinguished from ‘theory’

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Comments (10)

  • Serdyn du Toit Reply

    Good stuff, thank you.

    August 6, 2019 at 7:16 pm
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      Thanks Serdyn, glad you enjoyed the post.

      August 7, 2019 at 12:28 pm
  • Gill Andrew Reply

    Hullo Stephen, I am such a fan of the work that you and Anja do, and want to thank you for your very helpful articles over the years. Since Jung’s writings can be difficult to really understand, I find yours extremely interesting and clarifying. The question Of “OK, but what actually IS a neurosis in real life” has bugged me for ages, but the above article has helped.
    I longed for a second child for thirty years, it was never solved. The pain was mixed with regret, guilt, shame. Then many years later, I got two grandaughters which have completely satisfied and healed that (um.. Neurosis???) and made me believe in God again. But now, haha, i have another problem, true to life’s eternal form. It is, “I want to be HERE in Durban, but I also want to be THERE in Joburg, near these beloved grandkids.” Eish. Oh well.
    I was once given a very special blessing back in my neurotic years, that I could have my heart’s desire. It sounded awesome at the time, until I twigged that I didn’t actually KNOW what I actually wanted, what would fulfil me. You can think you do, but can be quite wrong. It’s one of the hardest questions to really answer. This resonates with Jung’s elegant process as explained above. Thanks again for your deeply delicious and nutricious articles.

    August 7, 2019 at 10:31 am
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      Thanks for this comment and the feedback Gill. Very pleased you find value in our posts. Yes, sometimes one has to get out of psychoanalytic speak and use our normal semantic terms to better understand what is being spoken about. I would say that is really our focus as an institution, to make what is otherwise be quite abstract and accessible, more accessible and practical.I look forward to working with you on one of our programmes in the near future.

      August 7, 2019 at 12:32 pm
    • MS Reply

      Hello Gill,
      Thank you for posting your comment. This part really resonated with me: “until I twigged that I didn’t actually KNOW what I actually wanted, what would fulfil me. You can think you do, but can be quite wrong. It’s one of the hardest questions to really answer.” I’m very much in this place right now and this issue is a large part of what brought me to this course at this time. Looking forward to getting to grips with this and feel that I’m in good company!
      All the best.

      August 8, 2019 at 4:20 pm
  • Dominique Reply

    When would be the next online course, apart from the 12 of August?

    August 7, 2019 at 12:24 pm
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      Domaninique our next online course Citrinitas will open for student admission on the 1st of September. Citrinitas is part of the Magnum opus programme and that stage focuses on relating and relationships.

      August 7, 2019 at 12:35 pm
  • MS Reply

    Hello Stephen,
    I was really encouraged when I read your article because a recurrent problem/dilemma/predicament ( or my attitude to it) is exactly why I’m here – and you have already given me a lot to think about and work on ( the question sets) before the course has even started! I feel like I’m in exactly the right place for me right now!

    August 8, 2019 at 4:17 pm
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      I am very pleased to hear that and am excited to be working with you through this programme Maureen.

      August 8, 2019 at 4:23 pm
  • Karen Sparks Reply

    Thanks so much for this. I am a student in the four part program and copied this out to place in my notebook. It is very helpful. In particular, it is almost comforting to know that what may be most challenging for us in terms of a neurosis, may in fact be quite challenging to overcome or work through. I have seen a pattern in my relationships which is quite disappointing to me. I have been aware of it for some time and though I have worked diligently… consciously and with good intent, have found myself once again wrapped up in its hold (similar pattern). One thing that has been encouraging to me, though, is even though I can see the pattern repeat itself, it seems to be diminishing in its strength or intensity (for lack of a better way to describe this). For example, I no longer attract the same type of individuals (or pattern intensity) I once did. I seem to be developing better relationships over time, but then am faced with what seems like another layer or a deeper layer to sort out. Another way to word this, is that I see I am still attracting the similar pattern, but it does not feel to be the same ‘level’ of pattern it once was.

    December 13, 2019 at 9:04 pm

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