Symptom or Symbol?

Symptom or Symbol?

Carl Gustav Jung makes a clear distinction between a symptom and a symbol.[1] In this post I explore the distinction, how we might distinguish between symptoms and symbols, and what the implications of this are for the daily practice of individuation.

I am currently leading a group of students on a one hundred day practice of the Microcosmic Orbit meditation as given in the mystical Taoist text The Secret of the Golden Flower.[2] The text, specifically the Richard Wilhelm translation, occupies an interesting and somewhat undefined status, with its convergence of Taoist alchemy and Jungian psychoanalysis.

I have had an interesting personal journey with this text that has led to the development of a synthesised method, utilising elements of both meditation and psychodynamic reflection, and the locus of my focus is on individuation as a daily practice.[3] Thinking about individuation as a daily practice helps to sharpen and narrow one’s focus on the individuation imperative as a guiding and central ethic.

One of the issues I am currently thinking about and focusing on in our group process is repetition compulsion. The idea of repetition compulsion “Wiederholungszwang” comes to us from Sigmund Freud. Freud describes this repetition compulsion as occurring in a few different, but psychologically intersecting, ways. [4]

  • Dreams and fantasy material, particularly of a traumatic nature.
  • An infant at play, relatedly re-enacting the experience of loss and recovery, i.e., with a favourite toy throwing it out of the cot and reeling it back in.
  • The phenomenon of transference being the recapitulation with the analyst of developmental/childhood relational dynamics.
  • “Destiny neurosis”, “the life-histories of men and women … an essential character-trait which remains always the same and which is compelled to find expression in a repetition of the same experience”[5]

Whilst all these repetition compulsions are of interest, I want to focus here on the repetition of “the symptom”, present in the examples Freud provides, as a daily experience. To flesh this out a little, the repeated daily re-enactment and recapitulation of symptomatic behaviours, thoughts, fantasy material et al. And to contrast this symptomatic way of being against an engagement with “living symbols”, as Jung characterises them. Let us look at the passage in question where Jung deals with the contrast between a symptom and a symbol.

But precisely because the new symbol is born of man’s highest spiritual aspirations and must at the same time spring from the deepest roots of his being, it cannot be a one-sided product of the most highly differentiated mental functions but must derive equally from the lowest and most primitive levels of the psyche. For this collaboration of opposing states to be possible at all, they must face each other in the fullest possible conscious opposition. This necessarily entails a violent disunion with oneself, to the point where thesis and antithesis negate each other, while the ego is forced to acknowledge its absolute participation in both.

If there is a subordination of one part, the symbol will be predominantly the product of the other part, and, to that extent, less a symbol than a symptom – a symptom of the suppressed antithesis. To the extent, however, that a symbol is merely a symptom, it also lacks a redeeming effect, since it fails to express the full right of all parts of the psyche to exist, being a constant reminder of the suppressed antithesis even though consciousness may not take this into account.

However when there is full parity of the opposites, attested by the ego’s absolute participation in both, this necessarily leads to a suspension of the will, for the will can no longer operate when every motive has an equally strong counter motive. Since life cannot tolerate a standstill, a damming up of vital energy results, and this would lead to an insupportable condition did not the tension of opposites produce a new uniting function that transcends them. This function arises quite naturally from the regression of the libido caused by the blockage. All progress has been rendered temporarily impossible by the total division of the will, the libido streams backwards as it were, to its source. In other words, the neutralisation and inactivity of consciousness brings about an activity of the unconscious, where all the differentiated functions have their common archaic root, and where all contents exist in a state of promiscuity of which the private mentality still shows numerous vestiges.

G. Jung, Collected Works, vol. 6, par 824

Jung offers a seemingly simple and clear binary distinction between these two distinct psychological phenomena.

  • A “living symbol” is the expression of the full parity and conscious participation a union of opposites, thesis and antithesis. To put this another way, living symbol is the simultaneous expression of violently opposed perspectives, ideologies, desires, beliefs etc. The most obvious and easiest example to get a hold of being the frequent violent disunion and opposition between a desire and a moral injunction denying the fulfilment of that desire.
  • A symptom, by contrast, is a consequence and artefact of a one-sided conscious perspective that fails to take into account its repressed unconscious antithesis.

I do qualify it though with “seemingly” simple because as a contemplative lens and an analytical tool it is almost certainly simpler in theory than application. Once we start looking at actual psychic content asking the question; symptom or symbol, it is almost certainly neither simple nor quite as clear cut a binary.

This qualification made, the classification of either symptom or symbol is a useful way to reflect on daily activity and consider whether and where one may be engaged in repetition compulsion. What I am suggesting, as uncontroversial I would think, is that Freud’s repetition compulsion is the acting out of what Jung is characterising as a symptom and this is juxtaposed against a symbol.

Armed with these descriptive and classificatory tools from Freud and Jung, let us attempt to characterise repetition compulsions and symptomatic consciousness as a daily experience. Or, to put it another way, let us consider what daily activity might be so classified.

Activity that is:

  • Repetitive and compulsive. And re-enacts or re-constellates a historical mode-of-being, particularly one that contains, and in its re-enactment expresses, unassimilated traumatic content.
  • A consequence of a one-sided conscious perspective and expressing a repressed unconscious perspective, disposition or desire. Jung elsewhere, also characterises symptomatic consciousness as “narrow…[a] stiffness of attitude, and a spiritual or emotional horizon bounded by childish naivete or pedantic prejudice”[6].

How might we use this and the contrast to engaging with a living symbol (and a degree of inference and intuition) to ferret out symptomatic repetition compulsions? I believe the following criteria might be said, in the case of these symptomatic repetitions, to apply:

  • To start with the lowest hanging fruit, obviously any repetitive compulsion.
  • Behaviour and psychic life that runs autonomously and has lost its animating spirit, i.e., has become dead and meaningless.
  • Repetitions that fail to instil in the subject a sense of purpose, life, animation, meaning or joie de vivre.

And (this is an important qualifier) are not essential! Obviously, it is utopian and idealistic not to recognise the daily re-enactment of necessary activity. Here though is probably precisely where the rub is. This signifier “necessary” can obfuscate a lot of bullshit. It is a most convenient strategy to blame necessity for all the ills I enact both on the world and myself. Here is where I guess psychoanalysis or Socratic irony come into their own, as method of ruthless interrogation of the truth claims of necessity. It is precisely here where one is often obliged to “give up what thou hast, then thou shalt receive”.[7]

The above qualification (and qualification of the qualification 😊) made, armed with your current level of self-awareness I imagine you are more than able to identify a few areas where you are involved in repetition-compulsion or symptomatic consciousness on a daily basis.

A living symbol, and being engaged with it, by contrast, is an enlivening experience that imbues meaning and channels libido. That said, if we follow Jung’s characterisation, it is no walk in the park, and can radically test our psychological fortitude, “when there is full parity of the opposites, attested by the ego’s absolute participation in both, this necessarily leads to a suspension of the will, for the will can no longer operate when every motive has an equally strong counter motive.”[8]

An interesting example of a possible repetition compulsion was offered on our last webinar by a few students on the SGF programme. It is one which has a definite cultural and collective dimension, such that I imagine will resonate for many reading this post. Although framed slightly differently by various students, the underlying dynamic was the same. The issue being one of the (arguably) compulsive need to be continually busy and productive.

This need to be constantly busy also struck a chord with me personally, as it is very much a condition and state-of-being I participate in. The idea of inactivity is a special kind of hell for me. I am someone who likes a challenge and consider myself quite psychologically robust. That said, I would far rather walk over a bed of hot coals than do something like a silent stimulus free meditative retreat, for any length of time. [9] As a young man not unsympathetically disposed toward Dionysian pleasures, on more than one occasion I would flee the nightclub I was at to return home, in the middle of the night, to resume work on whatever project I was engaged with. On many occasions I would awake from a deep slumber in the early hours of the morning in the grip of existential terror as to the direction and productive value of my current existence. I trust you get the idea.

Now the question we can ask is, is this daily ‘busyness/productivity’, always or necessarily a form of repetition compulsion or symptomatic? I would think to answer in the affirmative would be too strong a claim. We cannot, or at least should not, strike through all productive activity, not even if is done daily. To do so would be to claim that all the greatest human cultural endeavours, which typically demand a lifetime of single-minded dedication and productivity, are artefacts of a neurotic mindset. That feels wrong. Intuitively we recognise that certain productive activity is not only healthy but to be acknowledged and admired for its virtue.

Simultaneously, we also recognise, that being busy/productive for its own sake as a defensive mechanism against a pure state of being, which inevitably leads one to painful existential reflections/contemplations, may be legitimately classified as compulsive, symptomatic and a form of repetition compulsion. This state of affairs has been exponentially amplified naturally with the ubiquitous dissemination and use of mobile technology devices and the World Wide Web, such that it is increasingly difficult to endure even a moments silence and inactivity. The technology in question, such as it is, has greatly amplified our need for constant stimulation.

We can see in this need for constant productivity a form of escapism from the reality and experience of simply being. My late analyst, the wonderful Fernand Schaub, once told me how he would frequently see male analysands, of older age who had spent their entire lives constantly busy achieving, and who now wondered what the purpose of all their activity was.

In thinking about this I am reminded of the idea of Jung’s that unconscious one-sidedness is the hight of barbarism, and conscious one-sidedness is the hight of culture. One can see busyness and productivity through this lens and evaluate its virtue based on its unconscious or conscious nature. To put it simply,

Why exactly are you busy?
What are you busy with?
And, what is the lasting virtue of this activity?

That said though, in the final analysis, busy is still busy and must be contrasted with the presence, sacredness and virtue of non-activity and silence.

What I’m driving at here is the binary nature of busyness-productivity vs. non-activity and suggesting that we cannot conclusively pin our flag to either mast. A conscious and considered existence must tip its hat to both alternate juxtaposed ways of being. I also challenge the claim of balance, which, in my own view is psychically elusive, an idealisation designed primarily to tyrannise us and encourage self-flagellation. More accurately and realistically we are in a dance with these two modes of being and should be careful not to be swept off our feet by our dance partner, or not to be swept off our feet again!

What I suggest is that this dynamic itself is a living symbol and should be approached with the requisite respect. It is precisely what constitutes a living symbol, thesis and antithesis where we cannot conclusively side with one perspective over the other and with which dynamic and form, we are deeply engaged. Finally then, from the aforementioned we can see that possibly the evaluation: symptom or symbol (?), is less a distinction in the phenomenon itself than a distinction in our apperception and understanding of it.

I’ll leave it there for now, having made sufficient demands on your time and will allow you to return to the normal busy and productive activities of your daily life.

Until we speak again,


[1] CW, vol. 6, par. 824

[2] Translated by Richard Wilhelm, with commentary by C. G. Jung

[3] For more on my journey with the text

for more on individuation as a daily practice

[4] Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through, (1914); Beyond the Pleasure Principle, (1920)


[6] Collected Works, vol. 5, par. 681

[7] Collected Works, vol. 7, par 26.

[8] Collected Works, vol. 6, par. 824

[9] I am thinking here of the 10-day Vipassanā as an exemplar of this.

Share this post

Comments (9)

  • Gail smith reynolds Reply

    Hi. You are coming through language that I am immersed in that bumps against interior understandings, many that I am aware of, most, bump around in dream and fantasy. For me: 1. I am engaging with what I determine to be a living symbol, uncertain if that is true. But I am acting as if I know and pushing forth, certain I will bump against that which demands my energy. 2. For me, there’s an elephant in the room: I have already tackled it and could not get my arms around huge creature. Two words you hit (again) that l am hyper-alert to: libido and promiscuity: point being: and here l dare speak: I do struggle with the Animus/anima estrangement embodied in the very text, which does not include me, l must include myself and presume entre. All bitterness has ebbed for me, in feeling a kind of ….sigh interior…. that engaging with this practice demands l admit to myself (at the very least) that my expression of sexuality is …..still dangerous…and suspect in some way …stop. …. because… that is my engagement. Why is it so dangerous and difficult to bring my libido and my question: WHAT is promiscuity in the context of the discipline we’re engaged to?

    Oooh! Brain explosion. From the original text and the use of it in it’s origin: question: to what extent, were women included in the pursuit of spiritual awakening and were there consequences specifically for women who desired to engage. And did engage…does this question make sense and if not can you help me reframe it.

    April 14, 2022 at 4:30 pm
  • Evangeline Rand Reply

    Stephen, this is an important contribution. thank you.

    I do hope you can dip into Jung as Artisan…
    Really it’s core is the Secret Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus… which I think is the =core of Jung’s work.
    Easter Blessings,
    Evangeline Rand

    April 14, 2022 at 6:02 pm
  • olena Reply

    Hello Stephen,

    That is amazing! As a Jungian with a doctoral degree and decades of dream-analysis experience, I’d love to develop some sort of collaboration with you.

    April 14, 2022 at 7:47 pm
  • Tosia Reply

    I did this once with you before and now that aspects of my life seem to be falling apart, I think I should do it again, so I do appreciate your reflections on it. We are in times of great transition, and many of us are being challenged to the core of our beings, even moreso if we are also trying to help those around us to hang on and push through. All wisdom is precious right now, so thank you Stephen.

    April 15, 2022 at 3:12 am
  • Anne Haug Reply

    The habitual compulsion that I notice a lot regards politics. For many, it is a completely binary operation, suppressing one extreme to promote the other, when in reality there are so many nuances across the political spectrum between conservative and liberal that a more aware person would take into consideration and thereby not polarize.

    April 15, 2022 at 6:04 pm
  • Sushmita Mazumdar Reply

    Love this Stephen! I remember how recently friends took me on a trip where they planned everything. “But I have work,” I kept reminding them. Then in a Thursday meeting a deadline was delayed by a client and I “could” go. But would I? As a self-employed person I can always have work. But I did go, just to see what it was to not plan a trip I was on, to eat what others had planned/cooked and to do activities others had put on a schedule. As I wanted to slow down the contrast always was that for me just going in the trip was the success even as my friends had to do many things to feel it was a success. In the end there was a wonderful balance of them cancelling some plans and me going along with some but doing a lot of nothing as well.

    April 17, 2022 at 6:38 pm
  • Reply

    Christina Thomas-Fraser
    I feel immersed in an indescribably rich, fertile matrix. Profoundly grateful for life’s countless challenges and blessings…and for this course…and it is just beginning.

    April 30, 2022 at 7:14 pm
  • Lrumpf Reply

    I like the words of Anne LaMott: “It takes a lot of loafing to write a book.” I am also reminded of Rudolf Steiner on the idea that the human beings natural state is motion, not rest, which can be seen in the way when we stand, we do not stand utterly still, but weave forward and back and forth ever so slightly, describing a triangular form in space, as we throw our weight slightly out and around in the three directions or “legs” on which any upright object may stand to support its weight.

    May 5, 2022 at 4:20 pm
  • Linda (Zamonska) Rumpf Reply

    In addition, this blog post reminds me of Steiner’s differentiation between imagination and fantasy, where fantasy would be symptomatic behavior that does not really reflect the real, and imagination would be use of living symbols to communicate both thoughts and feelings about reality, states of reality, or real possibilities. Interestingly, many things that have become “real,” such as space travel, started out in the world of “science fiction fantasy.” Space travel, when first included as a topic in fantasy novels, was nowhere near being something that was a possible reality. But, then, one day, it was. Many people think that it was the fantasy, itself, of space travel, that got us onto how to manifest it as real.
    It is interesting to think about our fantasies—the ones which we do not acknowledge as actual possibilities—as not necessarily having the limits we place upon them. If one were to step outside time and look at the arc of progress and creativity coming to bear on one’s life, one could potentially see that some fantasies might come true, if we acknowledge with our conscious thinking the possibilities for what we feel so deeply as desires. In this way, by allowing for possibility itself to exist, we may lift a one-sided desire life into that which is met and redeemed by conscious activity.
    This relates to the suspension of will in that when I acknowledge my desires with my conscious thinking, I can get to that place of “frozen will” if I do not also embrace potential for actually getting what I want. To keep from getting stuck, I can, in the process of fantasizing, think about what it is I really want. For me, this is where individuating universal symbols into personal symbols is so helpful, because it seems a lot of what I fantasize about having in my life which I do not already have is related to the specific, and I forget what is the universal thing that I need. When I look at it from that perspective, the universal aspects of the things I want, which are basically emotional achievements, are all around me—they exist everywhere in the world, expressed through many people and in many places. All I have to do is reach out to touch this fulfillment of my fantasy. Other people are fulfilling it all the time! Instead of seeing that the thing I want exists, so it is possible, and can be attained, I fantasize about my emotional achievements, or soul purification, sublimation, or whatever you want to name it, as “happening” to me, while I am sitting around in the dumps because it doesn’t. The passive stance or thinking why doesn’t this happen to or for me is the clue that I think certain things are simply not possible. I have forgotten that such inner states as I desire—peace, love, fulfillment—are both universal and present. So, I can have them! But why do they seem like space travel to me, at times….just unachievable. What this means is that I forgot about Plato’s forms…the clouds, the archetypes, if you will, that are ours for the accessing. But, I also forgot to be active…to move out of myself to touch the clouds.

    May 7, 2022 at 1:42 am

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *