A Principle of Opposites
Two souls, alas! reside within my breast
and each is eager for a separation:
in throes of coarse desire, one grips
the earth with all its senses;
the other struggles from the dust
to rise to high ancestral spheres.
Goethe, Faust, Part I (Trans. Atkins, p.30)
Jung was very aware of the tendency of human consciousness to perceive in terms of polarities, paired opposites, and how preferences of consciousness (Ego/Persona) have a determining role in the ways in which people perceive the world, interpret what they perceive, and take action. To further understand the dynamics of polarities within the conscious and unconscious it is necessary to introduce a principle of opposites that is key to Jung’s thinking on the psyche.
Shapiro and Alexander (1975) describe it well in these excerpts specifically related to their research on Extraversion and Introversion, but applicable to any polarity:
The principle of opposites states that the two attitudes are polar opposites found in each individual. One pole is located in consciousness, the second in the unconscious. The relation between the two poles, it is postulated, in [sic] a function of the degree of “dominance” of the conscious pole. Dominance means a one-sided employment of the conscious attitude, which prevents the expression of the opposite unconscious attitude in consciousness. With minimal dominance, when the unconscious attitude occasionally expresses itself, it does so in a compensatory or complementary way. It adds to or rounds out the conscious attitude in the latter’s service. With increasing one-sidedness of the conscious attitude, however, the suppressed unconscious pole has a more opposing and destructive relation to its conscious opposite. It then “irrupts” or intrudes in an “archaic,” infantile, and inappropriate manner. This suppression of the other side and its subsequent uncontrollable release is the heart of Jung’s conception of neuroticism. (p. 38), and
…”opposite” in the principle of opposites is in the sense of opposition….There are different states of tension between them resulting in varying “working” relations from complementarity or servitude to open combat…. [The “opposites”] run counter to each other. Each has its own independent mode of operation, and the relationship between the two can be variable. (p. 39)
Jung was grounded in a both/and perspective born of his extensive clinical experience and research. For him, both sides of any polarity exist as dynamic potentials within the psyche. Unfortunately, as the principle of opposites explains, there is a universal, natural, and very problematic tendency to split opposites that leads to the over-emphasis of one in the conscious Ego/Persona and the neglect of the other which falls into the shadow.
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