What Does it Mean to Have an Inner Life?

There’s more to you than meets the eye — even your own eye. Jungian dream interpretation, step three.

What an Inner Life Isn’t

It might help to begin this discussion of the inner life by listing a few things commonly mistaken for “inner,” but which really aren’t:

Being self-confident
Having a personal mission statement
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses
Having clear goals
Holding religious beliefs
Knowing what you do and don’t want in a romantic partner
Having strong convictions about where you stand politically, socially, morally

There’s nothing wrong with any of theses traits. Lots of happy, grounded people with no discernible inner life possess them.

But the thing they all share in common is a primary concern with the worldly life of your ego/personality.

Which makes them “outer,” not “inner.”

Your goals in life, and how you see yourself fitting into larger systems like religions, society, relationships, and politics are important things, don’t get me wrong.

But they are not inner things. They’re all ways your conscious personality, your ego, works to orient itself to the outside world.

Your true inner life is born the day your conscious personality, your ego, discovers and begins to seek orientation toward the inner world.

Your Unknown Self

But “inner world” is just a metaphor, right?


Your inner world may not be physical like the outside world, but it’s every bit as real. And its impact on your life is far greater, because

Most of who you really are is “inner,” not “outer.”

There’s more to you than meets the eye — even your own eye.


From The Language of Dreams, the second essay in this dreams, dream interpretation, and Jungian Psychology series:

The image above is a map of your psyche, as understood in Jungian Psychology. The thin, beige arc at the top is your Persona, your public personality, the part of you that you show the outside world. The small red and blue box labeled EGO is the “private you” that you experience yourself to be on the inside, but seldom show other people. The horizontal line slicing through ego marks the division between your conscious awareness and everything about yourself that is unconscious, hidden not only from the outside world, but even from yourself.
Note that almost all of who you are, in your fullness, is below the line. Your personal unconscious, cultural unconscious, biological unconscious, the collective unconscious, your shadow, anima or animus, and all the archetypes within your psyche live outside your conscious awareness. Using the proportions on this map, something like 80% of your total self is unknown to you.

80% of you is “inner.” Unknown to you. A genuine mystery. It’s why you think and say and do things that surprise even you — sometimes in a good way, sometimes not so much. It’s why emotions seem to whirl up out of nowhere and disappear just as mysteriously. It’s the source of compulsions and addictions, but also of insight, wisdom, and spiritual awakening. Writers, the unknown you is where your stories come from, and artists, your art.

An “Inner life” is the process of gradually exploring and shining the light of consciousness onto more and more of the unknown you.

The best place to begin that exploration, in my experience, is by recording and analyzing your dreams.


In the Jungian map of the psyche above, note that the most prominent feature of the personal unconscious is the word “Complexes.”

According to Jungian analyst Barbara Miller:

The complex, as defined by C. G. Jung, is a structure of the psyche that gathers together similar feeling-toned elements. Each complex is united by the same emotion and each complex is united and organized by a mutual core of meaning. That is, the complex organizes experience, perception, and affect around a constant central theme.

Complexes work like autonomous sub-personalities in your personal unconscious, focused on certain feelings, and the memories associated with those feelings.

What makes the personal unconscious both “personal” and “unconscious” is that it’s the inner psychic repository of all the rejected, forgotten, or simply warehoused parts of who you’ve been, consciously, in the past.

Growing up, some aspects of your inborn character were nurtured, say your natural kindness and intelligence. They become cornerstones of your conscious ego. But other aspects, say your innate penchant for selfishness and cruelty, were rejected and “punished out of you.” Those rejected traits, and the bad memories associated with them, were banished to your personal unconscious.

There’s a lot of good stuff in your personal unconscious, too. Your fifth Christmas may have been the happiest day of your life, but you don’t consciously remember it now. Those memories, and the feelings associated with them, got filed away in your personal unconscious, where they add in a general way to the “happy glow” you feel every Christmas as an adult. Every book you’ve ever read, every class you’ve ever taken, every friendship you’ve ever relished or let whither, every kind or hateful word ever spoken to or by you, everything you’ve ever hoped for or feared is in there somewhere.

Your highest highs. Your lowest lows. Everything in between. Any memory you’re not actively recalling right this moment is in your personal unconscious. More recent or impactful memories stay closer to the surface, and come to mind easily. Most of your memories, though, especially the older ones from childhood, are so deep in your personal unconscious you’d need hypnosis to retrieve them.

But “unconscious” does not mean “gone.”

All that forgotten stuff lives forever in the unconscious. Your unconscious mind “gathers together similar feeling-toned elements“ to form structures along emotional themes in your life. Happy, sad, pain, pleasure, passion, humiliation, rage, fear, shame, love, joy, betrayal, hope, etc.

Complexes link similar memories/feelings across time, as well. For example, a lifetime of happy Christmases may constellate (like a group of stars coming together to form a picture in the sky) to form your own inner Santa. Or years of memories of abuse and trauma might band into an inner ogre who never stops breaking things inside you and working to sabotage your life.

Your autonomous sub-personality complexes have agendas and opinions all their own. Your lack of awareness leaves them free to periodically possess you and steer your life in directions you may not want to go. It also leaves you bereft of conscious access to the many treasures complexes can guard, hidden aspects of the real you that could and should be enriching your conscious life.

Your “inner artist” may feel like a blessing, your “inner ogre” like a curse. The problem is not that either of these sub-personalities exist. They are both genuine and important parts of who you are. The problem is that you have no conscious relationship to them.

The first task of the inner life, then, is to meet, befriend, and integrate these inner personalities into the life of your conscious ego.

In this way you reclaim your lost self and become whole. Jung labeled both this process of self-reclamation and its fulfillment “Individuation.”

From Journal Psyche:

For him [Jung] individuation encompasses the philosophical, mystical, and spiritual areas of the human being. In the broadest possible way, individuation can be defined as the achievement of self-actualization through a process of integrating the conscious and the unconscious.

Dream Characters

Not only the people, but also the places and things in your dreams are manifestations of your complexes.

Your dream characters are the lost parts of you. They want to get to know you. They want to be known by you.

This whole long essay has been leading here, to a discussion of the third step in a thorough dream analysis.

The first step was to gather your personal associations to the nouns — the people, places, and things — in your dream. Both the basic Jungian method and the alien from another planet techniqueoutlined previously in this series serve that end.

The second step was archetypal amplification.

Step three is recognizing your dream characters as (and in) yourself.

That raging guy smashing up your dream living room… Where in waking life do you feel that anger? What part of your life has that same emotional tone? When have you lost control like that? What were you thinking, and feeling, and reacting to when that same rage took you over?

That smooth dream swindler who conned you … Where in waking life are you fooling yourself or cheating others? Where are you being slick and dishonest? What part of you feels gullible? Cheated?

Your dream characters are the unconscious complexes that invisibly drive much of your daytime behavior. Becoming familiar with them in your dreams helps you recognize their presence when awake. You can begin to add consciousness to those life situations where they routinely well up and interfere with your judgment. You can be ready for them, no longer taken by surprise every time. You can consciously change the course of your life.

Inwardly, as you get to know the characters in your dreams (especially recurring characters, locations, or themes), you are making your complexes conscious. You are shining a light within. You are building inner relationships, healing emotional wounds, reclaiming lost interests, talents, knowledge, selves.

You are achieving self-actualization through a process of integrating the conscious and the unconscious.

You are living the inner life.

Thanks for reading!

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