Carl Jung’s Words of Advice for the Depressed

By Jason E. Smith

Carl Jung was a prolific letter writer. Much of Jung’s writings can be very difficult reading, particularly when he digs deep into complex subjects like alchemy. But his letters are often poetic and reveal his humanity and his passionate engagement with the struggles of living an authentic and meaningful life.

The following letter, to an unknown woman, is an example of the poetic Jung. It offers words of advice for the depressed individual that go beyond our contemporary penchant for eliminating depression through medication. For Jung, depression is a messenger, an angel to be wrestled with until it reveals it’s secret blessing.

Being Forced Downwards

Dear N.,
I am sorry you are so miserable. ‘Depression’ means literally ‘being forced downwards.’ This can happen even when you don’t consciously have any feeling at all of being ‘on top.’ So I wouldn’t dismiss this hypothesis out of hand. 

Photo courtesy of Toni Birrer(CC ShareALike)
Photo courtesy of Toni Birrer(CC ShareALike)

From Jung’s point of view there is a hidden intention in depression. It “forces us downwards.” This is not, as it might sound, a punishment for arrogance, but rather a consequence of having become cut off from the human, instinctual part of ourselves.

Jung was wary of the technological advances of the twentieth century. He felt that our technology was distancing us as a race from the wisdom of our inner life.

In his own life, Jung would often retreat to his “tower” on the shore of Lake Zurich. It was a dwelling without electricity or running water. While staying at his tower he would chop wood and carry water.

“These simple acts make man simple,” said Jung, “and how difficult it is to be simple!”

It could be said that what Jung was doing in his tower was “lowering himself” so that he would not have to be “forced downward.”

Being Useful

In his letter, Jung offers his patient two alternatives. The first could be called the moveoutward and it involves such activities as work and experiencing beauty:

If I had to live in a foreign country, I would seek out one or two people who seemed amiable and would make myself useful to them, so that libido came to me from outside, even though in a somewhat primitive form, say of a dog wagging its tail. I would raise animals and plants and find joy in their thriving.

Recent studies have shown that Jung’s advice to make oneself useful can be a powerful antidote to depression.

He goes on to suggest surrounding oneself with beauty. This is a technique increasingly used today in such therapies as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) with its concept of “improving the moment.

 I would surround myself with beauty no matter how primitive and artless–objects, colors, sounds. I would eat and drink well. 

Unexpected Words of Advice for the Depressed Person

The second alternative could be called the move inward. This is the more difficult path of wrestling with the angel. This is the path of learning from one’s depression, not getting rid of it. This path reflects the Jungian perspective that the experience of meaning, even in and through depression, is a healing experience.

When the darkness grows denser, I would penetrate to its very core and ground, and would not rest until amid the pain a light appeared to me, for ‘in excessu affectus’  [in an excess of affect or passion] Nature reverses herself. 

In the next section of his letter the words of advice for the depressed become more challenging even as they become more poetic.

I would turn in rage against myself and with the heat of my rage I would melt my lead. I would renounce everything and engage in the lowest activities should my depression drive me to violence. I would wrestle with the dark angel until he dislocated my hip. For he is also the light and the blue sky which he withholds from me.

Jacob Wrestles with the Angel.
Jacob Wrestles with the Angel.

Jung once famously said that “one does not become conscious by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” The passage above reflects this approach. It is startling and unexpected to our contemporary ears, but Jung is not advocating violence. He is encouraging us to recognize our capacity for violence, to struggle with our own darkness. For it is only by recognizing our own darkness that we can stop projecting it on the world around us.

This acquaintance with our darkness–our failings, our stupidity, our all-too-human nature–is paradoxically healing, for it frees us of the impossible project of perfection and allows us to get on with the everyday business of living and loving as a whole and humble human being.

It is a challenging path, but a potentially enlivening and healing one, if we are able to give ourselves completely to the task:

Anyway that is what I would do. What others would do is another question, which I cannot answer. But for you too there is an instinct either to back out of it or to go down to the depths. But no half-measures or half-heartedness.
With cordial wishes,
As ever,
C.G. Jung

More on Carl Jung and his work on Beyond Meds:

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Jason E. Smith is the founder of Heartsfire Counseling. As a Jungian psychotherapist, career counselor, and workshop leader he helps people discover the power of their authentic inner voice and to find ways to realize it in their lives. You can read Jason’s blog and find out more about his services at www.jungiantherapist.net.