Guilt and Individuation - Always Pay!

“A wise man will know it is the part of prudence to face every claimant and pay
every just demand on your time, your talents, or your heart. Always pay.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson[1]

by Lawrence H. Staples

The Jungian model for psychological growth and development is called individuation. It is the process by which we achieve our unique potential as an individual. All psychological growth is difficult and often painful. The Jungian way, however, is especially so because it requires us to sin and bear guilt. The path is strewn with guilt mines. We must step on many of them to complete our journey. The guilt that lies along this path creates a formidable deterrent.

Individuation describes a person’s “process of personal growth, of becoming himself, whole, indivisible, and distinct. Key attributes that describe the process of individuation emphasize: (1) the goal of the process is the development of the personality; (2) it presupposes and includes collective relationships (i.e., it does not occur in a state of isolation); and (3) it involves a degree of opposition to social norms that have no validity. The more an individuating person’s life has previously been shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality.”[2]

Jung, of course, clearly saw the conflict between his developmental concept of individuation and collective mores. He knew that we couldn’t individuate without sinning and incurring guilt. He explains the consequences in a brief passage:

Individuation and collectivity is a pair of opposites, two divergent destinies. They are related to one another by guilt... Individuation cuts one off from personal conformity and hence from collectivity... It means stepping over into solitude, into the cloister of the inner self… Since the breaking of personal conformity means the destruction of an aesthetic and moral ideal, the first step in individuation is a tragic guilt... The accumulation of guilt demands expiation.... Every [further]step in individuation creates new guilt and necessitates new expiation.[3]

Jung was clear and emphatic that there is a high and demanding price of guilt to be paid when one gives up conventional life and travels the path of individuation. We cannot grow without suffering guilt. It’s a path that requires courage.

But Jung also offered ideas as to how this guilt might be redeemed:

[The individuating person].... must offer a ransom in place of himself, that is, he must bring forth values, which are an equivalent substitute for his absence in the collective, personal sphere. Without this production of values, final individuation is immoral and- more than that-suicidal....
Not only has society a right, it also has a duty to condemn the individuant if he fails to create equivalent values, for he is a deserter.... Individuation remains a pose so long as no values are created.
The individual is obliged by the collective demands to purchase his individuation at the cost of an equivalent work for the benefit of society.[4] Only by accomplishing an equivalent is one exempt from the conventional, collective path. A person [who individuates] must accept the contempt of society until such time as he has accomplished his equivalent.[5]

Jung’s way is essentially the Promethean Way where “sin” eventually leads to something good for humanity. In order to accomplish our equivalent, we have to turn inward to the unconscious. We have to search there for what needs to be developed within ourselves in order to become the complete persons we are called to be. Only then do we have the capacity to give back the most we are capable of giving.

A similar idea is presented in Plato’s The Republic, in the allegory of the cave, where the philosopher king goes away to the cave, the symbolic equivalent of the unconscious, and returns to give his society the wisdom and the fundamental forms underlying life that he found there. An analogy are the vision quests of the shaman and medicine men of the Native Americans and other primitive tribal societies, who enter the world of the unconscious and bring back knowledge and skills that benefit their people. In Greek mythology, Prometheus went far away to where the gods lived, stole fire, and brought it back. He offended the gods and incurred guilt and punishment for his deed. But his guilty deed brought great benefit to mankind.


Learn more about Guilt and Individuation in Guilt with a Twist: The Promethean Way by Lawrence H. Staples and The Guilt Cure by Nancy Carter Pennington and Lawrence H. Staples.

Download a free PDF sample of Guilt with a Twist
Download a free PDF sample of The Guilt Cure

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed similar ideas in his essay, “Compensation.” He writes, “A wise man will know it is the part of prudence to face every claimant and pay every just demand on your time, your talents, or your heart. Always pay.”(Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Essays, New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1883)
[2] A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, Andrew Samuels, Bani Shorter, and Fred Plaut, Routledge& Kegan Paul, London and New York, p. 76.
[3] Jung, C.G., Collected Works, vol. 18, pars. 1094–1099. 
[4] Emerson, “Compensation.” 
[5] Jung, C.G., Collected Works, vol. 18, pars. 1094–1099.

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