In early childhood we are who we are in a straightforward, direct way. We love and trust life and other people spontaneously. We are uninhibited, so nothing is held back or hidden.
However, usually due to conditional love from our parents, we learn quickly that certain things we say or do will be rewarded, and other things will be ignored or punished. We learn to hide certain parts of ourselves in order to be loved by others.
As we move through adolescence toward adulthood, we learn even more that we must repress parts of ourselves in order to be tough and competitive and stand on our own two feet in the world. Our ego must become strong so we can survive.
In childhood and adolescence, the repressed parts of ourselves get buried in our subconscious mind. However, in mid-life, which can extend anywhere from thirty-five to sixty-five years of age, we have less energy to hold all this subconscious material down.
Weighed down with mortgages, jobs, parenting, and other responsibilities, and aware that we may not live a lot longer, often in mid-life we suddenly feel an urge to rediscover the freedom and spontaneity of our inner child or inner adolescent. Our subconscious, repressed parts start to emerge in our dreams, daydreams, fantasies, or in a general sense of restlessness or meaninglessness. We might have a powerful urge to write poetry, start a rock band, buy a hot car or motorcycle, party all night, have an affair, quit our job, or leave our marriage.
At this point, according to the great twentieth century psychologist Carl Jung, we have three basic options. The first one is to keep soldiering on, keep repressing all these seemingly irrational urges that are coming up, keep cutting off essential parts of ourselves. We may end up with an ulcer, stroke, or heart attack, or become cynical, bitter, and slowly die spiritually.
Or, at the other extreme, we can let the subconscious urges flood us all at once, so we are overwhelmed and become a mid-life crazy person who throws out all we have worked so hard to build, irresponsibly destroying our marriage, family, and career in the process.
The third option is to allow the subconscious, repressed parts to have a voice, listen to them, and let them into the conscious mind a little at a time so that we are in control of the urges rather than the urges controlling us. We can look at our urges and decide rationally which would be wise and which would be foolish to act on. This is the healthiest option, to slowly integrate the repressed parts of ourself back into our life without destroying what we have built so far.
Jung called this third option “individuation.” It is our true self calling us to let go of our ego, to integrate our conscious and subconscious minds, so that we become a whole person again.
In this third option, we reach “second naivete,” that is, we let our inner child play through us in a mature way. Letting our inner child out may seem foolish to the person who has become cynical and bitter, just as continuing to be responsible may seem foolish to the person who has chosen irresponsibility.
We are not called to become immature, that is, childish, but rather to become directly loving and trusting once again, that is, childlike, but in an adult way. Life has taught us some hard lessons, but we make love and trust our greatest priority again, without letting our guard down absolutely, as a child does. According to Jung, this is the essential work that needs to be done in mid-life.