The Unconscious as an Active Partner During Change
Lecture at the 51st Annual Meeting of the Former Fellows of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V., University of Mannheim, 20.5.2023
Change rarely fails because of the mind but all the more frequently because of unconscious resistance. Because while the mind can certainly welcome the new, the psyche gets into trouble. Familiar pillars are torn down, and control is lost. A loss to which the guardian of the soul, the unconscious, reacts with resistance. For the old, for all its disadvantages, has one advantage: predictability. The unconscious, therefore, sits at the negotiating table during change as a countervailing force. If it is heard and integrated, sustainable change will succeed. New methods such as (management) constellations and Voice Dialogue can accelerate this process.

Genuine change processes are challenging to the point of being difficult because they are characterized by “profound” changes. In other words, they are not just any minor adjustments to everyday circumstances, such as driving to work on a bypass road, but indeed “deep interventions” in familiar and thus predictable structures, processes, and behaviors. We recognize genuine changes of this kind because they demand a great deal from us – first and foremost, a sense of control and security. What is tried and tested is called into question at its core; familiar settings and paths are shifted, and, worst case, the ground is pulled out from under our feet. Everyone will remember a profound change of this kind at this point.

Change is always a loss of control.

During a “real” change, things, therefore, become “shaky.” We feel kind of weird, queasy, and unsure. This and that could happen. The corresponding feeling is fear. And since we don’t like fear, we try to regain the lost control. But this is a difficult undertaking in the uncertain terrain of the unknown new: Looking for straws in the dark, retracting the solid ground – that means stress, and we would like to avoid that, too. And that’s precisely why fundamental change processes never have it easy. No matter how promising or reasonable the new solution may seem: changing jobs, changing locations, not always saying “yes” right away, positively changing the company culture, becoming more diverse, more inclusive, more democratic, reconciling with friends or with my family – the start of change often remains bumpy or is avoided as long as possible. Or even worse, it is tackled purely cosmetically, i.e., only superficially, and therefore remains ineffective at its core.

When things get tight, people fall back on the tried and true and into old patterns. The new doesn’t last – it isn’t sustainable.

Not good! Because postponed is not canceled. The pendulum of change will surely return, but then with even more force. Real change, therefore, seems to require absolute necessity, or with the words of C.G. Jung: “Without misery, nothing changes, least of all the human personality. It is tremendously conservative, not to say inert. Only the sharpest distress can stir it up. Thus also the development of personality obeys no wish, command, and insight, but only necessity; it requires the motivating compulsion of inner or outer destinies.” (1986, S. 126)

Necessity on the outside often leads to distress on the inside.

But why, for all the apparent advantages and good reasons, are we often so resistant to change? C.G. Jung gives us an important clue: real change creates distress. Necessity on the outside often leads to distress on the inside. Even if only positive things are waiting on the outside, this does not have to be seen in the same way on the inside. Therefore, not everyone reacts in the same way to external changes. What is important is the degree of individual controllability – if this or that change exceeds my specific abilities, I quickly find myself at the limit. And this limit is, unfortunately, very often not trivial. It is not about things like “I can’t sing, dance, or paint any better,” but often and very quickly becomes existential. If, for example, the company is bought by an American company and from tomorrow onwards, only English will be spoken in e-mails and meetings, then my self-worth, reputation, or professional position will very quickly be up for discussion as a non-native speaker. If, for example, we stop doing business with private customers and only acquire large corporate customers, I quickly ask myself whether I still belong here because this is not the personal business I am standing for anymore. Or if, as of next month, the operations for which I am responsible as a doctor can only be performed on an outpatient basis, even though inpatient treatment is better but also more expensive for the patient’s healing process – then the question arises as to whether this is still what I enrolled for at the medical school back then and took my oath for.

Changes threaten not only our physical existence but also our beliefs, values, and self-worth. Together, these shape our self-concept – and we need to feel good about that to live well, that is, at peace with ourselves. If one of the pillars of this concept falters – and that is precisely what profound changes do – it causes us distress, emotional distress, because our inner peace is at stake. And this happens, as we have seen, unfortunately, faster than we often feel comfortable with. When the soul is in distress, we speak of a crisis. And a crisis, as the Greek word “krisis” indicates, is, first of all, a turning point. It is here that we encounter our innermost being. The distressed and oppressed soul speaks up through its guardian and mouthpiece – the unconscious. For: “Fear and resistance are the signposts along the vía regia into the unconscious.” (Jung 2000, p. 195)

Resistance is the visible surface that clings to what feels threatened in the depths.

We see these signposts light up in change processes right at the start because anxiety and fear, according to the well-known emotional change curve based on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, are right at the beginning. Namely as shock and then – and this is the real challenge in the change process – denial and not wanting to admit it, which is reflected in strong inner and outer resistance. Anxiety, fear, and resistance are the visible surface, the buoys, so to speak, that cling to and hold on to that which feels threatened in the depths and is also equipped with a powerful ally: the autonomic nervous system. As “auto nomos,” in fact, it is self-commanding. It is independent and faster than the conscious will. Before conscious and detailed analysis, therefore, the fear reflex comes in the three familiar patterns in which we differ little from reptiles: flight, fight, and when neither works – freeze. All three reactions are, of course, not conducive to the change process: employees who flee are not good; those who quit to regain control in this way are not good at all. Employees at each other’s throats and constantly smoldering conflicts between departments are super corrosive and energy-sapping. Employees who freeze, get into a performance blockage, or inwardly flood themselves with worries and get sick – absolutely counterproductive.

Unconscious resistance has many faces and one common denominator: the breeze of avoidance.

Resistance as a mirror of fear shows itself in many facets: Sometimes quite openly as rebellion, but mostly somewhat hidden or well disguised as “yes, but …”, discussing to death, permanent non-decision-making dressed up in the highest rationalizations why this is not yet possible, concentrating on secondary issues and the like. Resistance has many faces and one common denominator: nothing of substance happens. What is obviously necessary does not occur or happens only slowly. The breeze of avoidance blows. If you can’t get out of this second phase of denial and resistance, you can’t change anything in depth simply because the deeper, unconscious levels don’t participate. So, to move forward in the change curve, we must work with our unconscious levels. We can’t work around it; we have to work with it. For this, in turn, it is crucial to understand what makes the unconscious tick, to decode its intentions, and, above all, the language in which it speaks to us.

We must work with our unconscious levels to move forward in the change curve.

And here we leap over 70 years from Berggasse 19 in Vienna (Sigmund Freud’s address) to the sunny California of 1972 to Hall and Sidra Stone. For what for Freud and many other great pioneers of psychology was still a demanding and laborious process of analysis and interpretation was raised to an entirely new level in a discussion about dreams in Hal Stone’s office: the unconscious got a voice, a real you, who was responsive and spoke from the unconscious to the conscious – the birth of Voice Dialogue and probably the first direct dialogue with what I call “Inner Shape” in the unconscious. Okay, slow down again: you can talk to the unconscious directly, and it shows up in something like inner shapes with a real (i.e., human) voice? Right. Pierre Janet recognized and described them as subpersonalities a long time ago. C.G. Jung called these autonomous beings in the unconscious emotional complexes. Psychology has been convinced since its beginnings that these subpersonalities, quoting Jung, “… constitute the structure of the unconscious psyche.” (2000, S. 197)

The direct line to the unconscious: the inner shapes

This fits well with the observations we all can make daily with ourselves: still relatively harmless as self-talks, inner dialogues of an angel on the left and devil on the right, and Freudian slips of the tongue. Somewhat less benign in the inner compulsion and urge that shows itself with a commanding voice and leads us into the always same but problematic patterns or leaves us hanging in them. These inner shapes, and yes, there are several of them, are the secret conductors of the will, which often dress their tact and motives in a still socially acceptable mask called the persona in Greek theater. When the consciousness cannot suppress them, whether in a dream, intoxication, or under extreme stress (which a change also triggers), they show themselves in complete form, emotion, and language. At this moment, we no longer recognize ourselves or others; we get to know people “from another side,” and in the best case, we are just amazed at this “other face .”The inner shapes – autonomously and in milliseconds- decide what goes and does not. They manage “the red buttons,” which are pressed in rows in profound changes. They decide on the limits of what is acceptable and tolerable for us because they have emerged at these limits.

The inner shapes: conductors of consciousness

Their attitudes hold consciousness. They hold back what was once intolerable and ensure that it will not occur in the future. Existential limit-experiences that have exceeded the powers of the soul – in childhood and adolescence, but also in our ancestors, with whom family dynamics and epigenetics connect us. These limit-experiences have been repressed into the unconscious as traumatic events – at all levels of the soul: vital, emotional, and rational. The inner shapes are the product of these splittings and, therefore, shape the soul’s life. Along with the mind, they are an individual soul’s specific carriers and movers. However, in doubt and uncertain situations, it is always more potent than consciousness. What ensures survival, and this includes the survival of the soul, has priority: be strong, be quick, be perfect, don’t contradict, and be kind are, therefore, the classic survival structures of the unconscious. That is why we must integrate the inner shapes in the change. Because without them, it is against them, which can not become sustainable.

The solution: the dialogue with the unconscious mind

And what does this partnership look like in concrete terms? Engaging in dialogue and taking our unconscious partner seriously. Inner resistance reflects inner limits, old wounds that should not happen again in this way. The unconscious is the bulwark of the soul and, therefore, very sensitive. It must first be convinced that the new will not become a minefield. The dialogue is, therefore, absolutely individual – and thus means work for everyone who wants change. Talking to people, listening to them, not pushing but gently taking them by the hand, explaining a lot, and patiently meeting resistance. The principles of Voice Dialogue help here: meeting others at eye level and taking their concerns seriously. If you want profound change, you cannot communicate superficially. Revealing one’s feelings and insecurities is the best way to show strength. In this environment, the inner shapes show themselves because they recognize their kind: here, someone is being kind to us because they are honest. Here, nothing is hidden that could become dangerous. From here on, change becomes a shared adventure – adversity turns into sustainable growth – inside and outside.


Jung, C. G. (1986), Reader / edited by Franz Alt. Berlin: Ullstein.
Jung, C. G. (2000), Basic questions on practice. Augsburg: Bechtermünz.

Book tip on the subject:

The Ensouled Organization and Its Spirit

The book provides for the first time a business-relevant systemic of the unconscious, which shows to what extent decisions in business and politics are determined by the unconscious attitudes of their actors. The starting point of the approach are the Inner Shapes, autonomous subpersonalities split off in the soul, whose effect on the top executives helps to determine the success or failure of the entire organization. With the management constellations presented here, resistance and hindering power dynamics can be recognized early and transformed into enabling forces. In the process, decision-makers gain a differentiated ability to discern, which allows them to look into the depths of the relationships in complex situations and difficult negotiations. (German edition only)