The Anima and Animus

The Anima and Animus

(In my never-ending quest to get this essay right, I’ve been rewriting this piece frequently of late and am starting to wonder if I need to break it into parts. For now, I will keep iterating here.)

This lengthy essay about anima and animus is far from a comprehensive examination of the subject. There’s roughly a century of writing on the subject by now, it’s one of the core topics of Jungian psychology, and I advise anyone landing on this page to please seek out the views of trained professionals on this subject if you are interested in learning about this topic in depth.

My essay is intended to cover a very small aspect of the anima and animus, and that relates to how it affects interpersonal relationships between men and women through projections. It was part of a broader examination I had on the subject through the lens of Stendhal’s writing. Jungian analysts have taken this topic in numerous different directions, and I’m not going to pretend to share their depth on the subject.

And before I begin my examination of Jung’s concept, I feel obliged to discuss two aspects of the theory that challenge and deepen the examination — that of gender and persona.

But first, let me begin with Jung’s description of his core concept:

Every man carries within him the eternal image of woman, not the image of this or that particular woman, but a definite feminine image. This image is fundamentally unconscious, an hereditary factor of primordial origin engraved in the living organic system of the man, an imprint or "archetype" of all the ancestral experiences of the female, a deposit, as it were, of all the impressions ever made by woman – in short, an inherited system of psychic adaptation. Even if no woman existed, it would still be possible , at any given time, to deduce from this unconscious image exactly how a woman would have to be constituted psychically .... I have called this image the "anima."

There’s a corresponding interior persona for women as well called the animus, but now might be a good time to take a step back and examine Jung’s concept of the persona, because this grounding is critical to understanding how anima and animus operate.

The Persona

Here’s Jung’s description:

The persona is a complicated system of relations between the individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.

In Jung’s view — enlightened, in my opinion — human beings are well served by having various persona to thrive in the world. Despite the contemporary embrace of ”authenticity,” Jung argues that it is not healthy to show the world the same version of you at every turn. We should have a face we show our colleagues, another we show our family, another we show our close friends. Here’s why Jung believes these masks are essential:

Society expects, and indeed must expect, every individual to play the part assigned to him as perfectly as possible, so that a man who is a parson must not only carry out his official functions objectively, but must at all times and in all circumstances play the role of parson in a flawless manner. Society demands this as a kind of surety; each must stand at his post, here a cobbler, there a poet. No man is expected to be both.

As society becomes more complicated, the number of persona increases. So one may, indeed, be that cobbler in his professional life and a poet late at night, being a father, husband, gym partner and musician in between. But you cannot be all of these things at once at all times, which is why it can be perilous to have your worlds collide in various ways. The concept of work-life balance also has within in a tacit understanding that we create this discrete space between both so neither overwhelms the other, that both persona are respected.

But there’s a cost for these persona — your unconscious is fully aware of the authentic you underneath it and will remind you of this fact:

The construction of a collectively suitable persona means a formidable concession to the external world, a genuine self-sacrifice which drives the ego straight into identification with the persona, so that people really do exist who believe they are what they pretend to be. The “soullessness” of such an attitude is, however, only apparent, for under no circumstances will the unconscious tolerate this shifting of the centre of gravity.

It’s quite possible that the well-known contemporary concept of “imposter syndrome” is due to such an overdeveloped persona. If someone knows deep down that the mask they are wearing conceals a very different person underneath, there could be an internal rebellion, even if the actual work performed by the “imposter” persona is fully deserving of the acclaim and status.

It is also important to point out that the persona can only cover up so much. If a person, for example, is hypercompetitive, that trait is likely to become integrated into all the persona. So even though you may act in very different ways with coworkers, gym buddies and your closest friends, you might find unique ways to compete with all of them.

The persona forces a man or woman to pretend to be someone far more in-control than they are. This summons the anima and animus to appear as compensation:

The persona, the ideal picture of a man as he should be, is inwardly compensated by feminine weakness, and as the individual outwardly plays the strong man, so he becomes inwardly a woman, i.e., the anima, for it is the anima that reacts to the persona. But because the inner world is dark and invisible to the extraverted consciousness, and because a man is all the less capable of conceiving his weaknesses the more he is identified with the persona, the persona’s counterpart, the anima, remains completely in the dark and is at once projected.

For a man, Jung claims that the anima is always in the form of an individual. But for a woman, the animus often consists of multiple men in her life. He never really gives a great explanation for this, other than to say it’s a man’s world.

Which brings me to my critique of Jung — I think his concept of gender is strictly wrong and misses a critical point about both the anima and the animus.

Gender and the film “Persona”

Jung makes a critical error in his conception of anima and animus — and that is believing that a man can only summon an anima and a woman only the collective animus. But we all have examples in our lives when we have latched onto strong personality types of the same gender who have greatly influenced our behavior. In fact, most of young male behavior can be explained by the prevalence of animus types becoming role models for groups, explaining why you can put any group of five men together and within two weeks, they will all dress alike and have the same facial hair.

The 1966 Ingmar Bergman film “Persona” is a brilliant examination of how a woman can conjure an anima at a moment of crisis in her life. The film is about an actress (one whose career is all about putting on masks) and mother who, in the early moments of the film, has a nervous breakdown on stage and becomes mute. She is hospitalized and comes under the care of a highly compassionate nurse who … well, it becomes so complicated after this point that I can only plead with everyone who would read this essay to please watch it (it also happens to be my favorite film.)

Without giving away the plot, I can describe ”Persona” as a story about two personalities that merge into one. This is, in essence, what the anima and animus do. A phenomenon occurs where someone has a personality crisis, and what emerges is projected onto another person, and that person in effect plays out the projection, as if taking on a role in a play.

The Projection

So now, let me return to Jung and his elaboration of this phenomenon:

In so far as (animas) are "containers," the filling out of this image is an experience fraught with consequences, for it holds the possibility of finding one's own complexities answered by a corresponding diversity. Wide vistas seem to open up in which one feels oneself embraced and contained. I say "seem" advisedly, because the experience may be two-faced. Just as the animus projection can often pick on a man of real significance who is not recognized by the mass, and can actually help him to achieve his true destine with her moral support, so a man can create for himself a femme inspiratrice by his anima projection.

Again, I’m not buying Jung’s strict gender role description here — this phenomenon could happen across genders — but the key point here is that the experience may not be singular, with just one person projecting onto another. It could actually be a dual projection. The person being projected upon may be experiencing something critical and vital as well.

Things become both tricky and fairly murky as this happens. Jung makes clear that even when there is some kind of mutual anima/animus connection made between a man and a woman, this is not a real relationship:

One should on no account take this projection for an individual and conscious relationship. In its first stages it is far from that, for it creates a compulsive dependence based on unconscious motives other than biological ones .... They are in essence spiritual contents, often in erotic disguise, obvious fragments of a primitive mythological mentality that consists of archetypes, and whose totality constitutes the collective unconscious. Accordingly, such a relationship is at bottom collective and not individual.

So, in other words, the projection taking place is almost like a spiritual ritual. It includes unconscious motives, spiritual contents (in erotic disguise), and a primitive mythological mentality. Jung says you are stepping into a collective experience, not an individual one.

The Illusion of Connection

I want to be careful in my description here, because I don’t want to leave the impression that there’s something inauthentic about the bond that is created through these projections. They can take the full gamut of human connections — and if two caring, empathetic individuals are engaged in his connection (as in “Persona”) it could be a highly enlightening, beautiful experience.

But that still doesn’t mean it’s evidence of two people finding “soulmates” or some other overly romanticized view of connection. It’s human nature to experience this phenomenon and think that embracing the person who sets off the anima/animus projection is the simple solution to everything. This kind of projection can set off a feeling of meeting someone who completely gets you. But this is an illusion.

Returning to Jung’s original concept of the multiple animus is useful in a more gender neutral environment, because it’s very likely that all people experience some form of projection from multiple men and women simultaneously at all points in their lives. It’s important to be aware of all of the influences happening in your life and not make too much of just one.

But, for all kinds of reasons, people do tend to equate intensity with importance, and as a result, many people fall for this illusion, and Jung frames this examination in the context of marriages, so he’s admitting that these pairings are often powerful enough to propel people to that state.

Anima/Animus Types

Jung believed that the most intense projection experiences occur when the anima or animus fall into certain types. Well, at least that’s the claim he makes in one essay about anima, animus and marriages — in other places he describes the types of anima and animus differently.

But here are the types of women that Jung says set off the strongest anima projections:

There are certain types of women who seem to be made by nature to attract anima projections; indeed one could almost speak of a definite "anima type." The so-called "sphinx-like" character is an indispensable part of their equipment, also an equivocalness, an intriguing elusiveness – not an indefinite blur that offers nothing, but an indefiniteness that seems full of promises, like the speaking silence of a Mona Lisa. A woman of this kind is both old and young, mother and daughter, of more than doubtful chastity, childlike, and yet endowed with a naïve cunning that is extremely disarming to men.

Jung was actually pretty consistent in this description throughout his writing. But here he also includes a description of the typical animus as well:

Not every man of real intellectual power can be an animus, for the animus must be a master not so much of fine ideas as of fine words – words seemingly full of meaning which purport to leave a great deal unsaid. He must also belong to the "misunderstood" class, or be in some way at odds with his environment, so that the idea of self-sacrifice can insinuate itself. He must be a rather questionable hero, a man with possibilities, which is not to say that an animus projection may not discover a real hero long before he has become perceptible for the sluggish wits of the man of "average intelligence."

I’m going to attempt to fill in the blanks here a bit and explain why these personality types might work, but need to mention first that in later writings, Jung added four more archetypes of animus figures for men. This description comes from a very self centered point in his journey, and he seems to be describing himself.

But as for the anima, a woman who seems to lack definition is an ideal type to be projected upon because she’s a blank slate. If a woman won’t show you the ways that she might be different from you, it’s very easy for a man or woman to assume that she’s just like you. So while this woman may appear to be mysterious and cunning, the truth may be that she’s just a very fragile human being with considerable fear of rejection. Some feminist Jungians have described this type of woman as the product of a weak father figure who (positively) did not impose a heavy self-critical ego, but ended up depriving the daughter of a strong sense of intrinsic worth and who, therefore, will latch onto others (especially men) who can provide that definition.

As for the man of fine words, someone who gives a woman an opportunity to converse and be treated as an equal on an intellectual plane is going to find an elevated place in her life because our culture doesn’t typically give women this opportunity. And if this man is also somewhat under appreciated by the dominant culture, all the better, because women are treated the same way.

Why does the anima/animus appear?

But this leaves us hanging — what are we supposed to do with this kind of primal connection if it isn’t a true personal relationship? As I understand him, Jung’s core argument is that the anima/animus appears at a point in our life when we are facing indecision about something important and the anima/animus propels us towards dramatic change, usually a separation.

This makes sense if you return to the concept of the persona. If you reach a point in your life when the persona, whether in your work life or at home, becomes unbearable to hang onto, the anima/animus emerges to wake you up and demand a change.

Consider how this happens in early adulthood relationships — where romantic pairings take us away from our childhood home — and then again in mid-life situations where erotic temptations threaten the new domestic status quo. But Jung doesn’t limit the power of anima/animus to interpersonal relationships. They can also affect professional callings.

Here Jung makes an odd and subtle point — that the anima or animus itself is not seeking to replace whatever it is calling on us to separate from, it is merely beckoning us to separate:

It is more reasonable not to assume that such an obvious possibility is the end-purpose of the separation. We would be better advised to investigate what is behind the tendencies of the anima. The first step is what I would call the objectivation of the anima, that is, the strict refusal to regard the trend towards separation as a weakness of one’s own. Only when this has been done can one face the anima with the question, “Why do you want this separation?” To put the question in this personal way has the great advantage of recognizing the anima as a personality, and of making a relationship possible. The more personally she is taken the better.


This is a good time to show some love to that fortunate/unfortunate person being projected upon. I say fortunate, because that person is probably being worshipped in this moment, and that can be a highly empowering feeling. But it’s also unfortunate, because it’s the anima/animus part of the other person that is actually being worshipped, not you at all. So it can be sad, in a way. You’re not being fully seen and loved in this context. In a way, you’re being used.

There are degrees to being used, however, and it happens far more in life than we probably realize. And as I mentioned above, two attuned, empathetic people can take part in a projection like this and show loving kindness while using the other person. But still don’t fool yourself, it’s not you who is being loved, at least not at first.

So if love isn’t happening, what is? This is the essential question to be asked. If, early in life, you feel a pull towards someone and think they might be a life partner, consider if the emergence of these feelings is really about your desire to leave home, not end up with this particular person. Likewise, if you have a midlife desire to have a fling with someone, consider why you are feeling this desire to break away from your current stable environment.

And it’s critical that this introspection happen without thinking about the person who set off the projection. Otherwise you will blow the opportunity to learn something important from the anima/animus projection and will end up swapping one unsatisfying situation in your life for another.

The anima/animus will bring out feelings in you. But unless you get to understand these feelings, they are nothing but an impulse. To go through life just following your impulses is to surrender your human agency.

The Conversation

Therefore, the way to figure out these feelings is definitely NOT to have a conversation with the person you’ve projected the anima/animus onto. If you‘re in the middle of an anima/animus obsession, for example, and your therapist recommends having a good long talk with the object of that obsession, the therapist is giving bad advice. You need to have that conversation with yourself, with your anima or animus. And Jung intends it as a literal conversation:

I mean this as an actual technique. We know that practically every one has not only the peculiarity, but also the faculty, of holding a conversation with himself. Whenever we are in a predicament we ask ourselves (or whom else?), “What shall I do?” either aloud or beneath our breath, and we (or who else?) supply the answer. Since it is our intention to learn what we can about the foundations of our being, this little matter of living in a metaphor should not bother us. We have to accept it as a symbol of our primitive backwardness.

And Jung even sees this as an artful method:

The art of it consists only in allowing our invisible partner to make herself heard, in putting the mechanism of expression momentarily at her disposal, without being overcome by the distaste one naturally feels at playing such an apparently ludicrous game with oneself, or by doubts as to the genuineness of the voice of one’s interlocutor.

And what Jung argues here is that, if what comes up seems absurd or bizarre, good, that’s the point. We want to be entering this dreamworld of thought:

We are so in the habit of identifying ourselves with the thoughts that come to us that we invariably assume we have made them. Curiously enough, it is precisely the most impossible thoughts for which we feel the greatest subjective responsibility. If we were more conscious of the inflexible universal laws that govern even the wildest and most wanton fantasy, we might perhaps be in a better position to see these thoughts above all others as objective occurrences, just as we see dreams, which nobody supposes to be deliberate or arbitrary inventions.

The dark, murky world of the soul

Jung notes that there’s a bias in Western culture against this kind of introspection, but our unwillingness to explore this inner terrain is pure cowardice. We need to give voice to the irrational parts of us, especially when brought forth by an anima or animus, and let it all come out without rational critique, until it is all out, and then we should begin:

Criticizing as conscientiously as though a real person closely connected with us were our interlocutor. Nor should the matter rest there, but statement and answer must follow one another until a satisfactory end to the discussion is reached.

Jung then notes that one must be careful in such an exercise, because it could be terrifying:

A grown man, with too many illusions dissipated, will submit to this inner humiliation and surrender only if forced, for why should he let the terrors of childhood again have their way with him? It is no light matter to stand between a day-world of exploded ideals and discredited values, and a night-world of apparently senseless fantasy. The weirdness of this standpoint is in fact so great that there is probably nobody who does not reach out for security even though it be a reaching back to the mother who shielded his childhood from the terrors of night.

So why do this then? Why discover what the anima or animus has in store for us? Why must we be so on guard against what such an unconscious creature can conjure? Jung answers that what emerges from the anima or animus is most akin to religion:

I would recommend my reader to study the comparative history of religion so intently as to fill these dead chronicles with the emotional life of those who lived these religions. Then he will get some idea of what lives on the other side. The old religions with their sublime and ridiculous, their friendly and fiendish symbols did not drop from the blue, but were born of this human soul that dwells within us at this moment. All those things, their primal forms, live on in us and may at any time burst in upon us with annihilating force, in the guise of mass-suggestions against which the individual is defenceless.

Jung’s ultimate mission

Ok, so I began this essay by noting that I was just going to look at the anima and animus from the limited perspective of interpersonal, romantic relationships. But I’m going to close by following Jung’s lead and see the political in the personal.

In the later years of his work, Jung looked to unify his views of interpersonal relationships with the kinds of work humanity needed to do to repeat the horrors of the 20th century. He saw his form of analysis as a humanistic tool to better understand the dark impulses that propelled us towards terrible acts. Only by knowing our unconscious could we form a friendly relationship with it, using it as a guide to make changes without irrationally running towards impulses we haven’t examined.

So, we may enter the relationship with an anima or animus seeing something akin to a romantic pairing … it may evolve into something that feels like self empowerment … but the end goal is not only uncovering your feelings and better understanding them, it’s deeply examining those feelings, uncovering the biases and internal fears, and finding a course of action that will lead to a better life and a better world:

Because the things of the inner world influence us all the more powerfully for being unconscious, it is essential for anyone who intends to make progress in self-culture (and does not all culture begin with the individual?) to objectivate the effects of the anima and then try to understand what contents underlie those effects. In this way he adapts to, and is protected against, the invisible. No adaptation can result without concessions to both worlds. From a consideration of the claims of the inner and outer worlds, or rather, from the conflict between them, the possible and the necessary follows. Unfortunately our Western mind, lacking all culture in this respect, has never yet devised a concept, nor even a name, for the union of opposites through the middle path, that most fundamental item of inward experience, which could respectably be set against the Chinese concept of Tao.

It’s the invisible within us that we have to fear. If we let this invisible do more than signal to us a need to change, but also then latch onto the first, easiest solution in front of us, we can do great harm to ourselves and, collectively, to the world.

Jung is saying that understanding the anima/animus and finding a way to reconcile our internal conflicts along a middle path is the only way to guard against the brutality of the invisible, which manifested in the kind of political extremism that engulfed the 20th century world.

Jung — who spent much of his life listening to neurotics talk about their sexual desires and midlife mistakes — here is equating the desire to leave home in young adulthood and walking away from your family in midlife with politically identifying with an -ism, such as fascism or communism. In all of these cases, something positive is underlying it — a desire for change. But when the human mind latches onto only one possible solution, we end up ignoring that middle path and suffering through bad marriages, affairs, career suicide AND Nazism.

Conclusion: anima/animus and black and white thinking

Jung correctly states that Western minds aren’t attuned to this way of thinking. But there is a more contemporary way to state this that might be more understandable in our culture, and that is to argue against black and white thinking. The anima/animus appears as a counterforce to your life path, a desire for change. But we make a grave error in believing that the only choice before us is to either stand still or move in the direction of the anima/animus, especially when it isn’t the anima or animus at all, but another human being you’re seeing in such terms.

There are a range of options in between that we should carefully consider — and even if the anima or animus pushes us towards new or different romantic relationships, for example, it’s likely there are many more suitable partners out there than this projection of yourself that you are creating. That person could be the one you are projecting upon, but to know this you have to move beyond the projection. That requires ending the worship and getting to know that person in all their human folly.

Perhaps it is not possible to find a reasonable middle ground between two stark options, but it is highly likely that the right choice for an individual in that moment is something other than this or that, especially when the “this” is a mystical creation of your unconscious and the “that” is the poor personification of your status quo that cannot compete with an internal desire for change.