A life spent making mistakes is better than a life spent doing nothing: sara b.
A life spent making mistakes is better than a life spent doing nothing: sara b. via Flickr

Copyright Β© Michael Clark. All rights reserved.

Parapraxes is an unusual word that might sound odd to those unfamiliar with psychoanalytic theory. But it’s a fairly simple idea.

In the Psychopathology of Everyday Life Freud says that parapraxes are unintentional acts resulting from an unconscious wish, desire, attitude or thought (London: Penguin, 2002 [1901]).

Parapraxes could involve forgetting names and sequences of words, but classic examples are slips of the pen or tongue.

Imagine someone at a cocktail party accidentally saying “I love your horse” instead of “I love your house.”

For Freud, the hidden meaning of a parapraxis can be found in the person making the slip. In the above example, the speaker could be an avid equestrian or possibly an intensely sexual person, the horse being a well-known symbol for virility. On that score, Freud attributed tremendous psychological significance to the libido.

Carl Jung was, at one time, Freud’s protege and attempted to develop the idea of parapraxes via the concept of the shadow. For Jung, the shadow contains both personal and collective aspects. An irruption of shadow contents into daytime consciousness could stem from an unresolved personal complex, the larger forces of the collective unconscious,1 or some combination of the two.

Unlike Freud, Jung believed that unintended slips don’t always refer back to the person making them. Parapraxes can point to an entire interactive situation among several or, perhaps, many people.

Charles Brenner M.D. believes that parapraxes have profound implications. Although we may dismiss accidents and mistakes as mere flukes brought on by stress, distraction, sleep deprivation or malnutrition, Brenner says “in the mind, as in physical nature around us, nothing happens by chance, or in a random way” (Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis, New York: Anchor Books, 1957, p.2).

The difference between a healthy or unhealthy attitude about parapraxes hinges on whether we learn from them.2 If an accident or mistake isn’t too serious, a person with a positive attitude would devote a reasonable amount of reflection to figure out why they goofed and how they might avoid similar scenarios in the future.

An unhealthy attitude, however, could be something along the lines of “I’m no good. Why do I always keep messing up? Life sucks and so do I.”

Another unhealthy attitude would be aggressive denial: “I don’t have time for this. I don’t give a damn, anyhow.” Or perhaps childish self-aggrandizement, “He’s just an idiot. I’m superior to him so I can do whatever I please.”

In short, how we respond to our mistakes is crucial.

Jung believed the self is on a natural trajectory toward wholeness. Nature heals and corrects; and since mankind sprung from nature, Jung maintained that increased awareness enhances our mastery over the environment. For Jungians, then, self-knowledge brings more confidence, vitality and sense of purpose and meaning.

However, Jung’s perspective seems to minimize the theological ideas of grace, spirit and providence. Jung does use the word “grace” in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Vintage, 1965, p. 40) and he also says that numinosity may play a key role in psychological development. But we can’t know if the types of numinosity Jung alludes to are of the same quality as bona fide grace.

On this point some Christian fundamentalists have gone whole hog and utterly demonized Jung.

Even Satan, so Christian theologians say, comes as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14).3 But instead of demonizing Jung, it seems more sensible to carefully discern spiritual experiences and stay open to the possibility that something better might be just around the corner (Jacques Guillet et al., The Discernment of Spirits, Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1970, p. 110; Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, New York: New American Library, 1955, p. 361; William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, London: Penguin, 1985, p. 423).

Along these lines Jung wrote that numinosity isn’t a single type of experience. It’s manifold. And some forms of numinosity are apparently healing while others are destructive.

But, again, we can’t be sure just what Jung is talking about because the personal experience of numinosity seems nearly impossible to compare among individuals and, by its very nature, hard to publicly verify.

The Romanian scholar of religion Mircea Eliade recognized this problem while comparing a dazzling array of world religions and their respective mystics, yogis, saints and shamans. Eliade felt that it was far too simplistic to assume that all seekers experience the same kind of inner light (Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, New Jersey: Bollingen, 1969, p. 339).

Eliade also questioned whether Jungian theory was accurate to the data studied or, especially with regard to alchemy, a superimposition of Jung’s way of thinking onto ancient manuscripts, myths and religious ideas (The Forge and the Crucible, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 196).

Assuming Jung is right by saying that psychological development may entail parapraxes, accidents, mistakes and even numinosity,4 why, one might ask, would mistakes be necessary?

The answer to this question could come from several different angles.

Jung, himself, believed that psychological complexes have a life of their own. Just as marine life is easy to forget about from the surface, the moment we swim in the ocean the charms and potential dangers of underwater creatures become quite real.

Remember Jaws? So it is, Jung says, with the contents of the unconscious—particularly the collective unconscious. Ignore or repress it and it returns full-force.

In trying to answer why mistakes might, in some bizarre way, be necessary, a believer in reincarnation might speak to the alleged truth and related effects of karma theory and reincarnation.5

Catholics, on the other hand, believe that God permits parapraxes, accidents and mistakes for some good reason, such as the restoration of humility, which is essential to true spirituality.

Jung too speaks of deflating the bubble of excessive egoism. But for Jung this is a natural process directed toward psychological integration – a union of opposites – instead of something permitted by God for personal humility (and for the purity required for heavenly life).

Jung notes this theological difference, suggesting, especially with Protestant Christianity, that its Trinitarian symbols are upwardly skewed and overly masculine. He also suggests that Protestantism ignores the fourth element of the shadow, as well as an ‘eternally feminine’ (anima) part of the self, the latter being expressed in Catholicism with Papal dogmas about the Virgin Mary.

Regardless of how we try to explain mistakes, it seems they’re almost inevitable. Inferior psychological contents eventually express themselves. If not recognized, integrated and articulated in a healthy way, these inferior elements usually force their way out. 6 And these eruptions can occur during moments of solitude or within the complicated dynamics of relationship.

As imperfect beings living in a world tarnished by hypocrisy, exploitation and tragic violence, it seems we’re bound to feel the collective stress at some level. This stress can lead to parapraxes, accidents and mistakes. Whether or not we learn from these mistakes makes all the difference. It might even play a role in humanity’s survival into the 22nd century.


1. Daryl Sharp’s Jung Lexicon defines this and many other concepts with excerpts from Jung’s work.

2. Some say that even tragedies may ultimately be viewed in a positive light. For examples of this perspective, see There Are No Accidents: In All Things Trust in God (Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R. with John Bishop, 2004) and A Step Further: Growing Closer to God Through Hurt and Hardship (Joni Eareckson Tada, 1980).

3. “Satan Comes as an Angel of Light.” Statements like this often push a few buttons. Some get upset perhaps because unresolved complexes are activated. Meanwhile, some Christians self-righteously dismiss all things perceived as non-Christian. Surely both extremes are to be avoided or possibly redirected. But redirection usually takes time. It also requires a degree of psychological maturity and a great deal of patience. And sometimes we just have to move on until things hopefully sort themselves out.

4. Jung says it also involves synchronicity but this is beyond the scope of this article.

5. I find this limiting. In my view far too many believers in reincarnation have a few (or many) unusual experiences and don’t stop to consider that their interpretation of inner events may be unduly colored by underlying assumptions, desires and beliefs. For alternatives to the theory of reincarnation, see Farewell to Karma and Reincarnation: A New Look at an Old Idea.

6. Philosophically speaking, we’re touching on the idea of teleology and in theology, soteriology. Teleology refers to the belief that creation moves or is directed toward some logical endpoint. Soteriology has to do with the belief in a divine plan, the afterlife and personal salvation.