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The Existential Unconscious: A Re-Visioning of Our Hidden Selves

Why it's time for the "existential unconscious."

Key points

  • Based on his studies of birth trauma, Otto Rank offers an expanded view of the unconscious.
  • Rank scholar Robert Kramer characterizes Rank's view as the "existential unconscious."
  • Rank's development of the existential unconscious opens the way for a richer and less presumptive study of nonconscious processes.
  • This foundation can help us understand fuller and more diverse experiences of psychological well-being and disturbance.

It is time, a number of us in the depth psychology community contend, for a fresh conception of the unconscious—the "existential unconscious." The existential unconscious has many adherents and originators, as a brief search on Google will reveal. It has been associated with the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the existential analyst Viktor Frankl, and even the pioneer of analytical psychology Carl Jung, but I am of the persuasion that Otto Rank, the underappreciated "genius" of Freud's circle, as Rollo May (cited in Kramer, 1996, P. XI) put it, may be its best representative.

Characterized by Rank scholar Robert Kramer (in press), the existential unconscious is a recasting of the psychoanalytic conception of the unconscious in existential terms. Whereas the psychoanalytic conception of the unconscious is classically associated with instinctual drives and more recently with failures in early parenting, what Kramer via Rank now terms the existential unconscious is linked with something considerably more radical and probably universal: Tthe primordial shift from nonexistence to sudden, ungraspable existence.

Distinguishing between the Freudian and Rankian understanding of the unconscious Kramer (in press, PP. XX) writes:

A biologist of the mind, Freud had always insisted that the difference between male and female was “biological bedrock.” Although not disputing the force of biology or the sex difference, Rank, in his Trauma of Birth, peered below biological bedrock to confront the ontological, or better the pre-ontological, mystery of Being itself: that is, the awesome difference—the ineffable difference—between nonexistence and existence. Rank (cited in Kramer, 1996) had discovered the “‘existential’ unconscious” (P. 225), an unconscious far more anxiety-provoking than the Freudian unconscious in which simmered male sexual desire, castration fear, and guilt. “The mere fact of difference,” according to Rank (1936), “in other words, the existence of our own will as opposite, unlike, is the basis for the [self-] condemnation which manifests itself as inferiority or guilt-feeling” (P. 79).

Rank never minimized the enormous significance of the anatomical difference between the sexes. This difference, however, is the second most important difference the child confronts. “First comes the perception of difference from others as a consequence of becoming conscious of self . . . then interpretation of this difference as inferiority . . . finally association of this psychological conflict with the biological sexual problem, the difference of the sexes”(p. 78). The difference between nonexistence and existence precedes and colors all other difference—whether it be the difference of sex, age, race, intelligence, religion, or nationality.

The existential unconscious then unchains us from many classical conceptions of nonconscious processing, from the delimited investigations of the laboratory to the restrictive data sets, resonant as they may be in certain instances, of theorists such as Freud and Jung. Indeed the existential unconscious opens us to a rich phenomenological field that extends beyond the categorizations—and biases—of theorists, to the farther reaches of humanity as a whole. In so doing, it opens the way for a genuinely multicultural and multi-individual understanding of psychological well-being as well as disturbance. Now we need to add to and elaborate on the inquiry Rank opened for us; what it means to come into this life, how our parents and cultural systems handled that entrance, and what ways our fears, fantasies, and possibilities are shaped by those dynamics? Let us dig deep into this inquiry; I can think of no better time to do so.


Kramer, R. (in press). Discovery of the existential unconscious: Rollo May encounters Otto Rank. The Humanistic Psychologist.

Schneider, K. J. (2021). Review of The birth of relationship therapy: Carl Rogers meets Otto Rank [Review of the book The birth of relationship therapy: Carl rogers meets otto rank, by R. Kramer]. The Humanistic Psychologist. Advance online publication.

Kramer, R. (1996) (Ed.). A Psychology of Difference: The American lectures of Otto Rank. Princeton University Press.

Rank, O. (1936). Will therapy: An analysis of the therapeutic process in terms of relationship (J.Taft, Trans.). Knopf.

Schneider, K.J. (1990/1999). The paradoxical self: Toward an Understanding of our Contradictory Nature. Humanity Books.