The old saying goes, “the more that things change, the more they stay the same.” But this applies to more than just the world around us; it also applies to our individual lives and how our choices affect this truism. How is it that at times we can be so convinced that our life is changing only to discover at a later point that it is a different version of the same old thing? Perhaps you have just ended a painful romantic relationship in which you felt controlled and belittled by your partner. You meet someone new and at first you feel accepted and free to be yourself. A few months perhaps a year later you find yourself in a new version of the same pattern of feeling controlled and belittled. The desire for change can be powerful so we can fool ourselves into believing that change is occurring while in reality it is not. Much of this phenomenon can be explained by understanding the relationship between your conscious and unconscious mind and how the two can come into conflict. So what is the unconscious mind?.
What is the unconscious mind and how can I understand it?
The unconscious mind is a decision maker and a fantasizer. It is the part of our mind that is always assessing the situation we are in and comparing it with past experiences. Sometimes it acts as our co-pilot by recognizing new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving as well as alerting us to potential danger. Other times it acts like an inner hijacker by making us believe that a past danger is happening again. We are made aware of our hijacker when we have a slip of the tongue or we find ourselves acting differently then we intend. Even people who don’t believe that the unconscious holds much power in their own lives are able to notice it in operation in others. For instance who has not made a comment about an uptight coworker or boss concerning “repressed anger” or the “insecurity complex” of a person who compulsively shows off.
We are bombarded by social media in a way that stirs up all kinds of unconscious fantasies that might influence us to do things and purchase things we may not use. Think of all of the commercials we see in which thin, energetic, and happy people are eating all kinds of fatty foods or commercials advertising the latest exercise equipment. This imagery certainly speaks to the minds desire to trick oneself that eating those kind of foods won’t effect weight or that if you own that new piece of equipment then you will use it and have similar results as the fit people on TV. Commercials work because they speak to a part of our mind that treats fantasy as if it were reality. So our unconscious mind might fantasize “I can have it all. I can eat whatever I want and stay thin, happy, and healthy just like those people in the commercial.”
Getting to know both our inner hijacker and our co-pilot are key to understanding what gets in our way of achieving our goals and affecting true change. The unconscious is the part of the mind that changes the direction of what we set out to do. It is hard to imagine that there is a part of you working against what you say that you want but the unconscious mind can be like an inner hijacker that does just that. You can’t understand this discrepancy without trying to understand more about your mind.
As therapists we encounter many people looking for specific changes in their lives. At first they might not realize that the only way to obtain change is to understand what they may be doing unconsciously which is actually preventing this change or making it difficult. The unconscious mind can stand as barrier to change and the only way around it is to examine it and understand it. In psychodynamic therapy or psychoanalysis, we create a space to understand this paradox. Through the relationship with the therapist a dialogue develops in which the therapist or analyst is able to listen to the patient’s words, which serve as a window to that person’s unconscious. The therapist begins to see contradictions and patterns and is able to make the patient aware of this information. These contradictions and patterns have their origin in the unconscious mind. Ultimately, with greater insight one is able to notice more about the way the mind functions, which will create more space to get what one wants out of life.
Navigating the unconscious mind in everyday life
The way that our unconscious mind affects our dealings and interactions with strangers can be powerful. Most people relate to the phenomenon of meeting someone for the first time and having either an immediate positive or a negative reaction to that person. This is the unconscious at work. Perhaps we aren’t sure why we feel a particular way, yet we realize it is automatic. Often times when you have an immediate response like this to a new person we make assumptions about that person and react based on those assumption, only later to discover that in fact we got it totally wrong. We might meet someone who isn’t quick to say hello or respond to us in a friendly manner and we instinctively decide they are a snob or rude but when we get to know them more we discover they are extremely shy and find new interactions difficult. But in the beginning you react to a rude and snobbish person by returning a cold shoulder, which serves to reinforce your feelings are being rejected and ignored. Our unconscious minds sometimes make up scenarios about other people we interact with and we end of up experiencing each other largely from our own unconscious stories and not necessarily based on the objective reality of each other. As we get to know our motives, our wishes, and ourselves we don’t have to feel as hijacked. Therefore we can turn our mind into our co-pilot rather then feel taken over by it. During any given day we have hundreds of experiences like this with new connections and with people we have known for years. The more we can individually understand ourselves in a deeper way, the more potential we have for satisfaction.
The unconscious mind has become harder and harder to control as email and text messages have invaded our everyday life. Email and text are void of emotion and tone yet people read emotion into those cold communications everyday based on their own unconscious messages. They hear a tone that isn’t there, and they react. It has created an entire new platform for unconscious miscommunication to play itself out in our everyday lives.
Where the unconscious gets us in trouble
It is important to understand that the conscious and unconscious are actually linked and communicate with each other all the time. Like a sailboat we need the grounding of our realistic thinking so that we don’t sink into the vast ocean of darkness that our unconscious might represent. At the same time we need a sail to capture the winds of imagination so that we don’t become so stuck in concrete realities that our lives lose passion and meaning. For the psychoanalytic psychotherapist our job is to help our patients to better notice the communications that pass between these sectors of the mind.
We get into trouble when we don’t understand our unconscious motives. The more we can see our unconscious motives, the more likely our attempts to change will be successful. Lets say that you grow up in a family where you are not allowed to feel outwardly angry and you are not free to express yourself. When you are unaware of your angry feelings they can express themselves in inappropriate ways such as arguing with a police officer over a speeding ticket which could lead to an escalated incident. If you were aware with your inner-hijacker you could remind yourself that you are really mad at someone else and stay calm when the officer pulled you over.
Think for a minute about your to-do list. You have a reminder to call your parents and you complete everything on your list but you forget to call them. If you were in touch with your unconscious then perhaps you would realize that you were actually trying to avoid an unpleasant experience by forgetting to call. Maybe the last phone call with them you felt unappreciated or criticized. We can see that by forgetting to call your parents you may be unconsciously protecting yourself against a negative interaction and perhaps indirectly expressing your anger at your parents.
Maybe it is your first day on a new job that you are ambivalent about accepting. You like the position but you dislike the required hours that you are suppose to be there. On your drive to your new office on a very familiar road, you take the wrong exit and you become 10 minutes late on your first day. If you had a greater understanding of your unconscious mind you would understand how your mind influenced your lateness.
Transforming the inner hijacker into your co-pilot
The danger in not understanding your inner hijacker is that it can clearly disrupt relationships and affect you and others around you. But more importantly it can prevent you from feeling understood, cared for, and satiated because your unconscious stands in your way. You can choose to turn your inner-hijacker into your co-pilot. Hijackers typically want something whether it is money, a political change, or simply to be noticed and recognized as powerful and important. To disarm a hijacker we need to understand his/her intentions. The same is true for our unconscious hijacker. The unconscious mind makes itself known to us in subtle ways. So we can begin to understand the intentions by attuning ourselves to these subtle messages. Understanding your unconscious mind and training yourself to listen to these subtle messages is the key to turning your inner hijacker into your co-pilot.