Have you ever heard any of these questions or
I keep picking lovers who abuse me and abandon me?”
I get so angry with the children? I really love them.”
do really horrible things, it’s like an impulse. There doesn’t
seem to be much thought prior to the action.”
always bumping into things and injuring myself—I don’t understand
been working on my dissertation for 10 years now and can’t seem to finish
it. What’s wrong with me?”
These are the
sorts of things you might hear friends or relatives say. You might even find
yourself saying something similar. These are also the sorts of things clinical
psychologists hear all the time.
all because we have an Unconscious.
To be honest,
of all the pages on this website, this page is the most painful and the most
sad, for three reasons:
either don’t believe in the unconscious or don’t think it’s
who do believe in the unconscious don’t really understand it.
Those who do
understand the unconscious know that they usually cannot do anything to help
others who are trapped in it, and who refuse to listen to good advice, until
things get very, very bad.
My goal on this
page is not to provide a detailed theory of human unconscious functioning;
I will instead offer some easily understood information that might make the
subject of unconscious functioning—and its relation to the practice
of psychology—a bit more understandable to the average
The first problem with the unconscious is that it is...well,
unconscious. That is, by definition the unconscious represents all that is
unknown about ourselves. So how in the world can we talk about something
unknown? One solution to the problem is to deny its existence or to not talk
To a perfectly
logical and rational mind, therefore, the unconscious is just a lot of nonsense.
Persons of this persuasion can often be found telling others to “stop
crying—just pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and get on with
practice, this attitude is most reflected in
therapy. To be crass, curing a phobia with a purely behavioral treatment
isn’t much different than teaching a dog not to pee on the floor.
Yet, to be honest, just as most dogs who live indoors
eventually get housebroken, individuals with phobias can be cured with behavioral
treatment. Many persons might not find it dignified to be trained like animals,
but remember that B. F. Skinner, the originator of a form of behavioral treatment
called operant conditioning, wrote a book called Beyond Freedom
and Dignity in which he argued that autonomous human freedom and dignity
were interfering with social progress and should be replaced with a
“technology of behavior.”
are those who prefer to think a bit more deeply about life, and in the field
of psychology they have been largely influenced by Freud.
Although Sigmund Freud did not originate the idea of an
unconscious, he made extensive use of the concept in his treatment philosophy
Freud conceived of the unconscious as a sort of garbage
dump for wishful impulses that we would rather not admit to
Carl Jung, who began as Freud’s student, then became a colleague, and
ultimately became an estranged rival,
distinguished a “personal unconscious” from a
“collective unconscious.” For Jung, the personal unconscious was
similar to the totality of Freud’s concept of the unconscious. But in
the collective unconscious Jung saw images—which he called
archetypes—that were, he claimed, related to personal, cultural, and
spiritual growth. In fact, Jung’s followers have made a sort of
pseudo-religion out of unconscious functioning.
I studied Jung
in depth for almost a decade, but ultimately I discovered that another
psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, understood the unconscious better than anyone.
Lacan emphasized the relation of language to unconscious
functioning. Since language, being metaphoric and symbolic, is one step—one
large step—removed from “reality,” in the gap between the
two is all the deception, lies, and
of human existence. Although it might seem, on the surface, that our lives
are structured simply by the conscious language of our thought and culture,
we are really more influenced by that gap between the symbolic and the
real—or, in other words, what is “missing” from our lives
in our dependence on language.
As I said earlier,
“How in the world can we talk about something unknown?” Well, what
is missing—being unknown and unconscious—can be “mapped
out,” so to speak, through a keen analysis of how a person speaks about
his or her life and problems. As a result of talking about
and the associations of one thing to another, an image can be formed of what
may be motivating a person’s behavior.
and a Case Example
example, someone writing on a note pad. The sheet of paper with the writing
is then removed. But if you rub across the surface of the next blank sheet
with the side of a charcoal crayon, the writing—impressed into the second
sheet from the pressure of the pen on the top sheet—appears as empty
strokes amid the charcoal blackness on the surface of the paper. In a
similar way, the language of unconscious motivation can be discovered indirectly
through the associations that surround it.
In a clinical case, I saw a person who had been suffering for three months
from daily cramps and vomiting at two hour intervals. His physician and a
gastroenterologist were baffled. Medication had little effect. Eventually
this person was referred to me for psychological treatment.
I told him we weren’t going to “get rid” of the vomiting;
we were going to listen with compassion to what it had to tell him. So we
explored his associations to the vomiting. From the violence in the neighborhood
that seemed to trigger the vomiting, to the physical beatings and sexual
abuse from his childhood, to the numerous rejections and refusals to give
help that he encountered throughout his life, to his anger that he had to
achieve his college education without family support, and on to his recent
acceptance in graduate school, we mapped out his associations. In the end,
after three sessions of intense psychological exploration, he was able to
recognize that he was terrified of beginning graduate school. Through his
tears, he put that terror—all the terror of his life—into words
for the first time.
“So what will you tell the part of you that wants to vomit?” I
“I’ll say: OK guys, you can relax. I get the message. I’m
terrified of starting school.”
Three days later he woke to these words of a dream: “The dictator has
stepped down.” Not killed, not assassinated—but willingly
And the vomiting stopped.
Many beginning psychotherapists—as well as most persons
in the general public—have a common misconception. They believe that
since we appear to be such rational creatures, if we are just told what is
wrong with us the problem will be solved. Sometimes, and for some persons,
this might work. But often it has no helpful effect at all.
The problem with unconscious conflicts is
that you can’t cure someone just by telling him or her what’s happening
unconsciously. An attempt to do this can
have some dramatic and ironic effects.
There you go;
they prove the point by trying to deny it. But it does them no good.
They’re caught in the closed circle of unconscious
Unless a person
asks for help and is willing to listen to it, there’s nothing you can
do. This is the pain felt by family members watching an alcoholic, for example,
on the path to slow
You can only pray that such persons eventually hit bottom—and that the
the force of the impact won’t be fatal, but that it will be sufficient
to crack open their hardened,
hearts to let in the light of truth.
And when that
hard heart does crack, the first thing it feels is sorrow—sorrow for
all the injury and pain it has inflicted on others while stuck in its own
blindness. It no longer blames others for its own misery; instead, it sees
the ugliness of its own behavior for what it is.
And so it can
be said that the only basis for lasting psychological change is
Here is a comparison
of sorrow with blame:
of responsibility for how your behavior affects others.
focus on how others’ behavior affects you.
openness to all the facts of the moment.
||A defensive clinging
to old, illusory images of
||A helpless focus
Once you do feel
sorrow for past behavior, there are several steps to psychological
You must recognize
the injurious act and admit it openly. The specific meaning of
“openly,” of course, will vary with circumstances. It might mean
“coming clean” to a spouse or friend; it might mean confessing
in prayer; it might mean being honest with a psychotherapist.
You must recognize
your personal “lack” that contributed to the injurious act in the
first place. Again, the specific meaning of this lack will vary from circumstance
to circumstance. It’s often a matter of fear: fear of saying
“No,” fear of setting limits, fear of appearing foolish or ignorant,
and so on. But it could be based in pride and arrogance, or it could be a
matter of habit derived from family dysfunction in childhood.
Then you have
to promise to remedy your lack. Note that this is not a promise that you
will “never do such a thing again,” because that would be a wild
promise that could easily be broken. No, you must go deeper; you must promise
that you will do whatever it takes to get to the roots of the behavior itself
and alter things for the better.
you can’t bring the dead back to life. But with true sorrow you
can change your behavior so that you don’t “kill” again. No
matter what “evil” you have done in the past, the heaviest penalty
you can pay for all that damage is to make a true psychological change and
dedicate yourself to doing good from now on.
choose suicide as a penalty for a confused and injurious life. But really,
suicide is a crime unto itself. Why? Because it cuts you off not only from
the healing of psychological change but also from all the good that you could
do, for the rest of your life, as true payment for past injuries.
points about working with the Unconscious
therapist’s proper job is to facilitate things so that the problem emerges
from within the client’s own experience in the client’s own unconscious
language. Being told, for example, that
you unconsciously resent your children, is one thing—and it’s easily
denied; dreaming that you try to kill one of your children is shocking, and,
if properly interpreted, is undeniable evidence of a resentment that needs
to be verbalized. Even waking actions which seem to be nothing but
“mistakes” can reveal some dark secrets.
A woman stands
in her kitchen, chopping onions. Her son rushes in. He has been “bad”
again. His mother glares at him. Angrily, she shakes her hand at him as she
accuses him—not even aware that she still holds a long, sharp knife.
What does the boy “see”? He sees his mother threatening him with
a knife. And he will be psychologically wounded for the rest of his life
by that horrible realization that his mother could be so displeased with
him as to threaten to kill him.
What was the mother really thinking? No one knows. Maybe she was primarily
angry at her husband for having an affair with another woman, and her son
found this anger transferred to him. And maybe the son was “bad”
because of an unconscious identification with his father’s betrayal
of the family. We can never know exactly how unconscious conflicts will entangle
an entire family. We just know that in this case the mother’s anger
and hostility showed themselves more clearly to her son than she would
have been willing to admit consciously.
She might claim it was all a mistake. But it was really an
with something very real.
though a rational explanation for a symptom may be discovered, there can
still be another unconscious “cause” for the
symptom. In his philosophy, Aristotle
(Physics, ii, 3) described several different types of causes that
are relevant even today.
material cause refers to “that out of which a thing comes to
be and persists.” In this sense, for example, the steel and concrete
and glass—the materials—are the cause of a building.
cause refers to the form—or plan, or pattern—by which the essence
of something is stated. In this sense, the design and blueprints are the
cause of a building.
efficient cause refers to “the primary source of the change or
coming to rest.” In this sense, the construction company is the cause
of a building.
cause refers to “that for the sake of which” a thing is done. In
this sense, corporate business profit is the cause of a building.
Now, as Aristotle
himself said, “it follows that there are several causes of the same
thing.” In psychological practice this means that symptoms of
for example, which might be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain (material
cause), can, at the same time, be caused by repressed
locating and treating this unconscious final cause of the symptoms can be
the most critical aspect of the treatment because it can have a curative
effect on the other causes as well. Treating only the material cause,
however—as if it were the rational and only cause—will leave
the final cause untreated and free to exert its influence through
states are not an explanation of the unconscious; they are simply a symptom
of it. But
states can be useful in working with the
unconscious problem deserves to be gotten rid
of. All problems need to be treated with
compassion and respect. In fact, the part of you caught up in today’s
problem probably served to keep you alive in the past. Once you come to terms
with its unconscious “message” it can quietly retire, or it can
find a new, healthy protective role in your life. But if it is “killed
off” its wisdom is lost with it.
Albert Ellis Institute provides
information about Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: self-help, therapist
referrals, workshops, lectures, training, and publications.
Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy
and Research provides information about Cognitive Therapy:
workshops, lectures, training, and publications.
The National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral
Therapists provides current information concerning cognitive-behavioral
psychotherapy, including a searchable National Referral Database of certified
REBT FAQ — Questions
and Answers about Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy from the Albert
Answers about Cognitive Therapy from the Beck Institute.
San Francisco Psychotherapy
Research Group provides information about Control-Mastery therapy,
which emphasizes an individual’s attempts to master and overcome unconscious
Milton H. Erickson
Foundation provides information and training in the style of hypnosis
used by Dr. Erickson, who was a master at healing unconscious conflicts.
Society of Psychological
C. G. Jung Home Page
provides information about Jungian training and treatment.
the Study of the Psychoanalytic Arts —“To advance the
study of psychoanalytic epistemology, theory, practice, ethics, and education
within a psychological framework consisting of philosophy, the arts, and
the anthropic sciences as opposed to biology, medicine, and the natural
The American Psychoanalytic Association
represents all member psychoanalysts.
by Wolfgang Albrecht, in Berlin; provides links to pages with information
related to Psychoanalysis.
The San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute
is a psychoanalytic training institute in San Francisco.
The San Francisco Society for Lacanian
Studies provides information about training in Lacanian
Related Papers provides links to numerous Lacan-related papers.
provides links to Lacanian sites and is an extensive resource for Lacanian
articles and papers.
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology
and its Practice:
Revenge, and Forgiveness
Death—and the Seduction
Questions and Answers
Reasons to Consult
Trauma and PTSD
Types of Psychological
INDEX of all subjects
on this website