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A Guide to Psychology and its Practice -- welcome to «The Unconscious» page. Click on the image to go to a general Introduction with a complete Subject Index to this entire website.



Page Contents: Introduction / Belief in the Unconscious / Understanding of the Unconscious / Working with the Unconscious to Facilitate Psychological Change


Have you ever heard any of these questions or statements?

“Why do I keep picking lovers who abuse me and abandon me?”

“Why do I get so angry with the children? I really love them.”

“When I do really horrible things, it’s like an impulse. There doesn’t seem to be much thought prior to the action.”

“I’m always bumping into things and injuring myself—I don’t understand it.”

“I’ve 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.

And it’s 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:

Many persons either don’t believe in the unconscious or don’t think it’s “relevant.”


Many persons 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 person.





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 about it.

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 life.”

In psychological practice, this attitude is most reflected in behavioral 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. B. F. SkinnerYet, 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.”

Still, there 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 of psychoanalysis. Sigmund FreudFreud conceived of the unconscious as a sort of garbage dump for wishful impulses that we would rather not admit to ourselves.

In contrast, Carl Jung, who began as Freud’s student, then became a colleague, and ultimately became an estranged rival, C. G. Jung 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. Jacques LacanLacan 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 fraud 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 dreams and the associations of one thing to another, an image can be formed of what may be motivating a person’s behavior.

A Metaphor and a Case Example

Imagine, for 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 asked.

“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 resigned.

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.

“What do you mean I get angry and break off relationships when people say things I don’t like? I’m a loving, open person. And to think I wasted my money on an idiot therapist like you. Good riddance.

“What do you mean I have some manic grandiosity? Would you care to defend that statement in front of a panel of your peers? I can easily spot a complete jerk such as yourself, doctor, PhD and all. This conversation is closed.

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 repetition.

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 suicide. 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, angry 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 sorrow.

Here is a comparison of sorrow with blame:



An acceptance of responsibility for how your behavior affects others. A frustrated focus on how others’ behavior affects you.
An honest openness to all the facts of the moment. A defensive clinging to old, illusory images of identity.
A charitable focus on hope and growth. A helpless focus on stagnation.
Based in forgiveness. Based in hatred, anger, and revenge.

Once you do feel sorrow for past behavior, there are several steps to psychological change:

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.

Remember: 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.

Some persons 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.

Some final points about working with the Unconscious

The 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 encounter with something very real.

Even 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.

The 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.

The formal 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.

The 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.

The final 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 depression, for example, which might be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain (material cause), can, at the same time, be caused by repressed anger (final cause).

Psychologically, 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 repetition.

Ego states are not an explanation of the unconscious; they are simply a symptom of it. But ego states can be useful in working with the unconscious.

No 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.

Additional Resources

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy:
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 cognitive-behavioral therapists.
REBT FAQ — Questions and Answers about Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy from the Albert Ellis Institute.
Questions & 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 conflicts.

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 Hypnosis

Jungian Analytical Psychology:
C. G. Jung Home Page provides information about Jungian training and treatment.

Academy for 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 sciences.”
The American Psychoanalytic Association represents all member psychoanalysts.
Psychoanalysis 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 psychoanalysis.
Lacan Related Papers provides links to numerous Lacan-related papers.
Lacanian Links 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:
Anger: Insult, Revenge, and Forgiveness
Death—and the Seduction of Despair
Dream Interpretation
Identity and Loneliness
Psychology and Psychiatry—and Psychoanalysis
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Reasons to Consult a Psychologist
Repressed Memories
Terrorism and Psychology
Trauma and PTSD
Types of Psychological Treatment


INDEX of all subjects on this website

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A Guide to Psychology and its Practice
Copyright © 1997-2003 Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. / San Francisco, California USA

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