Much Ado About The Unconscious

Occasionally you nail something the first time and shouldn’t tinker with it later.  Such was the case with Sigmund Freud.  Today, terms such as “ego” and “id” and “superego” have entered common, everyday parlance.  These three realms of the mind comprised what he called in 1920 his “Structural Model” that guided his thinking thereafter and persists perhaps as his most famous legacy.  In short, this model describes the interminable struggle between our most primitive animal instincts (id, what we “want”), our inherited or learned higher moral values (superego, what we “should”), and the assertion of what we choose to be or do (ego, what we will “be”).

[Truth be told, there was nothing innovative about his Structural Model.  Millenniums before, monotheistic religion described the three souls of man:  the animal soul (id), the Godly soul (superego), and the ‘third soul’ – free will (ego).  Freud merely created a secular version.].

This war amongst these three was the basis of internal conflict and “neurosis” and the conscious revelation and articulation of this battle became the process known as “psychoanalysis” or more specifically, Freudian psychoanalysis; that multi-year, five day per week ‘therapy” that is now about to enter the annals of prehistory.

Several years before in 1915, he enumerated another model that he called the “Topographical Model.”  He nailed it with this one.  Like the other, this model was comprised of three components:  the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious:

Conscious – everything in our mind or thoughts that is perceptible, that we have knowledge of and are aware of, and have control over.

PreConscious – the part of the mind just below the level of conscious thought, which is not in our immediate awareness but is accessible to us if we make the effort

Unconscious – the part of the mind that is inaccessible to us.  It can be revealed indirectly through dreams for example.

[Don’t be confused with the word “subconscious” which merely refers to everything that is not conscious, is just descriptive and not relevant to this discussion.  In other words, both the preconscious and unconscious are “subconscious.”]

For many years, it was assumed that the biggest culprit of conflict and suffering arose from the unconscious.  When we found ourselves feeling or behaving in a way that was inexplicable, embarrassing, shameful, distressing – it was always the fault of our unconscious.  It was like this demon hiding inside of us causing trouble whenever it had the urge or opportunity to do so.

“I feel terrible and I don’t understand why.  What is unconsciously bothering me?”

“I can’t believe I did that !  What is in my unconscious that is driving it?”

After many years in practice, I observed several things about the place of the unconscious in psychotherapy.  First, the attempt to reveal and understand the unconscious was frequently unobtainable.  Even when indirect methods were used to access it, the process was more like a guessing game.  Perhaps the reason the patient awoke this morning feeling irritable was not the residue from that upsetting dream last night, but was merely because he/she just woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning.  Perhaps the unconscious world is filled with meaningless junk unworthy of our time to uncover or understand it.

Second, there was something fishy about the supposed objective markers to gauge if the interpretation of the unconscious was successful.  The Freudians had (and have) a very convenient explanation as to why a patient doesn’t accept or even rejects an interpretation:  resistance.  In simple language, it means that if a patient doesn’t accept the unconscious interpretation hook, line and sinker, it is proof that the interpretation is correct.  But perhaps the interpretation is completely wrong, the patient knows it, and is irritated that a therapist is trying to convince him/her otherwise.

Third, in my entire career, I never witnessed one time when an interpretation of the unconscious resulted in enduring improvement.  In fact it risked something potentially worse, that the patient would say to him/herself, “Oh, now I understand why I feel/act that way.  No wonder !”  And then the patient would continue to feel/act in the exact same way, as if the “unconscious” provided the justification.

In short, this “unconscious” wasn’t a very helpful area of exploration and had dubious impact on our lives.

What was extremely helpful was a very heavy focus on the preconscious.  Take a look…

Stephanie found herself constantly angry at her boyfriend and at her male superiors at work.  She had been in a previous therapy that focused on unconscious negative feelings about her father as the foundation of her anger.  That exploration left her no less angry.  As it turned out, even though her father was distant and not a stellar parent, it was in fact her mother who actively mistreated her far worse.  She knew it the entire time, but for various reasons, it was inconvenient to open that Pandora’s box.  However when she finally did, her anger went away, she ditched the boyfriend and met someone she deserved, and then got a job where she was appreciated.  She had always been aware of how terrible her mother was, but she suppressed it; actively put it out of her mind.  She did not need to interpret dreams or search for hidden meanings.  She could pull it into her awareness at any moment.

Jordan was incredibly successful at the beginning of his career, making an enormous amount of money at a very young age.  He then got married and they started to have a family.  After a downturn in his industry, he found himself not working, unable to find another position, and increasingly unhappy in his marriage.  He became increasingly depressed, and even verbalized that perhaps it would be better if he simply wasn’t around.  With a little medication but more importantly starting a rigorous exercise routine, his depression lifted.  Yet he was still left with the question as to why he couldn’t get his career on track.  Over time, he finally admitted that he never chose the field he entered, and actually despised it from the beginning notwithstanding the fact that he was very talented and succeeded in it.  He had just fallen into it and “went with it.”  And once he acknowledged what he always knew about his career, he began to admit that he had serious reservations when he began dating his future wife.  He didn’t listen to himself then either and just “went with it.”  So Jordan never chose – not his work and not his wife.  None of this was unconscious.  He knew it all the time.  Once acknowledged, he created a new innovative start-up, went to couples therapy and moved on with his life.

The stories are endless.  But the lesson is simple:  be true to yourself.  By far, the most destructive thing in life is self-deception.  It may feel like the process of putting something out of your mind is passive.  But this process is very active.  We pretend that if we ignore something, or not pay attention to it, or not think it through – all forms of NOT choosing – nothing will happen.  We deny that there is a force out there that will carry our undesirable thoughts and feelings into isolation.  And then we simply deceive ourselves that they are not there.  And over time those little deceptions become secrets, and then lies that first we tell ourselves, and then others.

In my experience, nearly all our misery derives from a collection of these suppressed thoughts, feelings and memories (i.e., the preconscious).  Suppressed – not repressed.  At any moment we can be aware of them and then make different choices that lead us to a much more meaningful life.

Freud should have stopped while he was ahead.