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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

Making Friends with Your Unconscious

One of the great discoveries of the 20th century was of a region of the mind universally now referred to as ‘the unconscious.’ According to this theory, only a part of our thoughts unfold in the full glare of conscious awareness while a far larger and far more significant share, do so under the cover of internal darkness. 

Crucially, what relegates thoughts to the unconscious is their degree of emotional inadmissibility. We cannot think certain thoughts through properly because they pose such a challenge to our peace of mind and violate our self-image, they shatter illusions, they threaten to strip us of our pride. We simply cannot accept that we might – for example – have a different sexuality to what we had assumed, or that we might be much more cruel, or angry or kind or hurt.

Surrealist painting by Leonora Carrington, showing a group of women and monsters sitting down to a banquet at a long table
Leonora Carrington, The Meal of Lord Candlestick, 1938

We end up chronically divided as a result: angry but unaware that we are so; desirous but cut off from the fact, afraid but unsure of what there is to fear or why. And in this lack of awareness lie most of the sources of our unhappiness, our compulsions, our anger, our low moods and our counterproductive behaviours. 

The goal of psychological life is therefore to try to turn as much of what was once unconscious conscious; to admit to as much of ourselves as possible, to cease using up valuable energy warding off reality. We may never be able to empty the unconscious entirely but the more we can drain it of its evasiveness, the less nervous and inwardly compromised we will feel.

A person who has properly set to work on their unconscious might – with grace, sadness and a touch of humour – be able to admit to a range of things that they might formerly have protested angrily about. As self-examined people, we might be able to dwell comfortably alongside a range of unusual, hitherto taboo possibilities:

— Perhaps we are after all really very strange

— Perhaps we are – very often – really quite stupid

— Perhaps our sexuality isn’t what we’ve made it out to be all along.

— Perhaps our feelings towards are more parents are a lot more complicated than would be convenient.

— Perhaps we’re not quite as kind, forgiving and tolerant as we are used to implying. Maybe we do want to triumph over, and crush, certain people. Maybe we aren’t simply just ‘nice’. 

— Maybe we aren’t as meek and modest as we’re meant to be; maybe we can be greedy, aggressive and extremely competitive. 

— Maybe we’ve been horribly unfair to many people. Perhaps it isn’t always someone else’s fault.

— Maybe we aren’t remotely ‘normal’; maybe we are in large part really rather perverted, demented, lost, sad and at sea. And that could – nevertheless – be very much OK.

All these thoughts and more lie on the other side of our internal defences, and wait to be explored sanguinely once we’ve taken the decision to try to understand who we actually are.

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