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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

What is the Unconscious – and What Might Be Inside Yours?

It took until the early 20th century for humanity to start to pay proper attention to a highly distinctive feature of the mind: that it is divided into a conscious and an unconscious part. In the former and far smaller section lies all that we have direct awareness of and can reflect on at will; while in the latter and far larger part lie the many processes and functions that constantly unfold somewhere within our craniums but which ‘we’ (the cognizant part of us) cannot directly register and would struggle to put into words. 

This split inspires some highly paradoxical-sounding situations; for example, we write using complex rules of grammar which we would have no idea how to explain to a stranger. We know that ‘she walks’ is correct while ‘she walk’ is not without any lucid knowledge of the principles of subject-verb agreements – just as we can catch a ball without any awareness of how to compute a parabolic path.

Morgan Vaughan, Miners Working in an Underground Tunnel; Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

The reason why a lot of what we do remains unconscious has to do with efficiency. Needing to have no active awareness of most mental processes allows us to focus in on just one or two areas of concern. What we call thinking would quickly become impossible if we had to remain at all times alert to how we were breathing, interpreting the wavelengths from our fovea centralis or achieving hormonal balance in our pituitary glands.

But there is a more ticklish, provocative thesis as to why certain things remain unconscious: because they violate our self-image, because we are too proud and sentimental to face up to who we actually are. A lot of what we strive to keep in the unconscious mind flies rather radically in the face of what we would like to be true about ourselves. In our unconscious, we might – for example – want to sleep with someone else’s spouse or do unmentionable things to our colleagues, triumph over the weak or give up on our responsibilities to our children. Unconsciously, we may want to kill and maim, scream and hit. Were we to be fully aware of these less acceptable parts of ourselves, we might grow untenably disgusted by our natures. We remain unconscious from a sentimental wish for a comfortable, dignified-feeling existence. 

The problem, as psychology sees it, is that this unknowing exacts a high price. However awkward it might be to face up to our proclivities, unconscious material is better off brought into the light than pressed down forcefully in our mental catacombs. We need to know what our sexuality really is and where our regrets genuinely lie; we have to get to know our true desires and actual frustrations. Wherever we remain ignorant, painful symptoms develop. We end up in depression because we don’t know what we are sad about, we wind up anxious when we’re ignorant of our real worries or irritable because we have sidestepped the true locus of our rage. 

In order to try to make more of our unconscious conscious, psychology recommends a range of strategies. It advises that we should create a welcoming atmosphere in which our conscious minds have an opportunity to listen without interruption, fear or judgement to the stranger, less familiar signals that thrum within us. We need a period – perhaps late in the evening or in the early morning – when we can ask ourselves simple sounding essential questions like, ‘What might be making you sad?’ or ‘Who might you be angry with?’ It may help to write out the content of our minds in a journal or we may gain much from trying to finish sentences like: ‘My mother is…’ or ‘I really need to…’ Regular visits to a psychotherapist may additionally give our unconscious minds the encouragement they need to surrender some of their tightly-held material without fear of censure or ridicule. 

Key to opening the doors of the unconscious is a sense that we can deem ourselves normal and good enough and still, for that matter, dwell a lot on sex or money, destruction or greed, that our so-called bad thoughts don’t need to translate into deeds; that we aren’t wicked for sometimes being angry or hugely sad; that confusion and lust belong to human experience, that we can be both complicated and worthwhile.

It may well not make too much sense to try to become more conscious of how we digest our lunch or compute parabolic trajectories on the football pitch; but we can expect a genuine dividend from knowing more about how we feel about our parents’ divorce or the rejection letter, our partner’s departure or our childhood trauma. The more of us can be consciously experienced in the day, the less frightened will be our nights.

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