There is no hack that will get you around your unconscious
I had, by all accounts, a kick-ass job. It was stimulating; I met a lot of interesting people, had a ton of freedom, and made a bunch of money. What more could I want? But on more days than I cared to admit I would sit at my desk, paralyzed. I couldn’t think or write. I couldn’t work. I faked my way through a lot of meetings, unprepared. And what many would see as a perfect situation was no fun at all.
For a long time I made plans to leave. I dreamed of a new career. I looked for roles at competing firms. I figured the job was the problem, and I tried to solve that problem by changing jobs.
The new job wasn’t any better. It was better by external measures (title, money, opportunity) — but nothing inside me changed. I sat there, unproductive. And the feelings of self-hate and desperation to make something of my life grew by the day. The constant refrain in my head was, “What is wrong with me?”
What are you struggling with? Is your work life hell? Is your relationship livable, at best? Are you stuck being less than you know you can be? What patterns are you repeating?
I have learned a lot about human beings through my ongoing transformation from trader to psychotherapist and I feel the urge to share some of it because it is so different from a lot of the conversation about change and ‘self improvement’ that I read online.
Unconscious dynamics are at play, and we are not in control.
We drink too much, eat too much, have sex with the wrong people. We choose the wrong friends. We make interpersonal mistakes at work that undermine our careers. We forget important things. We procrastinate. We hate ourselves, and our choices reflect this — we may not even be aware that we hate ourselves, but it comes out in our actions.
How many times have I checked Facebook while writing this? It’s an uncontrollable urge, certainly not in my best interests, and yet…
We don’t control our feelings. We have little bits of control but, for the most part, feelings live and breathe without our conscious direction.
And we don’t control our thoughts, either. If you’ve tried any type of awareness meditation, you will have experienced your thoughts running around while you consciously try to focus your awareness on the breath, sometimes referred to as “monkey mind.” Impossible. The mind runs and plays and does not follow instructions.
Humans make mistakes. We’ll never be perfect. But when behaviours and feelings recur in patterns, we have to ask ourselves what is happening?
The parts of us of which we are unaware or over which we do not have control are known as the unconscious.
What are your patterns? Where are you out of control?
Our unconsciouses have learned how to behave.
Think of your cat or dog. They know how you will scratch their face, or what it means when you reach toward the kibble cupboard. They don’t have to think about it — they just know.
That’s how we are conditioned too — physically and emotionally. We have absorbed our life experiences into our unconsciouses. We don’t have to think about many of the things we do. We drink, eat, sleep, and move around in the world with the expectation that things will be today as they have been in the past.
Emotionally, too, we learned patterns early. We learned what it means to be comforted when we are agitated. We learned how the world responds to our physical needs and to our emotions — joy, laughter, tears, rage. The messages we absorbed into our cells depend, to a large degree, on the emotional make-up of the people who cared for us.
And many of the things we are unconscious to are things we do not want to know. Things that may have been intolerable to our parents or that seem incompatible with the life we live now. As a result they feel wrong, and we wish them away to a place just outside our awareness in the preconscious.
Anger is a common example. Many parents punish children for their anger, particularly when it is directed at the parent themself. This message is taken in early and becomes part of the unconscious — anger is cut off before it ever comes to awareness and festers below the surface in unproductive and often toxic ways.
This is not a question of blaming our parents or anyone else. It is a question of feeling, realizing, and admitting the ways that we experience the world. Our experiences are particular to each of us, dependent on the unique situations in which we were raised, the unique sets of experiences we have had, and the unique interactions between our genetics and our experiences.
So here we are. Moving about the world, doing our thing. We have control over some of what we do but not all of it. And sometimes the parts we can’t control cause us problems.
How can we change our unconscious?
First, let’s talk about what doesn’t work.
Any type of instruction, coercion, or bullying on the part of our conscious mind doesn’t work. The unconscious has its own life. It will not be dominated. When we try to dominate or minimize the parts of ourselves we don’t like, they come out in other ways that are not helpful. That’s what we mean by passive-aggressive — we avoid direct conflict, but we’re still angry and it shows.
Affirmations are one common approach these days. But affirmations that are done without the cooperation of the unconscious are brute force techniques that do more harm than good. More on that in a moment.
So how can you work productively with your unconscious?
1) Build a relationship. First get to know your unconscious. Talk to it. Ask for a dream. Ask it questions. Write with your non-dominant hand and see what your unconscious says. Listen to your intuition. Take it seriously even when the answers seem off the wall. Remember — even if the answers seem off the wall to your conscious mind, your unconscious is making sense of this.
What I am introducing here is a way of understanding the world that is quite different from our usual cultural conversation. If it is new to you it may seem crazy. Or spooky. Or ungrounded. Our culture has a love affair with rationality that is only getting us so far. So if the idea of thinking about your dreams seems a bit ‘out there’ and if you realize that you are indeed struggling with yourself in a way that you do not understand, working with the unconscious may be exactly the right avenue for exploration.
2) Spend time at the border. Spend time in the in-between where conscious and unconscious meet. This space is where change happens. This border is a place of uncertainty. Too much uncertainty isn’t good for our nervous systems or psyches, but with just enough uncertainty, our usual ways of “knowing” can’t dominate. At the border, we can feed ourselves the challenge of not knowing in slivers, and in so doing we can gradually take in more of the “new.”
When you are starting in this work, you need to do it with someone else. A trusted person who can mirror back to you what you are saying. A person who can help you see this transitional space and work with it. A person who can hold the space for you while you explore the strong feelings surrounding the area you are investigating.
I recommend working with a therapist or coach who understands what we’re talking about here. That’s not just anyone. You need someone who has spent years doing their own transformational work. You need someone who has a particular quality of being. You don’t need promises of outcomes. Outcomes will take care of themselves when you find someone who can help you explore years of things you haven’t wanted to look at.
There are many possibilities for working with this in-between place. Follow your intuition like a bloodhound and you’ll get there.
The crucial piece is this: you need repeated exposure to your own coming apart, to the border between conscious and unconscious, and to the parts of yourself that you resist being with.
Bit by bit you will grow the strength to withstand this work, to go deeper and find parts of your truer self. That true self knows the answers to all the questions you wrestle with today. It’s the self you have learned to hide away because you think nobody wants to see it. But with work you can learn to integrate all those lost pieces into a bigger and stronger whole.
Otherwise we stay buttoned up. Closed. Invulnerable. Changing only by getting older and holding on more tightly.
Change never feels good at first.
Change isn’t the idealized fairy tale we think it is. It feels terrible, uncomfortable, awkward, and scary. We are the way we are for very good reasons. Our patterns — which we are now attempting to change — were survival mechanisms at one point. They protected us and allowed us to grow. Changing these fundamental things is a task that involves a reprogramming of ourselves. To change we must encounter ourselves — we must come up against ourselves. This is never easy.
Life throws us other problems, too — terrible problems that can’t ever be solved. But that’s when this familiarity with your unconscious dynamics is even more crucial. Without it, when life’s storms hit you hard, you might react in unhelpful ways. You could get stuck, depressed, manic, dissociated, addicted. But working with your unconscious, building a relationship with it, will give you deeper and more creative resources in times of grief and loss.
Your problems can be solved.
As I sat paralyzed in my old job, I had a lot of healing to do. I had to talk about a lot of things and have new experiences that changed my physical, emotional, and spiritual make-up. I didn’t feel safe in the world, so corporate life was a minefield, and I lived in a fight or flight state. I medicated my shame and fear with alcohol. My mind was a vacant place, and I lacked the confidence to wander the world with my natural curiosity.
I had to learn to recognize the ways I continued the abuse of my childhood into the present day: I acted in ways that undercut my ability and desire for love. I had to heal from neglect and isolation. I had to learn to trust enough to come out of my shell and share myself with others. In short: there was a huge amount of work to do. I have spent thousands of hours becoming the person that I want to be. A person who knows how to love and be loved. And a person who makes a meaningful contribution to the world.
I want to say it is a miracle, but it isn’t. I’m here because I intentionally pursued the border day after day, week after week.
Until you do that, you don’t know what you don’t know.
It’s called the unconscious because it’s unconscious.
I see it every day. People with problems. Problems that can be solved.
This is the most difficult and thrilling work I can imagine.
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