What is the unconscious?

The unconscious is a mental repository that holds our repressed feelings and experiences—all that was too painful to feel or know at the time it occurred and all that remains so.  These troubling experiences usually occur in childhood, that vulnerable time of life when we were trapped in our situations and when the implications of what we saw and experienced overwhelmed us.  To save our sanity we held these difficult feelings and experiences for a later time, in hopes that we would become strong enough and authentic enough to bear their emotional impact.

It is painful to process anything in the unconscious.  But the hardest experiences to process are the betrayals of our parents.  It is a sad fact that the people who should have loved and protected us the most instead failed us the most.  Yet only a person who has experienced enough adult autonomy and separation from his or her parents can withstand the emotional onslaught of repressed feelings and memories when they emerge.  For many it is too much to ask; they become as overwhelmed as they were when they were children.

It is important to note that trauma is not all that lives in our unconscious.  Also repressed in our mental repository is our full palette of creativity, authenticity, and originality.  These gifts were not welcomed in an emotionally constricted family or society.  So when the pain of unresolved traumas comes out, so too do our positive gifts.

But what happens if we don’t process what lives hidden within us?  This holding bin of repressed trauma and thwarted creativity saved us as children but it destroys us as adults.  All that lives in our unconscious begins to fester and make its presence known through symptoms—physical or emotional.  Here the unconscious rules our life.  And can rule our unconscious species.

Even though symptoms may be painful, they really are our friends—for they tell us that something has gone wrong.  Our symptoms tell us that our version of a perfect childhood, or our family’s version of a perfect family, is not true.  We begin to suspect that something occurred in our history that has hurt us.  Eruptions from the unconscious are really seismic helpers.  As painful as they may be, they are an emergence of repressed material that needs our healing, love, and attention.  They can save our lives—and our whole lost species.  In fact, without them we are lost.

8 thoughts on “What is the unconscious?

  1. “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you.
    If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”

  2. Hi Fred,

    I hope you’re keeping well and 2017 is off to a strong start for you. I recently read your book “Field Guide to A New Species” which I love. It imbues me with courage and inspiration to march onwards with this journey of healing, growth, and evolution.

    I really appreciate your above article on the unconscious. I’ve read it several times. There is one question that I simply cannot stop thinking about: how exactly does a person make the unconscious conscious?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience on this.

    Regards,

    Conor

  3. Hi Connor

    Great question — how to make the unconscious conscious.

    I say follow your symptoms which include uncomfortable feelings like anxiety or depression and in more severe cases, extreme mood swings and even psychosis.

    Any mental issue is a symptom that can be investigated. These symptoms represent repressed material so often from childhood that need to be admitted and grieved.

    Another way is to look at ways we act out. Any behavior that doesn’t serve us is a clue. Try and decode what your behavior is telling you about your past. This is similar to analyzing a movie … what is the action trying to say.

    Also look at your relationships, especially the ones that are painful or frustrating. Why is a good person like you in a painful relationship? Usually it is a reenactment of childhood deficits with mother and father.

    Of course, the old standby is analyzing your dreams. They are a wonderful clue to what’s going on inside and Freud of course called dreams the royal road to the unconscious.

    So these are a few ways to study ourselves and discover what is buried in the unconscious, ready to be exhumed and grieved and integrated at last.

    Some thoughts. I hope they help.

    Best wishes,

    Fred

    • Thanks very much for your thorough and helpful reply Fred. Very empowering. I’ve made note of your guidelines and will apply them along my journey.

      I just have one final question if that’s alright. It’s in relation to the healing process itself. At the end of your comment you mentioned what is buried in the in the unconscious is “ready to be exhumed and grieved and integrated at last.”

      What I’m wondering it: how exactly does a person grieve and integrate the material buried in the unconscious?

      This ties in with a section of your book that was very resonant with me:

      “Seekers admit their heart is broken. Through self-reflection, they trace its source to the tragedy of their childhood. Their breakdown now becomes a breakthrough, a window into their tragic past—and they begin to heal through a grief process. Their broken heart becomes a broken-open heart, letting in love and understanding.”

      At this stage of my journey it’s clear that my heart is indeed broken (and very likely has been since early childhood). It’s also clear to me that most other people’s’ hearts are broken, whether they realize it or not.

      So again, my question is: what is involved in the grief process? How does a person heal their heart?

      Any thoughts or guidance would be massively appreciated. Perhaps there’s a book you would recommend.

      Thanks again Fred. I sincerely appreciate your generosity with your time, knowledge and experience.

      Conor

  4. Hi Connor

    You question boils down to how to grieve.

    First we must admit the loss. Just like grieving a death, in grieving trauma, we must admit the loss that trauma has inflicted.

    Then we must feel the loss. The main feelings are anger, abandonment and sorrow at the hurt we endured, so often in childhood. Then, when the child’s predicament is admitted and these feelings are felt, our inner child feels heard and seen. Then we can experience acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean we like what happened but we accept this reality and move on. Remember, the end of grief is joy.

    In a way, this grief process is analogous to Kubler-Ross’ stages of death and dying. You might just goggle that. Also any reading on the grief process might help you.

    Best wishes in your process.

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