What is the ‘unconscious’?
For the purposes of this blog it is worth mentioning that the term “unconscious” when referred to is a state of active mental life that operates outside of one’s awareness, and not the acting state of mental incapacitation onset by brain damage.
The discovery of the human unconscious was a paradigm shift in scientific thought during the turn of the 19th century. Although this term has become familiarized to our culture, some people (including mental health professionals) struggle to accurately define “the unconscious.” Much like the original discoveries of the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin, or the elementary understanding of Calculus by Sir Isaac Newton, the knowledge of the unconscious has undergone significant revision and expansion since Sigmund Freud published his groundbreaking 1915 work: The Unconscious.
In a few words, the unconscious can be thought of as mental material that happens outside of a person’s awareness. It can manifest as rules of thumb, habitual actions, sensitivities and vulnerabilities, and the natural way we go about life – ways that we rarely question or reflect on. Embedded in the unconscious are memories of events that transpired in our early development that molded our formative and impressionable minds as infants and young children. These impressions congregate to form our implicit memory or our “how tos” of life. The memories that formed our implicit memories during early infancy and childhood are not readily accessible because our young minds did not have a capacity for explicit memory systems (i.e., recall of events) as they were not yet developed sufficiently to process experiences for long-term retention (Weinberger & Stoycheva, 2020). However, our implicit memory manifests in our adult lives as they exemplify our mental templates for relationships, emotional expression, chosen behaviors, and cognitive presentations. Many individuals seek therapy in adulthood and discover that these implicit memories are problematically continuing in their lives, even though the circumstances that created them are no longer in operation.
One example of early implicit memories manifesting into adulthood may be of someone who witnessed or was exposed to chronic abuse at an early age. Early, and consistent childhood trauma(s) can construct a mental apparatus that is hypervigilant, frightened, and avoidant (Coates & Gaensbauer, 2009). Under the circumstance of early trauma, these responses are well understood and deserved, as they increase the chance of the child’s survival in a frightening home environment. However, as the child grows and moves away from the home these implicit memories persist, and can dampen the persons capacity for trust, intimacy and love. A modern example of implicit memory processes can be observed in narcissism. Some clients report excessive pressure to be “perfect” for their families and to present themselves as overly proper, flawless contributors to society. Some of these clients wrestling with this narcissistic inclination embedded into their unconscious world report instances of hearing things like “An A? Why not an A+” or “Don’t make mom/dad look bad by acting like that.” When pressures as such are woven into the fabric of a child’s development they will develop implicit memory strategies of appearing blemish-free, overly concerned with perfection in a desperate attempt to avoid the pain of disapproval that comes with happening a simple mistake or error. Herein, the implicit memory may be that the loss of a blemish-free appearance will cause significant harm to the attachment system and thus, a bottoming-out of approval that insulates self-esteem and self-worth manifests. Unfortunately, this cycle can create a lifetime of dependence on others as such clients live their lives according to their beliefs about society’s desires.
The examples provided above are only some examples of unconscious functioning. If you would like to learn about the implicit memories and unconscious processes that operate outside of your awareness and may be hindering your experience of a fulfilling and meaningful life, please considering consulting with the clinicians at Town Center Psychology. You are not alone!
Coates, S. & Gaensbauer, T. J. (2009). Event trauma in early childhood: Symptoms, assessment and intervention. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 18 (3), 611-626. http://dx.doi.org.portal.lib.fit.edu/10.1016/j.chc.2009.03.005
Weinberger, J. & Stoycheva, V. (2020). The unconscious: Theory, research and clinical implications. New York