The unconscious is the ever present force in our daily actions. Unless we acknowledge this, our actions will not be framed by the present, but by the past – and we won’t know it. Psychotherapy aims to restore a good working relationship with our unconscious minds.
Most of what we know, we have learned; and most of what we have learned, we have learned without actually being taught. We build up – and use – this untaught knowledge with every instant of life, mostly without being aware of it. To live is to apply past experience to present situations in order to shape the future.
We don’t have the ‘bandwidth’ to be aware of all of our mind all of the time. In fact, we are only aware of a small fraction of what goes on at any given moment. What we are not aware of, we call the Unconscious, and it is the “force behind most of our mental and behavioural operations”.
This is perfectly fine as long as we know our minds well enough – that is, how we learn and apply ourselves. But, as J.D. Siegel warns us: “We act, feel and imagine without recognition of the importance of past experience on our present reality1”.
As a consequence of this, we are likely to respond inappropriately to situations – we treat the present like the past without knowing it – and we experience our minds as foreign to us, or at worst, hostile. This is where anxiety and obsessive disorders thrive, and where the unfair and inaccurate stories we unconsciously develop about ourselves hold most sway and get reinforced. These self-narratives can become “an unshakeable story that become a part of [our] self-definition”.
“These self-narratives can become “an unshakeable storyE. Ginot 2
that become a part of [our] self-definition”
Psychotherapy concerns itself with these self-narratives, and offers the person coming for help a set of conditions where they can be safely brought to light and progressively neutralised. The endeavour to restore a genuine and enduring curiosity about, and intimacy with, our own minds is at the heart of the practice of psychotherapy.
1 Siegel, J.D., “The developing mind: towards a neurobiology of interpersonal experience”, 1999, New York, Guilford Press, p. 29
2 Ginot, E., “The neurobiology of the unconscious”, 1995, W.W. Norton & Company, p. 97