What is the Unconscious?

Western culture has internalized enough psychological language and insight as to give even the most uninterested person a casual understanding of concepts like the unconscious, at least to have heard a joke or cliché. This kind of awareness does not always carry with it the understanding of why anyone should care about the unconscious or how it could help us live a life of depth, meaning, and integrity.  

Maps of the Terrain

Created by Uwe Kils (iceberg) and Wiska Bodo (sky).

The “discovery” and mapping of the unconscious in modern Western awareness begins in psychoanalytic theory, notably from the work of Freud and Jung, two towering symbols of that movement. Freud conceptualized a depth model of consciousness that resembled an iceberg, with conscious awareness barely cresting the surface, and much more dwelling beneath. In Freud’s conceptualization of the Id, he focused on the unconscious as a cauldron of sexual and aggressive energies originating from the pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding, wild part of ourselves. From his view, the process of maturation and civilization involved repressing these parts of ourselves—after a certain age, we expect each other not to hurt and screw each other at random, or relieve ourselves wherever we feel the urge. The problem is, in this view, those repressed energies and desires do not go away but simmer under the surface, threatening to overwhelm the conscious ego.

Jung included Id energies in what he called the Shadow, but for him the unconscious expanded into larger and stranger regions, including the species-wide network of symbolic information known as the Collective Unconscious. The unconscious contained that which is demonic and angelic within humanity, and all of it can come to bear in our growth, healing, and wholeness. From a Jungian perspective, the ego consciousness is a limited, unbalanced view that cannot include the entirety of who we are. Too much ego means rigidity and inflexibility, inevitably bringing us into conflict with a world that demands adaptation. We become refreshed and enriched when the ego and the unconscious can become collaborators and partners.

Wood engraving entitled “Of Danger All Unconscious,” front cover of The Graphic magazine, 24 May 1890

Roberto Assagioli, an Italian psychiatrist who worked on a theory known as Psychosynthesis, developed an integrative map of “lower” impulses along the lines of Id or Shadow energies, all the way to “higher” impulses some might consider noble or divine. For Assagioli, human drives are rarely pure. An altruistic person might be motivated by the desire for power and control over her environment, but this is not necessarily degrading unless she is unwilling to recognize and own her “darker” urgings. Consciously recognizing and integrating these influences might help her work and life to take on a profoundly beautiful and impactful resonance.

Psychodynamic theory might be considered deterministic and cynical, showing little hope for humans who by definition can never be fully aware of who we are and why we make certain choices. As you might gather from my summaries, I see hope and the capacity for transformation when we “make the unconscious conscious.”

Maturation and Integrity

Imagine that we are born with an incredibly powerful computer that is still in the process of development. As we struggle through childhood and adolescence, that computer is coming into contact with our environments and constantly attempting to adapt and adjust to keep ourselves safe and promote success and satisfaction. If we grow up in an environment where walking tall with pride is likely to attract violence, our brains internalize that understanding that pride is dangerous, even if no one says this in so many words. This is one way of looking at the unconscious: my behavior comes from this belief, even when I cannot put it into words. Maybe it’s simply a feeling I get when I see someone acting with pride, or walk too tall myself—doom or anger and judgment, a preference for certain clichés like “Pride goes before a fall.” The belief and behaviors might help me get through life, but it is limited. If I cannot allow myself to be proud, how can I stand up for myself in a relationship, at work, or advocate for my civil rights?

The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for abstract thinking, planning, and anticipating consequences, does not finish developing until around the age of 25. Imagine installing the most updated, advanced operating system into a computer now riddled with bugs, redundancies, viruses, and damaged hardware. We receive, however, the capacity to look inward and begin transforming those things that seem broken. Bringing the light of consciousness into the dark reveals what has not worked in a new way, illuminating opportunities to heal and become free. When I understand why pride has always felt so dangerous, I can claim pride for when it is useful and necessary. I can begin to see what deep unmet needs are hidden by the behaviors that are causing me pain. What I must sacrifice, however, are my beliefs about who I am and why I am the way I am. I must accept the possibility that these beliefs are limited, wounded, or imbalanced. I must learn how to question myself without surrendering my life to apathy and frustration. I must learn to comprehend how the darkness speaks and what it wants to say.