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What is the Unconscious?

Updated: Feb 9

Tree-lined walkway through a park covered in snow

Psychologists like me talk about the unconscious often, but what is it?


The unconscious is the part of our mind that operates outside of our awareness.  It is not something that we have direct access to, so that makes it difficult to think about, and near impossible to notice in ourselves. Some folks doubt the unconscious even exists.  Yet it's obviously there, influencing our affect, behavior, and cognition (our ABC's) and it's something like this:


Think about when you were a baby.  In your first year or two, you likely learned to walk.[1]  Your brain took inputs from your environment and learned what messages to send to which muscles so that you could lose your balance in a forward direction, regain your balance, and move intentionally through a series of tiny falls.


Now when you walk as an adult, you do not think about it consciously—in fact, thinking about walking makes your stride feel awkward and alien.[2]  Any athlete knows that thinking about their movements in competition (e.g., how you align your elbow during a jump shot, the stiffness of your wrist during a backhand, or ever thinking for a second about your golf swing ever) will likely hurt, rather than help, their performance.  This is a part of the unconscious -- what we do without intentional effort.


Back to walking.  Imagine there is an ice storm and your front walkway is super slippery.[3]  You notice the danger. You instinctively slow your walk, bend your knees, and put your arms out for balance and to grab something should you fall. Some of this happens without thought, some is a bit intentional. However, if you slip, before you can think about how to rebalance you will automatically move your legs and arms to try to catch yourself.  Your physical balance has become automatic, or “unconscious.”


Now let's back up to that first year of your life and assume that around the same time you were internalizing how to make your muscles walk you were also being raised by caregivers who weren't consistent. While you were learning to balance your body, you were also learning to balance relationships.  You would take a relational "step" and see what happened—with unpredictable, inconsistent caregivers, you probably fell a lot.  Your primary caregivers were (by far) the relationships you spent the most time with, so you learned that relationships in general were treacherous.  Slippery.[4]


So naturally as you took relational steps you learned to go slow, and bend your knees, and put out your arms for balance or to hold on to something.  And you continue to do this because relationships feel dangerous and you need to make sure you're on solid ground—so you check in with people all the time, and you act submissively so as not to upset others, and you cling on to people for security.  This is how anxious attachment forms: over time, in response to conditions that felt treacherous for you, and beneath the access of attention.


This is where therapy comes in.  With effort, you can think about these situations and act differently.  For example, not every relationship is an unpredictable, slippery mess.  Therapy can help you trust your relationships more so you can walk faster, upright, and needing fewer supports to help get you where you are going.  Or it can help you notice when relationships really are treacherous, and help train you how to respond most effectively.[5]


In the world of therapy modalities, there are two major schools: Psychodynamic and CBT.  To paint with (very) broad strokes, CBT is like talking about what to do on the patio:  thinking about the proper form, talking about how to notice ice accurately, and giving you homework to practice patio-walking.  Psychodynamic therapy is more like walking on the patio together, noticing real-time how you respond, sometimes in ways that you could not have explicitly described if you were at a distance just talking about it.  They both have their place and both can be effective, but this is part of why I practice psychodynamic therapy—though it is less convenient and less defined and sometimes it takes longer, I believe a home-visit to the actual patio is the more effective approach.


Anyways, there is a lot more to the unconscious but this feels like a good place to stop.  Happy walking.

Man slips on ice down some stairs.
Watch your step, ya filthy animal.

[1] Not everyone can walk, but if you can, you probably won't remember learning. But perhaps you've been told about it, and if you can walk now, you must have learned sometime.


[2] Try it: just think about another mostly unconscious process, your breath. Feels...weird, right?


[3] Most days you wouldn't even try to go outside in weather like this, but you're expecting a package from your great aunt MaryAnnLou and she knits the best (albeit see-through) Capri pants you've ever worn, so of course you need to check your mailbox.

[4] I should note that research also finds that genetic factors and a baby’s temperament affects the development of attachment styles, such as a colicky baby exhausting his mother’s energy and making it more difficult for her to be consistently attuned to the baby’s needs.  We can never totally blame a mother for their child’s dysfunction.  Except for Marg Bowers-Karentowsky of Lamadera, NM—it really is all your fault Marg and you should be ashamed of yourself. (Sub-point: if this person actually exists, I am so sorry.  I’m sure you’re lovely.)

[5] For example, especially for older folks, I’ve heard that it actually isn’t a great idea to put your hand down to try to catch your fall.  This is how you sprain your wrist or mess up a shoulder.  Just tuck those arms in, protect your head, and do the most stylish barrel roll you can manage.

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