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The Unconscious



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Page Contents: Introduction / Belief in the Unconscious | Understanding of the Unconscious | Unconscious Defense Mechanisms | Health Problems | Working with the Unconscious to Facilitate Psychological Change | Letting Go of Old Defenses | Some Helpful Points about Working with the Unconscious | Psychotherapy: Surrender to the Unconscious



HAVE you ever heard any of these questions or statements?

“Why do I keep picking friends who abuse me and abandon me?”

“Why do I get so angry with the children? I really love them.”


“When I do really horrible things, it’s like an impulse. There doesn’t seem to be much thought prior to the action.”

“I’m always bumping into things and injuring myself—I don’t understand it.”

“I’ve been working on my dissertation for 10 years now and can’t seem to finish it. What’s wrong with me?”

These are the sorts of things you might hear friends or relatives say. You might even find yourself saying something similar. These are also the sorts of things clinical psychologists hear all the time.

And it’s all because we have an unconscious.


You might wonder, “What is the relevance of psychology to everyday life?” Well, here is the answer. Like it or not, the unconscious affects every aspect of our daily functioning, both personal and interpersonal.

Nevertheless, of all the pages on this website, this page is the most painful and the most sad, for three reasons:


Many persons either don’t believe in the unconscious or don’t think it’s “relevant.”



Many persons who do believe in the unconscious don’t really understand it.



Those who do understand the unconscious know that they usually cannot do anything to help others who are trapped in it, and who refuse to listen to good advice, until things get very, very bad.



My goal on this page is not to provide a detailed theory of human unconscious functioning; I will instead offer some easily understood information that might make the subject of unconscious functioning—and its relation to the practice of psychology—a bit more understandable to the average person.




The first problem with the unconscious is that it is . . . well, unconscious. That is, by definition the unconscious represents all that is true, but unknown, about ourselves. So how in the world can we talk about something unknown?

The unconscious, therefore, poses a scientific dilemma because it cannot be observed, let alone validated, through scientific research. It’s similar to the dilemma found in sub-atomic physics: the observer interferes with the observation. The unconscious can be understood only indirectly through clinical experience.

One solution to the problem, therefore, is for scientists to reduce their own cognitive dissonance by denying the existence of the unconscious or by not talking about it.


It’s similar to the time at the beginning of modern medical science when some doctors refused to believe that bacteria caused infections. Not being able to see with their own eyes any evidence of “germs,” these men derisively dismissed the whole concept of bacterial infection.


To a perfectly logical and rational mind, therefore, the unconscious is just a lot of nonsense. Persons of this persuasion can often be found telling others to “stop crying—just pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and get on with life.”

In psychological practice, this attitude is most reflected in behavioral therapy. To be crass, curing a phobia with a purely behavioral treatment isn’t much different than teaching a dog not to Skinner pee on the floor. Yet, to be honest, just as most dogs who live indoors eventually get housebroken, individuals with phobias can be cured with behavioral treatment. Many persons might not find it dignified to be trained like animals, but remember that B. F. Skinner, the originator of a form of behavioral treatment called operant conditioning, wrote a book called Beyond Freedom and Dignity in which he argued that autonomous human freedom and dignity were interfering with social progress and should be replaced with a “technology of behavior.”

Nevertheless, just as housebroken dogs will revert to peeing on the floor in moments of emotional distress, persons who have not made the effort to understand the unconscious motivation of their past behavior will always be vulnerable to repeating that behavior.

This all goes to show that those who say, “Let’s forget about the past and get on with our future” are deceiving themselves—unconsciously.




Although Sigmund Freud did not originate the idea of an unconscious, he made extensive use of the concept in his treatment philosophy of psychoanalysis. Sigmund FreudFreud conceived of the unconscious as a sort of garbage dump for wishful impulses that we would rather not admit to ourselves.

In contrast, Carl Jung, who began as Freud’s student, then became a colleague, and ultimately became an estranged rival, C. G. Jung distinguished a “personal unconscious” from a “collective unconscious.” For Jung, the personal unconscious was similar to the totality of Freud’s concept of the unconscious. But in the collective unconscious Jung saw images—which he called archetypes—that were, he claimed, related to personal, cultural, and spiritual growth. In fact, Jung’s followers have made a sort of pseudo-religion out of unconscious functioning.

Jacques LacanI studied Jung in depth for almost a decade, but ultimately I discovered that another psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, understood the unconscious better than anyone. Lacan, a brilliant French psychoanalyst, emphasized the relation of language to unconscious functioning. Language, being metaphoric and symbolic, is one step—one large step—removed from “reality,” and in the gap between the the real and the symbolic is all the deception, lies, and fraud of human social existence.


The Realm of the Real  is the place of our essential fragmentation, vulnerability, and death. It’s the “place” where we find ourselves wounded and helpless. To most persons, it’s a terrifying place, and so most persons will do most anything to hide this reality from their own awareness. In fact, that’s the psychological function of a symptom: to hide a horrifying reality behind mental and physical manifestations such as addictions, anxiety, depressed mood, insomnia, lethargy, nightmares, weight gain, and so on.


The Realm of the Symbolic  is the realm of language. The truth is, when terrifying things happen to you, that is reality, but if you learn to voice your pain honestly in language, horror can be given containment. But, more often than not, most of us fail to achieve honesty in life; we remain stuck in our psychological defenses, leaving our real emotional pain unexpressed.

As humans, we cannot communicate directly mind-to-mind or soul-to-soul. We have to rely on symbolic communication. Consequently, the Realm of the Symbolic is the realm of language. Language, however, cannot express the fullness of reality, and so much of our experience goes unspoken. No matter how much we say, and no matter how eloquently we may say it, some aspect of our reality fails to get communicated. Therefore, although it might seem, on the surface, that our lives are structured simply by conscious thought and speech, we are actually more influenced by that gap between the real and the symbolic—or, in other words, by what is “missing” from our lives simply because we must filter all our raw experience (the Realm of the Real) through our social dependence on the imperfection of language (the Realm of the Symbolic).

Therefore, the unconscious is a side-effect, so to speak, of our separation from raw reality because our use of language fails to adequately express our reality. Lacan saw clearly that, because separation and lack lead to desire, the unconscious is primarily governed by “the desire of the Other”—that is, by the social world (the “Other”) around us that is lost in its incomplete expression of reality. Consequently, desire can be described as the unspoken—and hidden—aspect of our speaking lives.

Now, as I said earlier, “How in the world can we talk about something hidden and unknown?” Well, what is missing—or hidden in desire—can be “mapped out,” so to speak, through a keen analysis of how a person speaks about his or her life and problems.

When, under the guidance of someone trained to interpret the unconscious, you learn to voice your pain openly and honestly in language, you enter into a psychotherapeutic aspect of the Realm of the Symbolic, and horror can be given containment. Learning to speak about pain and terror provides a sense of safety through a compassionate acceptance and “taming,” as it were, of your “wild” unspoken—and secret—thoughts and feelings.

Thus it truly becomes possible to draw wisdom from pain and tragedy. For example, as a result of talking about dreams, or of exploring mental associations of one thing to another, an image can be formed of the hidden desires that may be motivating your self-defeating behavior.


A Metaphor

Imagine, for example, someone writing on a note pad. The sheet of paper with the writing is then removed. But if you rub across the surface of the next blank sheet with the side of a charcoal crayon, the writing—impressed into the second sheet from the pressure of the pen on the top sheet—appears as empty strokes amid the charcoal blackness on the surface of the paper. In a similar way, the language of unconscious motivation can be discovered indirectly through the associations that surround it.

A Case Example

In a clinical case, I saw a man who had been suffering for three months from daily cramps and vomiting at two hour intervals. His physician and a gastroenterologist were baffled. Medication had little effect. Eventually he was referred to me for psychological treatment.
I told him we weren’t going to “get rid” of the vomiting; we were going to listen with compassion to what it had to tell him. So we explored his associations to the vomiting. From the violence in the neighborhood that seemed to trigger the vomiting, to the physical beatings and sexual abuse from his childhood, to the numerous rejections and refusals to give help that he encountered throughout his life, to his anger that he had to achieve his college education without family support, and on to his recent acceptance in graduate school, we “mapped out” his associations. In the end, after three sessions of intense psychological exploration, he was able to recognize that he was terrified of beginning graduate school. Through his tears, he put that terror—all the  unconscious terror of his entire life—into words for the first time.
“So what will you tell the part of you that wants to vomit?” I asked.
“I’ll say: OK guys, you can relax. I get the message. I’m terrified of starting school.”
Three days later he woke to these words of a dream: “The dictator has stepped down.” Not killed, not assassinated—but willingly resigned.
And the vomiting stopped.
Thus, a string of encounters with rejection “told” this man that he didn’t have the right to exist, but ultimately this particular desire—the unconscious desire to fulfill the Other’s voice and sabotage his education—was dissolved.





We are all constantly being “assaulted” by others around us in their desires to get from us what will most benefit their self-interests. And so the unconscious motive to satisfy others will often conflict with our basic need for self-preservation. Moreover, in addition to these social demands, the physical world around us often assaults us through accidents and natural disasters. Therefore we all must deal with emotional conflict or internal or external “assaults” on our well-being. 

Common ways of protecting ourselves emotionally were called mechanisms by Sigmund Freud. When seen in pathological settings, these mechanisms can technically be called defense mechanisms; when seen in everyday life, they can be more properly called dynamic mechanisms. Modern psychiatry, however, uses the term defense mechanism in both pathological and everyday settings.[1]


Unhealthy defenses often become a focus of psychotherapy in the quest to overcome inhibitions to emotional genuineness. Through the hard work of psychotherapy you can learn to bring into conscious awareness all the threatening thoughts, feelings, memories, wishes, and fears pushed out of consciousness by your defenses. Once these inner experiences are properly understood consciously, you can begin to live an emotionally open and honest life.


Healthy Defenses

It’s important to understand right from the beginning that not all defense mechanisms are “bad” or unhealthy. Some defense mechanisms allow for self-protection while maintaining a full awareness of the thoughts and feelings involved in dealing with the challenge facing you.

Anticipation. You think ahead to events that might occur in the future and consider realistic responses or solutions.

Affiliation. You seek out others for emotional support or physical help.

Altruism. You do good and kind things for others, rather than worry about your own immediate satisfaction or fears.

Humor. You notice the amusing or ironic truth of something.


Some individuals, however, use humor as an unhealthy way to avoid conflict. From the way they speak, you might get the impression that these persons are always good-natured and happy, because they are always laughing. But if you listen closely to that laughter, you can hear any of three things.



You might hear a “ha-ha-ha” sort of giggle at the end of every sentence. This giggle has the subliminal psychological effect of avoiding conflict by telling the listener, “I’m really frightened of conflict, so please don’t take seriously anything I say, lest you be offended by it and want to challenge me.”



Or, you might hear a person say something such as, “Oops, I almost spilled the coffee all over you. Tee-hee-hee.” In this case, the laughter is used to disguise an aggressive impulse. For example, this person could be carrying so much residual childhood resentment in her heart for the way her parents mistreated her that the thought of her now causing someone else to suffer provides an unconscious satisfaction for the injustices she had to suffer as a child. Thus her laughter reveals the truth: that she would very much take unconscious delight in spilling coffee all over you.



Or, you might hear someone giggle while speaking about a scandalous topic. In this case, the giggle reveals that although she is saying that the topic is scandalous, she really desires to do it herself.



Self-assertion. You act toward others in a way that is emotionally genuine and honest and that is not coercive or manipulative.

Self-observation. You reflect upon and consider your emotions and thoughts, so as to act responsibly.

Sublimation. You direct socially harmful impulses into socially acceptable forms of behavior.


Keep in mind, though, that some forms of sublimation, such as playing violent video games, although socially acceptable, can still be psychologically unhealthy because the behavior breeds a pernicious desire for anger and revenge.


Suppression. You avoid thinking about disturbing experiences or feelings.


Done in moderation, and in the proper circumstances, this can be healthy and protective. But in excess it becomes avoidance, one of the characteristic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.


Inhibitory Defenses

This sort of defensive functioning serves to keep threatening thoughts, feelings, memories, wishes, or fears out of conscious awareness.

Displacement. You transfer your feelings about one object to another, less threatening object. For example, a man angry at his boss comes home and yells at his children.

Dissociation. You separate yourself from reality by a breakdown of normal conscious functions of memory or identity. For example, in a car crash you don’t feel like you’re experiencing it yourself, or you don’t feel like you’re experiencing it in your body, or you develop amnesia about the final moments of the crash.

Identification. As a normal childhood developmental process of taking in of experience symbolically in order to identify with other persons (especially parents), this is often called introjection. But identification can also have a defensive function, as in identification with the aggressor.

Intellectualization. You focus on abstract logic or philosophy and minimize feelings about an event. For example, after an earthquake damages your home, you talk to others primarily about the structural engineering factors of the damage.


For example, children of alcoholic parents more often than not grow up in an environment of lying, broken promises, arguing, and violence. To cope with such emotional volatility and chaos, some children learn to run away and hide. They fear emotions as something dangerous. Because the dysfunctional family system cheats them of the ability to deal with emotions, the children spend their lives dampening all their emotional reactions, dwelling in the realm of logic and reason.


Isolation of Affect. You remain aware of the descriptive details of an event but lose connection with the feelings about the event itself.

Reaction Formation. Your behaviors, thoughts, or feelings are the complete opposite of your actual (unconscious) desires. For example, you dislike your job and yet you tell everyone how wonderful it is.

Repression. You lose all conscious memory of an event (in contrast to dissociative amnesia, in which selective elements of an event are “forgotten”). Also, in repression you may retain certain emotional components of the event even though you have no conscious memory of the event. For example, a woman who as a child was sexually abused by her father may feel anxious and uneasy whenever finding herself alone in a room with an older man, even though she cannot remember the childhood abuse itself. (Note, however, that this emotional component in itself does not prove that any abuse ever happened; a woman might feel anxiety around older men for unconscious reasons other than abuse. For example, she might be trying to ward off her anger at her father for being intellectually critical of her as a child, and not being present to her as a compassionate teacher.)

Undoing. You use symbolic means to negate or make amends for unacceptable thoughts or feelings. For example, you repetitively wash your hands as an unconscious gesture of “washing away” the guilt of feeling angry at someone you depend upon.

Distorting Defenses (minor)

This sort of defensive functioning serves to distort images of self or body or others in order to regulate self-esteem.

Devaluation. You tell yourself that something desirable but immediately unattainable is somehow defective. For example, the fox in Aesop’s fable tells himself that the grapes out of his reach are probably sour. Hence the expression “sour grapes.”

Idealization. You attribute exaggerated positive qualities to an other.

Omnipotence. You feel or act as if you possessed special powers or abilities superior to others. For example, a child left alone in the house every day after school by working parents fantasizes that he is a comic book superhero.

Defenses Involving Disavowal

This sort of defensive functioning serves to keep unpleasant or unacceptable thoughts or feelings out of conscious awareness. In contrast to inhibitory defenses (see above), which attempt to hide unpleasant thoughts or feelings, defenses involving disavowal attempt to negate reality in some way.

Denial. You refuse to acknowledge what is readily apparent to others. The classic example here is an alcoholic who will dispute any suggestion that he is dependent on the use of alcohol.


When you’re in denial, the truth is your enemy and your accuser.


Projection. You falsely attribute to others your own unacceptable feelings. Projection, however, isn’t always just a simple role reversal whereby you, for example, believe that someone is angry with you when you are really angry at that person. Projection often involves such a disavowal of feelings and memories that your perception of truth becomes distorted. For example, when you believe that your boss is fed up with you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are fed up with your boss; the truth could be that you are fed up with something in your work environment, or even in your home environment, and aren’t even aware of it. Thus when the defense of projection rules your life, you experience a profound lack of awareness of your own reality.


The great granddaddy of all projection is the belief that God hates you, whereas the reality is that you hate yourself.


Rationalization. You conceal your true motives by making incorrect, self-serving explanations. For example, a parent beats a child, saying that it is not abuse because “That’s how my father disciplined me.”

Distorting Defenses (major)

This sort of defensive functioning involves gross distortion in images of self or others.

Autistic Fantasy. You withdraw into excessive daydreaming (or playing video games), building up an inner fantasy life at the expense of any meaningful encounter with the real world. 

Projective Identification. As in projection, you falsely attribute to others your own unacceptable feelings, but here you remain aware of the feelings yet believe they are justifiable reactions to another person. For example, you feel angry that you have been assigned to work on a project, but instead of recognizing your resentment, you start to feel angry with a co-worker, believing that she lacks commitment to the project.


This sort of behavior can lead to what is called a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, an insecure person who is intensely afraid of abandonment can so often impute feelings of infidelity into others that they eventually get sick of such suspicion and criticism and end up actually abandoning him or her.

This whole process gets started when you are mistreated as a child in your family. Not being able to make sense of this irrational abuse, you tell yourself, “It’s all my fault.” Then, firmly and repetitively believing that everything is your fault, you begin to expect abuse—and, sure enough, that expectation draws hurt to you like iron to a magnet.


Stopping Self-fulfilling Prophecies




Begin by accepting the fact that, when you were a child, others inflicted their own internal unconscious conflicts on you and that you were not to blame for their hostility.



Then you can stop believing that you “deserved it.”



Then you can stop hating. You can stop hating others for being so mean to you; you can do this by having compassion for their suffering in their own unhealed emotional pain, and you can forgive them for their blindness and failures. And you can stop hating yourself for being unable to fix things.



Then you can stop letting your own emotional resentments unconsciously contribute to the emotional chaos of the world around you. You can say, “From now on, I will do everything I can to seek to understand others, to seek their good, and to help them heal from their emotional pain.”



Then you can stop unconsciously wishing to punish yourself.



Splitting. You see everything as either all good or all bad, sometimes alternating between the two in regard to one person.

Defenses Involving Action

This sort of defensive functioning involves action or withdrawal.

Acting Out. You use physical actions instead of dealing with challenges directly by reflecting on and speaking about your feelings. For example, a man has an extramarital affair because he cannot verbalize his feelings of frustration or helplessness within the marriage.

Apathetic Withdrawal. You simply withdraw from interaction with the world rather than deal with its assaults and and challenges by taking effective action through loving service to others.


This dynamic is a key component of all addictions. Feeling the lack of real love from your parents, you turn to your own self-satisfaction through substances (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, cocaine, etc.), through behaviors (e.g., gambling), or through your own body (e.g., erotic pleasure) as a way to avoid giving real love to others.


Help-rejecting Complaining. You make a show of asking for help, yet because of unconscious resentment for all the help you have not received (especially from your parents) you reject all help or advice that is offered to you. For example, a woman who suffers from bereavement begins to feel depressed and lose weight. A neighbor brings some yogurt as a comfort food, but the woman complains that she only eats goat’s milk yogurt; a physician prescribes medication, but the woman stops taking it because she doesn’t like the way it makes her feel; a psychologist offers psychotherapy, but she complains that the office is too far away—and so on. 

Passive Aggression. You present a façade of compliance, yet, because of hidden resentment—that is, unconscious anger (often anger at your father)—something always “happens”: you get sick, the bus is late, your car breaks down, and so on. The end result is that the task is obstructed, but the obstruction has happened in such a subtly obscure manner that no one can accuse you of directly interfering with the task. Hence you get all the satisfaction of thwarting the plans of others while avoiding any responsibility for your actions.


“Wait a minute,” you say. “It’s not my fault that the bus was late.” Well, that may be true in some circumstances, but we’re talking here about things—one thing or another—that happen over and over again to frustrate the plans of someone else. And this frustration is a sort of veiled retaliation, a quiet unconscious revenge for something someone has done that hurt you. It could be very possible that you “knew” unconsciously just how much of a delay it would take to miss that bus, and you “knew” that you could be late. Thus, rather than catching the bus before the bus that will get you there on time, so as to guarantee not being late, you ignore the warning signs, “knowing” with a secret satisfaction what will happen. In fact, the satisfaction may be so secret that even you don’t recognize it. It may sound weird, but as is often said, “Life is stranger than fiction.”





It can make many persons feel uncomfortable to hear it said, but many health problems derive from unconscious conflicts. “No!” they object. “This is not how I want to think of myself, that I am so repressed that I caused myself a great deal of pain and aggravation.”

Repression, however, is not really something to be embarrassed about; it’s simply a fact of life. We have an unconscious because we use language; that is, because we can never speak our experiences completely, something always remains unsaid and unconscious. And then, on top of this, whatever feelings and experiences we are afraid to express openly and honestly can be repressed and added to the general reservoir of our unconscious.

Ultimately, though, this repressed experience will leak out in one way or another: slips of the tongue; procrastination; repetitive self-sabotage; hostile comments to others that just blurt out of our mouths; aggressive actions—and health problems.

But, if we have some curiosity about the unconscious and seek to understand it, rather than treat it with indifference and contempt, we can improve the quality of our lives—mentally, spiritually, and physically. Recognizing psychological causality will not necessarily cure an illness, but it can prevent the experience from becoming a trauma, and it can facilitate healing.




A MAN goes to his physician and says, “Doc, I think I’m losing my memory.”
    “Hmm. How long has that been going on?” the physician asks.
    “I don’t know,” the man replies. “I can’t remember.”

This joke illustrates the fact that many aspects of our lives are simply not accessible to conscious thought processes. The basic physiology of the body, such as internal temperature or immune protection is one example. Memory, when it goes awry is another example.

So it is with the psychology of the unconscious. If most persons were asked, “Do you have any unconscious anger at your parents?” they would likely respond, “That’s ridiculous!”

Therefore, the unconscious can be examined only indirectly, through linguistic associations, dreams, and behavioral clues. Any attempt to approach the unconscious directly (such as by asking, “Do you have any unconscious anger at your parents?”) will be met with fear and denial.

Nevertheless, many beginning psychotherapists, as well as most persons in the general public, share a common misconception. They accept the belief that “our lives are structured simply by conscious thought and speech,” and so they assume that if we are just told what is wrong with us we will immediately want to remedy the problem. Sometimes, when some highly motivated persons are told about their mistakes and failures, they will immediately want to change. But often such advice provokes defensive resistance, and so the attempt to be helpful has no helpful effect at all.

The problem with unconscious conflicts is that you can’t cure someone just by telling him or her what’s happening unconsciously. In fact, an attempt to do this can have some dramatic and ironic effects.


“What do you mean I get angry and break off relationships when people say things I don’t like? I’m a loving, open person. And to think I wasted my money on an idiot therapist like you. Good riddance, you [expletives deleted]!



“What do you mean I’m prone to hostility and violence? I demand an apology right now or the streets will flow with your blood!”


There you go; they prove the point by trying to deny it. But it does them no good. They’re caught in the closed circle of unconscious repetition.

Unless a person asks for help and is willing to listen to it, there’s nothing you can do. This is the pain felt by family members watching an alcoholic, for example, on the path to slow suicide. You can only pray that such persons eventually hit bottom—and that the force of the impact won’t be fatal, but that it will be sufficient to crack open their hardened, angry hearts to let in the light of truth.

And when that hard heart does crack, the first thing it feels is sorrow—sorrow for all the injury and pain it has inflicted on others while stuck in its own blindness. It no longer blames others for its own misery; instead, it sees the ugliness of its own behavior for what it is.

And so it can be said that the only basis for lasting psychological change is sorrow.

Here is a comparison of sorrow with blame:



An acceptance of responsibility for how your behavior affects others.

A frustrated focus on how others’ behavior affects you.

An honest openness to all the facts of the moment.

A defensive clinging to old, illusory images of identity.

A charitable focus on hope and growth.

A helpless focus on resentment.

Based in forgiveness.

Based in wanting to make others suffer because of what they did to you.

Once you do feel sorrow for past behavior, there are several steps to psychological change:


Recognize the injurious act and admit it openly.  The specific meaning of “openly,” of course, will vary with circumstances. It might mean “coming clean” to a spouse or friend; it might mean confessing in prayer; it might mean being honest with a psychotherapist.

Recognize your personal “lack” that contributed to the injurious act in the first place.  Again, the specific meaning of this lack will vary from circumstance to circumstance. It’s often a matter of fear: fear of saying “No,” fear of setting limits, fear of appearing foolish or ignorant, and so on. But it could be a matter of habit derived from family dysfunction in childhood.

Promise to remedy your lack.  Note that this is not a promise that you will “never do such a thing again,” because that would be a wild promise that could easily be broken. No, you must go deeper; you must promise that you will do whatever it takes to get to the roots of the behavior itself and alter things for the better.

Learn from the past.  “You can’t bring the dead back to life. You can’t change the past.” These are both true and accurate psychological statements. But with true sorrow you can learn from the past and change your behavior in the present so that you don’t “kill” again. No matter what “evil” you have done in the past, the heaviest penalty you can pay for all that damage is to make a true psychological change and dedicate yourself to doing good from now on.

Some persons choose suicide as a penalty for a confused and injurious life. But really, suicide is a psychological “crime” unto itself. Why? First, because it cuts you off from any healing you might attain because of psychological change. Second, it cuts you off from all the good that you could do, for the rest of your life, as true payment for your past mistakes. Third, it is in essence an act of hatred, by which you throw evidence of your failure into the faces of those who failed you, as proof of their failures.




You might ask, “So what can I do to let go of old psychological defenses?”

To answer this question, let’s use a simple example from everyday life. In order to let go of something, you first need to pick it up. For example, you can’t let go of a rope that is lying on the ground. If you want to let it go, it has to be in your hand. It doesn’t matter how long it has been in your hand or when you first picked it up; all that matters is that you know that you are holding it now.

Psychology works in a similar way. If you want to let go of something, you first need to pick it up. But what does it mean to “pick up” something psychologically? What does it mean to know that you are holding on to a dysfunctional behavior? Well, “to pick up something psychologically” means that you understand its psychological purpose.


Defenses get created in childhood to protect us from emotional hurts inflicted by our environment (parents, siblings, friends, and others). Because a defense’s original purpose is protective, it will be necessary, if you want to overcome that defense now as an adult, to understand how the defense is trying to protect you. In this regard, think of the defense as a child who feels suspicious, confused, and frightened. If you try to force a frightened child to do what you want, you will get only resistance and opposition; the only way to get past the opposition is to understand the child’s fear while also understanding how the child’s behavior seems, to the child, to be protective. Then negotiate with the child to establish new behaviors that can protect you both in a healthy, emotionally honest manner.


Therefore, to change dysfunctional behavior, it can be helpful to acknowledge and respect its original purpose. Because all dysfunctional behavior derives from childhood psychological defenses, and the whole point of a defense is to protect you, respecting that original protective purpose of a defense, rather than just getting rid of the defense, will aid you in changing your behavior without invalidating all the skills and talents that the defense has used so far in its attempt to protect you.

Here is an example of how that process can be outlined.

Identify the problem and your feelings.

I want to go to university, but I feel anxious and afraid.

State the negative beliefs underlying your feelings.

“Wanting anything is selfish.”
“I’m not worthy.”
“I don’t matter.”
“I don’t deserve to have any ambitions.”
“I will never succeed at anything.”

Identify the “voice” behind the negative beliefs. That is, is it the voice of your mother or your father or someone else?

It’s the voice of both my mother and my father. It’s my father because, as an alcoholic, he passively hid from taking responsibility in the family. It’s the voice of my mother in her anger at herself and at us children because of my father’s selfish passivity.

State the original purpose of the negative beliefs.

They protect me from feeling hurt by my father when he got drunk and broke his promises.

State the “voice” of the original protective purpose.

“You have a right to feel afraid. Staying hidden has kept you alive all your life. If you expose yourself now, you will be destroyed!”

Acknowledge the “voice” of the original protective purpose.

“I understand how much you fear betrayal. My father’s broken promises hurt deeply. But now there are other means of self-protection available that you didn’t know about in childhood. I can learn about them and use them.”

Dispute—that is, make a rebuttal to—the negative beliefs.

“Yes, having ambition is partly selfish, and  yet it can also be of use to others. It’s also true that if I get a university degree it will enhance my self-esteem and my prestige, and  yet it will allow me to do better work than I can do now. So if I go to university, everyone can benefit.”

State how the rebuttal still fulfills the original purpose of the negative beliefs.

Going to university will protect me from getting hurt; that is, it will protect me from the hurt of “burying” my true talents.

Predict how you will feel—and why you will feel that way—if you carry out your rebuttal.

I will feel sad because it will remind me that my father really wasn’t there for me.

Validate the underlying truth of those feelings. Then feel the pain as you experienced it as a child. Note that the previous points can be discovered relatively quickly through logic and intellect. This point requires some deep, emotional introspection and for that reason it is often the core work of psychotherapy.

“I felt very sad all throughout my childhood because I was constantly disappointed by my alcoholic father.” Yes, say it, and then feel what the child felt at the time.

State how those feelings can now be a positive motivation.

My sadness that my father wasn’t there for me can be an incentive for me to “be there” for someone else.

Make positive affirmations about your decision.

I will protect myself by going to university. I will learn how to be assertive and to protect my boundaries. I will make my best effort. I will not sabotage myself. I will “be there” for myself to validate my own emotional experiences, and  I will “be there” for others. I will never forget the betrayal inflicted on our family by my father, yet I will work to forgive him rather than get stuck like my mother in thoughts of resentment.




Below are some helpful points about working with the unconscious.

The unconscious controls you—you cannot control it.  The unconscious is the totality of the truth of your being. Fighting it or denying it takes you nowhere. All you can do is cooperate with it.


No matter how much you may be convinced that your behavior is determined by your conscious motives, you are still subject to unconscious motivation. You may respond, “I get what you say, and I agree that it may be true for others. But I just don’t feel that this applies to me.” Well, that response in itself is a form of unconscious denial.


The psychotherapist’s proper job is to facilitate things so that the problem emerges from within the client’s own experience in the client’s own unconscious language.  Being told, for example, that you unconsciously resent your children, is one thing—and it’s easily denied; dreaming that you try to kill one of your children is shocking, and, if properly interpreted, is undeniable evidence of a resentment that needs to be verbalized. Even waking actions which seem to be nothing but “mistakes” can reveal some dark secrets.


A woman stands in her kitchen, chopping onions. Her son rushes in. He has been “bad” again. His mother glares at him. Angrily, she shakes her hand at him as she accuses him—not even aware that she still holds a long, sharp knife.
What does the boy “see”? He sees his mother threatening him with a knife. And he will be psychologically wounded for the rest of his life by that horrible realization that his mother could be so displeased with him as to threaten to kill him.
What was the mother really thinking? No one knows. Maybe she was primarily angry at her husband for having an affair with another woman, and her son found this anger transferred to him. And maybe the son was “bad” because of an unconscious identification with his father’s betrayal of the family. We can never know exactly how unconscious conflicts will entangle an entire family. We just know that in this case the mother’s anger and hostility showed themselves more clearly to her son than she would have been willing to admit consciously.
She might claim it was all a mistake. But it was really an encounter with something very real.



Even though a rational explanation for a symptom may be discovered, there can still be another unconscious “cause” for the symptom.  In his philosophy, Aristotle (Physics, ii, 3) described several different types of causes that are relevant even today.


The material cause refers to “that out of which a thing comes to be and persists.” In this sense, for example, the steel and concrete and glass—the materials—are the cause of a building.

The formal cause refers to the form—or plan, or pattern—by which the essence of something is stated. In this sense, the design and blueprints are the cause of a building.

The efficient cause refers to “the primary source of the change or coming to rest.” In this sense, the construction company is the cause of a building.

The final cause refers to “that for the sake of which” a thing is done. In this sense, corporate business profit is the cause of a building.

Now, as Aristotle himself said, “it follows that there are several causes of the same thing.” In psychological practice this means that symptoms of depression, for example, which might be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain (material cause), can, at the same time, be caused by repressed anger (final cause).

Psychologically, locating and treating this unconscious final cause of the symptoms can be the most critical aspect of the treatment because it can have a curative effect on the other causes as well. Treating only the material cause, however—as if it were the rational and only cause—will leave the final cause untreated and free to exert its influence through repetition.

The more you feel convinced that something is NOT a problem, the greater the likelihood that it IS an unconscious problem.  You might say, “What do you mean, anger? I’m not angry with my parents! I’m certain of that!” Well, watch out—you’re fooling only yourself. And, while we’re on the subject, you might say, “I’m not lying to myself! That’s ridiculous!” Well, you have a bit to learn about psychology . . .

Ego states are not an explanation of the unconscious; they are simply a symptom of it.  Nevertheless, ego states can be useful in working with the unconscious.

No unconscious problem deserves to be gotten rid of.  All problems need to be treated with compassion and respect. In fact, the part of you caught up in today’s problem probably served to keep you alive in the past. Once you come to terms with its unconscious “message” it can quietly retire, or it can find a new, healthy protective role in your life. But if it is “killed off” its wisdom is lost with it.




WALKING to my office, I hear a voice behind me on the sidewalk. “Excuse me,” he says. I turn and look at him. “Do you have the time?” he asks.
    “No,” I reply. “Time has me.”

My answer reveals that I am a psychologist—and not only that, but a psychologist who understands his job.

The truth is, just as time is not something we can ever possess, even though we try to fool ourselves by “wearing” it on our wrists like jewelry, the unconscious, too, is something we cannot possess or control. 

Still, we try to control the unconscious by numbing it with ceaseless activity, entertainment, sex, and drugs and by pushing it aside with political power, financial wealth, and social status. Nevertheless, the unconscious will find its way to leak out in anxiety, insomnia, embarrassing slips of the tongue, accidents, or self-sabotage,[2] or to erupt in physical or mental illness.

So long as you insist on believing that you are in control of your life,
your unconscious will be in control of you.

Consequently, your best recourse is psychotherapy where the reality of the unconscious can be noted and respected—and the only way to respect the unconscious is to surrender to it.

Now, what does this mean to “surrender to the unconscious” in psychotherapy? Well, this means that you


Think of the unconscious as the truth of your existence, not as some unwanted and feared obstacle to happiness;


Show curiosity for this truth and welcome its attempts to reveal itself to you in dreams, free associations, and unexpected encounters;


Trust that your welcoming this truth into your conscious awareness will set you free from the futile and depressing anxiety of hiding from yourself, your psychotherapist, the world, and life itself.




Psychology from the Heart
The Spiritual Depth of Clinical Psychology

A collection of texts from the writings of
Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.

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1. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994. See Appendix B: Criteria Sets and Axes Provided for Further Study, Defensive Functioning Scale (pp. 751–757).

2. Keep in mind that unconscious self-sabotage is not always a matter of harming the self; instead, it can be a matter of your unconscius telling you, through its obstruction of your plans, that you are currently trying to do something that is “wrong”—that is, that you are currently trying to do something that is not in accord with what you really need. Hence sabotage can be an unconscious corrective mechanism rather than a mechanism of self-harm.

Additional Resources

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy:
Albert Ellis Institute  provides information about Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: self-help, therapist referrals, workshops, lectures, training, and publications.
Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research  provides information about Cognitive Therapy: workshops, lectures, training, and publications.
The National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists  provides current information concerning cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, including a searchable National Referral Database of certified cognitive-behavioral therapists.
REBT FAQ  — Questions and Answers about Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy from the Albert Ellis Institute.
Questions & Answers  about Cognitive Therapy from the Beck Institute.
San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group  provides information about Control-Mastery therapy, which emphasizes an individual’s attempts to master and overcome unconscious conflicts.
Milton H. Erickson Foundation  provides information and training in the style of hypnosis used by Dr. Erickson, who was a master at healing unconscious conflicts.
Society of Psychological Hypnosis
Jungian Analytical Psychology:
C. G. Jung Home Page  provides information about Jungian training and treatment.
Jacques Lacan. Écrits: A selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977)
Jacques Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981).
Academy for the Study of the Psychoanalytic Arts  —“To advance the study of psychoanalytic epistemology, theory, practice, ethics, and education within a psychological framework consisting of philosophy, the arts, and the anthropic sciences as opposed to biology, medicine, and the natural sciences.”
The American Psychoanalytic Association  represents all member psychoanalysts.
The Lacanian School of Psychoanalysis  in the San Francisco Bay area, offers training in Lacanian psychoanalysis.
Psychoanalysis  by Wolfgang Albrecht, in Berlin; provides links to pages with information related to Psychoanalysis.
The Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California  offers psychoanalytic training.
The San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute  is a psychoanalytic training institute in San Francisco.
The San Francisco Society for Lacanian Studies  provides lectures and information about Lacanian psychoanalysis.
Lacan Related Papers  provides links to numerous Lacan-related papers.
Lacanian Links  provides links to Lacanian sites and is an extensive resource for Lacanian articles and papers.
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Anger: Insult, Revenge, and Forgiveness
Death—and the Seduction of Despair
Dream Interpretation
Identity and Loneliness
Psychology and Psychiatry—and Psychoanalysis
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Reasons to Consult a Psychologist
Repressed Memories
Terrorism and Psychology
Trauma and PTSD
Treatment Philosophy
Types of Psychological Treatment
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