Working with the Unconscious in Therapy
Often our dreams hide as much as they reveal. The unconscious is very smart that way; it protects us from what we don’t wish to know about ourselves. We each have our own personal taboos; things about ourselves that feel shameful, forbidden, or disturbing.
But repression comes with a price.
The parts of ourselves that remain buried, suppressed, disguised, and unknown leak out by way of symptoms, anxiety, inhibitions, and behaviors or feelings that don’t seem to make sense to us on a rational level. Our denials, defenses, and unremembered dreams (often therapy is needed before people can manage to start remembering their dreams!) can keep us comfortable until we start to realize that there are feelings we cannot cope with; changes we want to make that somehow we cannot; fears that seems irrational but that hold us back in major ways; and longings we have for love or success that seem impossibly beyond our reach.
Therapists are in a difficult position; often they can see holes in the patient’s conscious narrative long before the patient is ready to explore the contradictions of the unconscious.
In the best of cases, we simply ask the right questions and hope that when the time is right, what needs to become known will reveal itself in ways that aren’t too painful, alarming, or shocking. Symptoms are needed as defenses against knowledge that we are not ready for. When symptoms begin to hurt, we need to prepare the patient to become slowly more open to the idea that there are things inside all of us that are hidden from awareness. There is no shame in this aspect of our shared humanity.
Exploring our dreams, slips of the tongue, reactions, and “irrational” behaviors can open important doors inside our minds. But often we must first learn which doors can be safely unlocked when, and which clues hold the keys.
It takes practice to learn how to move away from the logic and literalness of everyday speech to the logic of the unconscious and the dream world, a logic that is primarily based on associations, images, and emotions. We all have resistances to how much we want to know and how much we can bear to know. The good therapist will help us develop an increasing ability to be open to our personal unknowns.
What are the themes we listen for in this work?
Severe anxiety is often connected to unconscious hatred of loved ones, or at least to the denial of any feelings at all that aren’t entirely loving. There was a mother I worked with who had panic attacks about intrusive thoughts of hurting her baby; learning to accept her resentments towards her child and fears of having her baby depend on her was quite scary at first, but ultimately resolved the panic attacks. Another woman’s panic ended when she was finally able to becomes conscious of her wish not to see her dying sister, someone with whom she had always been competitive with for their mother’s love. One young man who could not decide who to marry felt unconsciously destructive towards women, even though he considered himself a super “nice guy”; once his unconscious anger towards his emotionally dependent mother was worked through, he was able to find and commit to love.
Dreams can reveal conflicts about what it means to be a man or a woman; a child or a grown up; a parent or a friend.
“Two women and a man” was a prominent theme in one of my patient’s dreams; over time this revealed conflicts about separating from a triangle with her parents and finding a man of her own to marry. Another patient realized that many of her dreams had to do with packing suitcases; after some time we learned that her “packing” was about making room for different parts of herself as she journeyed through life. As she began to accept more of herself in therapy, the suitcases in her dreams began to have room for more inside of them.
Themes about doctors, nurses, and hospitals; men or women with the same name as one’s parents; being on a search or visiting scenic places; childhood friendships; different kinds of animals; or parts of a house such as basements or attics, are all examples of metaphors that can open up associations about conflicts or memories that need to be talked about and rewoven into an updated life narrative. When new elements start to appear in one’s dreams, or certain details begin to be added or left out, this can point to emerging psychic change.
Certain words in our dreams can reveal much as well, such as words like “show” that appear as images of theaters, movies, or plays but really refer to a wish to “show off”. Not knowing if one is going the “right way” or the “wrong way” on the road can refer to conflicts about “right and wrong”. Certain foods can signify people in our lives who we associate with them.
Safety is important in the therapy setting; without safety, we are afraid to open up. Having our therapist ask probing questions that open us up to our deeper selves or shadow sides can feel like a humiliation or unwanted exposure if we don’t trust them not to judge us and to respect the limits of what we’re ready to explore. Trust for some is easier than for others; it often depends on how much we’ve been hurt. The need to repress and suppress can also be tied to past hurts, or to messages about sharing our vulnerabilities or whether it’s okay to be weak. Some of us do not allow ourselves to lean on anyone, yet how can we face our demons when there’s no one to help us carry the pain? Learning to lean on another can be a prerequisite for doing deeper work.
What kind of work are you ready to do on your inner self? And where has your inner journey taken you so far?
Analysis is not something you can know unless you taste it, but I don’t think you’ll be sorry when you do!
P.S. Looking to do some work with me? Check this out