When I first began seeking heightened self-awareness, I believed I had to bring all my unconscious tendencies into my conscious mind – and keep them there. I saw the unconscious as a dumping ground for things we didn’t have time to face or process; I believed that the goal was to empty it. Eventually, I realized this is not only impossible, it’s actually counterproductive.
I still believe it helps to draw unconscious tendencies into conscious awareness for the purpose of understanding oneself more completely, and for finding self-acceptance. After all, how can you understand or accept something that you aren’t consciously aware of, when understanding and acceptance are both conscious processes? Where I was mistaken was in my belief that these tendencies and patterns needed to stay in the conscious mind.
Let’s imagine for a moment what success would look like in that endeavour. Freud described the mind by comparing it to an iceberg, with 10% being visible (the conscious mind) and 90% being obscured (the unconscious). To extend his analogy, the goal would be to have the entire iceberg floating on the surface of the ocean. Essentially, we would have ten times the amount of conscious thought and processing as our baseline. The amount of energy and concentration required to accomplish that would be staggering, and maintaining such a state would cripple us in basically every other aspect of our existence.
When an unconscious pattern is unattended, it can often manifest in our personalities and behaviours; since many of them result from discomfort, stress, pain, and trauma, those manifestations can adversely affect how we treat ourselves and those around us. My fear was always that, if a tendency or pattern that was once unconscious were to become unconscious once more, the adverse effects would continue. While this can certainly happen, there’s not only a way to mitigate it, but a way to modify it so it works to our advantage.
The mind can also be thought of as a library. You can’t read every book simultaneously; you also can’t remember every detail of every book at once. The unconscious acts as the shelves, and the books are our experiences. When we first start out, we don’t have many books to sort, nor any grasp of a need to sort them in any particular way, but as we get older, we start to bury books under other books, and we don’t really remember where anything is. Imagine trying to sort through a mess like that! A daunting task to say the least.
But that’s exactly what we are doing when we bring those unconscious patterns up to process. We’re pulling out one book at a time. You could just throw them back in the same disorganized way, or you could consider how you could begin to sort them out. So the key to mitigating the negative influence of unconscious patterns is in putting them somewhere where they’re easy to find, or even useful. (This means recognizing their purpose, a process which I will leave for another time.)
So the shelving system, the unconscious, is essential in storing and organizing our experiences. The true goal is to maximize the potential of that tool. We have to take the time to sort through all the material, but the more you work at it, the more sense it all makes. You start to develop a clear framework for sorting out the experiences you have moving forward, and best of all, the influences of those experiences become more transparent, making it substantially easier to change how they manifest in your life.