Working with the Unconscious in Psychotherapy

The uniqueness of the psychoanalytic model of psychotherapy is that we work with the unconscious. But what does this mean? What exactly is the unconscious? 

What is the Unconscious?

Practically speaking, in the field of psychotherapy, the unconscious is the part of our mind which is hidden to us: we are largely unaware of it, but it might make itself known through our everyday behaviour or conversation, catching us unawares.

But where do these ‘hidden’ contents of our mind, our unconscious, come from? If in the past, someone or something in our lives has provoked acute anxiety, fear, dread, or even desire within us, we may find it so unbearable that we banish these feelings and/or the event from our minds. The ‘event’ may be forgotten or deeply repressed on a conscious level, but the associated anxiety and emotions remain.

Freud, the most famous founder of psychoanalysis, wrote about ways in which the unconscious part of our psyche might ‘pop out’ in our everyday conversations and thoughts. He called these ‘slips of the tongue’, where we reveal parts of our hidden mind without realising. This might also happen when we say something amusing ‘as a joke’ but it is actually what we may be feeling deep down. 

Why work with the Unconscious in Psychotherapy?

If difficult events and feelings in our lives are not processed, deep-rooted anxiety remains and can cause stress which might manifest in problems with our sleep, digestion, or ability to manage our emotions. We might even find ourselves slipping into a state of depression.

But if we can find out the cause of the hidden anxiety or fear, we can look at it, think about it, and talk through what it may mean.  It then becomes less of a monster and something more every day and manageable, reducing the underlying stress we suffer. Therapy is the perfect place to process these unconscious thoughts and feelings because it’s a safe place where we can gradually explore the unconscious together.

How Do we Work with the Unconscious in Psychotherapy?

There are many ways we work with the unconscious.

Dreams are probably the most well-known method: our minds are processing memories, events, thoughts, and desires at night-time whilst we sleep. If we can wake up and remember any of our dreams and share them, it can help us think more about what may be going on for us and uncover some of our hidden/unconscious feelings and thoughts. We can bring our dreams to the consulting room where we can again get in touch safely with the unconscious communications we have experienced whilst we are asleep.

Free association is another way of accessing the unconscious. This is when you come to the session without an agenda or structure of how the session will go. As you relax and talk in a stream of consciousness way there will be moments when you say things you didn’t realise you thought or expected. These can also be revealing, and our hidden anxieties can often come up unexpectedly.

Lying on the couch facing away from the therapist in therapy can also help with accessing the unconscious because there is no distraction of looking at the therapist, you can feel free to say exactly what comes into your head unhindered.

Trust the Process

Working with the unconscious is not a quick-fix kind of therapy. It takes time to trust the therapist enough for you to feel you can be yourself and let your guard down in the consulting room.  Some people never feel comfortable enough to do this and it certainly doesn’t work for everyone. However, those people who do work well with the unconscious find it illuminating, freeing, and really helpful in becoming aware of what is really troubling them, which in turn can lead to increased self-knowledge and change going forward.


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