The Three Types of the Unconscious
We all understand that we have a conscious and an unconscious part of our mind. This distinction goes back to the earliest days of psychoanalysis. Similarly, we all know that we have access to the conscious part but not to the unconscious part; yet both contribute to the complete picture of who we are. However, fascinating research suggests is that we all have more than one unconsciousness; there are now thought to be three types of the unconscious.
What we know about ourselves
However, a brief re-cap. There are clearly some things that we know about ourselves. Often we know what we want to do, the places we like and how we like to spend our time. Similarly, there are some things we do because we plan them – we see a book and pick it up. We can explain our thinking or our actions to ourselves; it all seems to make sense to us in a logical way. This is the conscious.
However, there are some things that seem to be a part of us but stubbornly defy our easy understanding. Why am I always late? Did I say that crazy thing I just said? Why am I repeating this mistake again? The unconscious is a part of our inner self.
Sometimes we can’t figure out why we act like we do or why we hold the views that we hold, but we still know that these unknown motivators are a part of ourselves. So we can think of our selves like an iceberg – there are some parts of ourselves that we know and there are some parts that are hidden. And we shrug our shoulders, give up on trying to understand the unconscious in any real depth and focus on that of which we are conscious.
The three types of the unconscious
But the idea of the unconscious lurks as an interesting idea to us still. How can it be me if I don’t understand it and can’t control it? From this starting point, a lot of theorising has been built up, and the implications of it are very relevant for psychotherapy.
Bernie Brandchaft (2009), a respected American psychoanalyst summarises his thinking by making a distinction between three types of the unconscious.
1 – The pre-reflective unconscious
Firstly, there is the pre-reflective unconscious. The theory behind this is that when we experience life we draw some conclusions from our experiences, and that some of these are conscious and some are unconscious. We begin to do this from when we are very young. The conscious conclusions we make about life are the ones we can access and turn over in our minds.
However, the unconscious conclusions are even more powerful in the way they organise our experience so it makes sense.
I say more powerful as they are not available for review so that we just can’t question them as they affect us. For example, if we buy a second-hand car and are unhappy with the experience, then we might form the conscious conclusion ‘I’m not going to buy a car from them again!’ However, our unconscious conclusion, the thing that contributes to the way that we organise our experience might be something more generalised and more personal, such as ‘everyone is trying to cheat me’ or ‘I always let myself get taken advantage of’ or ‘I always make bad decisions’.
Once these ways of organising our experience take hold, later experience can reinforce them – all out of our awareness, all unquestioned.
2 – Dynamic unconscious
The second type of unconscious is the dynamic unconscious. This arises largely from when we are growing up, a time when we depend especially strongly for our development needs on the relationships that we form with other people, especially our caregivers. In growing up we quite naturally start to express all of the different parts of what it means to be a person, and all of the emotions that go along with that. However, for whatever reason, in some cases our caregivers aren’t able to tolerate these aspects of the developing child. If we experience this reaction enough times and with enough force, then we come to the conclusion that to keep expressing these parts of ourselves has the potential to damage or destroy the needed connection to our caregivers.
Under these circumstances, we wall-off these parts of ourselves and they form the dynamic unconscious – a part of our self that exists but that we eventually are unable to access. As an example, if the child’s attempts to have exuberant fun is met by stony disapproval and scorn from the caregiver, then the child may come to the conclusion that this aspect of themselves is so unwelcome that to keep expressing exuberant fun might mean that the caregiver will leave them.
The feeling of fun can go ‘underground’ and become so accompanied by fear that the child accesses it less and less as every time it is invoked, the fear is also invoked.
3- The unvalidated unconscious
The third form of the unconscious is the unvalidated unconscious. This part of the unconscious has only fleetingly been expressed as it’s been totally unresponded to by caregivers.
In this case it sinks below the surface as if it never existed. For example, the expression of some feeling or view that is totally unacceptable to the prevailing culture. This is never talked about and eventually never even thought about. This experience then remains embryonic within the person. An example of this might be some aspects of the developing sexuality of a young man – his attempts to talk about it seriously are met with jokes or the discomfort of others. These aspects of his sexuality – perhaps his tenderness or vulnerability – then become unavailable to him.
‘How does this help?’
So what has all this to do with counselling or psychotherapy? Clearly in many cases people are frustrated and upset with the power the unconscious has over them. Counselling and psychotherapy have at their heart the gradual exploration of the unconscious at a pace determined by the client.
The boundary between the unconscious and the conscious is context dependent and fluid. This means that what is unconscious in us and what is conscious depends on our circumstances.
When you feel safety and trust, then the boundary between the unconscious and the conscious shifts. This makes more of the unconscious conscious. In the presence of someone you trust, it is possible to have access to aspects of yourself of which you would otherwise be unaware. We can also see that we can different levels of access to the three types of the unconscious, with the unvalidated unconscious being perhaps hardest to access.
Access to all three types of the unconscious is one of the most popular reasons that people seek out psychotherapy or counselling. There is something that is happening to them that they know is part of themselves. At the same time, it is seemingly alien and inexplicable, and people want to understand why this is.
This makes a lot of intuitive sense; if you can understand more about the unconscious organising principles that you have, then you’ll have greater freedom to make conscious choices, and make changes.
Brandchaft B., Doctors S. & Sorter D. (2010) “Towards and Emancipatory Psychoanalysis” Routledge, New York