Why was the discovery of the «unconscious» so important?

Sigmund Freud is a psychologist whose name is known to almost everyone. But what exactly made him great? And why are his discoveries considered so global?

28 September, 2023

Like other globally recognized psychologists, he proposed a series of innovative ideas for his time. He introduced and described the original model of the structure of the psyche. To be more precise, he proposed six fairly elaborated models for describing the human psyche, each of which made a significant contribution to scientific and practical psychology. In this sense, not only the qualitative novelty but also the scale of Freud's work is impressive.

However, one discovery highlighted separately in this article takes Freud beyond the field of psychology. It also became the basis for the value and possibility of psychotherapy as a social practice.

Sigmund Freud literally discovered the «unconscious»...

Most people, when they use this word «unconscious», actually mean «Freudian» or «Jungian» unconscious. Before Freud, the term had a somewhat different meaning. G. Leibniz introduced it to denote the lowest, unconscious processes that occur without control from human reason (e.g., breathing). Immanuel Kant associated the problem of the unconscious with the presence of intuition in humans, i.e., knowledge prior to empirical forms of knowing, in contrast to acquired knowledge.

However, Freud introduced and established the unconscious for the first time as a psychic reality that coexists in parallel with a conscious reality and, most importantly, can...

...influence a person's actual behavior to an equal, and sometimes even greater extent than conscious thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.

In other words, this statement essentially asserts that human behavior is not entirely under our control, despite the subjective feeling of having control over our actions. Behind our behavior, whether it's everyday actions or decisions of vital importance, lie powerful, unquestionable, and uncontrollable unconscious fantasies and perceptions about the surrounding world.

In light of this idea, Sigmund Freud and his followers developed numerous techniques for exploring the unconscious, primarily through the analysis of dreams. Psychoanalysts of the 20th century viewed the unconscious as uncontrollable chaos and «madness» within each of us, but at the same time, they saw it as the very source of energy from which one can draw, making individuals feel alive.

Despite the psychoanalytic postulate of a gap between understanding and action, neither Freud nor his followers, in creating and developing psychotherapeutic techniques for working with individuals, aimed at reducing this gap as such.

More precisely, the unconscious was perceived by them as an inexhaustible abyss full of wonder and the unfathomable. A person, if he desires, can «venture» there, examine something, and bring it back into his everyday life. This way, he gains new meanings and resources to deal with the old, familiar problems.

Over time, the interest of both practicing psychologists and theoretical research shifted from the unconscious to conscious and controllable processes of a human mind. Many corresponding psychotherapeutic methods were developed that did not take into account the unconscious aspects of the psyche.

This trend was provoked not only by new discoveries in scientific psychology but also by practical necessity — to achieve maximum results in minimal time.

Working with the unconscious is only possible in conditions of long-term collaboration and requires an effort from an individual to explore what he feels vulnerable about...

In other words, where he encounters his irrationality. Many subsequent psychoanalysts in their works pointed out that the comprehension of the unconscious is only possible when a person steps out of his comfort zone.

The well-known psychoanalyst W. Bion once said a famous phrase in his circles:

«If I want to say something to a client and don't feel any emotional danger, I decide that it's not worth saying. Psychotherapy begins where both the therapist and the client stop behaving in their usual and safe ways».

Life without chaos.

There are people who live very «consciously». Psychologists often refer to this as «normosis» (as opposed to «psychosis» — madness). Such individuals are usually well-adjusted due to taking good care of their emotional and social security. They control every detail, which makes their lives extremely predictable for themselves and others. Typically, they have suppressed any spontaneous desires and expressions to such an extent that they have long lost any connection with their inner unconscious world. The price for this tranquility is usually chronic suppression, frequent apathy, bad mood, anxiety, a sense of emptiness, and meaninglessness. It becomes paradoxical that on the one hand, every person to a greater or lesser extent strives for stability, peace, and balance, but upon achieving it, they either start to «suffocate» or embark on a journey towards something new and unexplored.

On the Difference Between Psychological Counseling and Psychotherapy

It is conventionally divided into psychological counseling, as a shallower and short-term process aimed at solving a specific problem, and psychotherapy, primarily aimed at personality changes as a whole, working with a person's character. It is in the latter case that working with unconscious material is crucial. Otherwise, the changes can be unstable. As clients sometimes note, after consulting a psychologist, they feel better, «but by the end of the week, everything is back to the way it was». There is no return to the «old ways» when internal restructuring occurs. The main difference between long-term and short-term forms of psychological work, for me, is that in the former case, the specialist appeals more and only to the conscious part of the psyche. Working with the unconscious presupposes the unveiling of the hidden motives of significant life actions that are not connected to conscious beliefs and values, in collaborative work with the psychologist.

About me

Maria Dolgopolova – a certified clinical and a jungian psychologist (Moscow Association of Analytical Psychology, an IAAP training candidate studying in CGJung Institute in Zurich) with a background in gestalt therapy (Moscow Institute of Gestalt and Psychodrama, Gestalt Associates Training Los Angeles) and in psychoanalysis of object relations.


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