Do you ever feel you don’t understand why you do what you do?  Sarah’s like that.  She’s never managed to have a relationship that’s lasted more than a year, try as she might.  It’s making her miserable and she’s baffled.  Michael’s similarly puzzled.  He keeps getting bullied and people on occasion have told him that he can be a bit bullying too.  As for Miranda, she has sudden angry explosions which she feels terrible about soon afterwards.  It doesn’t make any sense to her why they happen repeatedly.

The past makes sense of the present

So each of these people goes into therapy.  And intriguing connections begin to be made between their current problems and their past.  Sarah’s parents split up when she was six.  She went to live with her grandmother for a while, then with her aunt, then with another grandparent and then finally with her mother.  All the while she attended three or four schools.  It becomes clear in the therapy that she never saw stable relationships modelled and this, along with all the chopping and changing is influencing her pattern of short-term relationships.

Michael’s father was a frightening figure for him.  His menacing stare and quiet threats intimidated Michael and the way he belittled his son in public filled Michael with shame and undermined his confidence.  No wonder he’s no stranger in the present to bullying and the flip side of this is that, at times, something of the bully seems to be present in him too.

Miranda’s explosions aren’t too difficult to trace back to their origins.  Her mother was just the same.  She would erupt out of the blue, combining that behaviour sometimes with knocking Miranda across the room.  Then her mother would calm down and apologize and want everything to be forgotten.

The unconscious

All of these cameos are illustrations of the unconscious mind at work – because none of these people are consciously causing the behaviours in their present lives that are generating so much unhappiness.  The point about the unconscious is that it is unconscious.  We all have one and it’s sitting there in us (in the right hemisphere of our brains actually) doing its own thing independent of our awareness and our control.

The human mind is rather like an iceberg with a small part of it protruding above the water and most of it below.  The bit above the water is the conscious mind – ie the part of you that’s aware you’re reading this and wondering how much longer it’s going to go on etc.  (Not long.)  And the bit below is the unconscious and that, according to some estimates by modern neuroscience, amounts to a staggering 87% of our mind.

Pulling back the curtain

Although largely hidden, the unconscious does from time to time break cover and show itself to us in all its finery and the chief way in which it does that it is in our dreams.  Which is why I often tell psychotherapy patients to keep an eye on their dreams and to bring them to the sessions because they can give us a good indication of what’s going on under the bonnet.

What’s the unconscious made of?

The genius who was Sigmund Freud was the first to map the unconscious and there’s still value in what he said.  But there’s also much value in contemporary understandings of the unconscious.  Essentially Freud saw it as a bubbling cauldron of urges, instincts, drives and wishes that we have deemed unacceptable and which we’ve consequently pushed down out of awareness.  They want to get out, though, and they cause all sorts of mayhem until we listen to them.

Modern views of the unconscious tend to be different, seeing it as a reservoir – dating from our early lives – of repeated interactions with parents, grandparents, siblings and so on.  So they are sort of working models of how the parent or whoever is/was and how we are/were in response.  For instance, if Michael (above) has had repeated experiences of being belittled and threatened by his father, he may well unconsciously be compelled to repeat this familiar and ingrained experience by seeking out similar treatment by other people who are not his father even though he’s now an adult.

In fact the entire relationship between the other person in the past and ourselves is taken in and we can in later life replay either end of it which explains why Michael who’s been bullied can in turn become a bully.

Hidden ways of talking

I could keep going for another few hundred thousand words but I’ll stop there, just making two final points.  The first is that, extraordinarily, your unconscious can communicate directly with somebody else’s without going via your conscious mind and therefore without either of you realizing what’s going on.  That doesn’t just happen in the content of what you say but also in your eyes, movements, tone of voice, clothes and so on.  We get a feel for people, don’t we?  And that, as we know, is not just down to the actual words they’ve spoken to us.

Re-wiring your brain

The second point is that in psychotherapy all that happens as well but, in addition, the person in therapy can have pointed out to them what may be going on in their unconscious.  The process of turning into words what had previously not been articulated and turning into thoughts what had previously not been thought can lead to real change in someone.  It will very possibly even lay down new structures in the brain which could be detectable in brain imaging if you happened to have a friendly neuroscientist to hand.  That, by the way, means that the potential effectiveness of psychotherapy is no longer a matter of opinion; it’s science.

Above all, it means that, given the brain’s astonishing plasticity, it’s never too late to change.