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 Christine Glenn, Ph.D.

        Our immediate, conscious experience is influenced by unconscious beliefs about ourselves and the world.  This is true of everyone.  When our best efforts to make positive decisions, to change our behavior or to understand our emotions fail, we can be sure that unconscious influences are involved.       

        Some of these influences reflect a simple lack of information about our basic nature.  For example, if you have a strong introverted capacity and you do not know this or you do not understand the influence of introversion on thinking and decision making, there is a way in which you are a mystery to yourself.  To the extent that you try to be someone you are not, you may create inner conflicts.  Or, for example, if you experience a personal loss and do not allow yourself to grieve or do not know how to grieve, you will abort a normal, though difficult process.  This will create unconscious unfinished business which will influence your future emotional responsiveness and availability.  Influences of this kind can be ferreted out through personal reflection, often aided by reading and/or a counseling relationship with someone who understands these patterns and can help identify them.

        There are other unconscious influences which are more difficult to understand and to identify.  These influences often have a long history.  They may reflect early childhood experiences and misinformation.  They may reflect old decisions which were not well understood at the time and which have unrecognized consequences; e.g., not fully grieving an early loss of a parent.  They may reflect an unrecognized developmental shift of change; for example, the tasks and decisions of early adulthood may be coming to a close, the tasks and needs, as yet unrecognized, of midlife may be evolving like an underlying tectonic shift.  All such unrecognized inner influences typically involve emotional and cognitive confusion and conflict.

        The reality of the unconscious cannot be known until it takes a concrete form in our lives and we recognize and understand these reflections.  One concrete form are poorly understood emotional reactions; if your overreact or under react to a situation (something others will probably recognize before you do), there is probably an unconscious influence.  Problematic emotions which hang on too long generally reflect unconscious processes.  For example, depression is often a symptom of psychological exhaustion; it reflects long standing inner conflicts which drain energy from conscious engagement in the present.  Another reflection of unconscious influences is a pattern of poor decisions, e.g., looking for love in all the wrong places.  Another reflection are dreams which can be understood as psychological snapshots of our current psychological situation.

        All of these reflections must be approached and understood symbolically.  The language of the unconscious is imaginal, physical (e.g., body symptoms, including emotions) and symbolic.  The symbolism points to an understanding or experience just beyond our current awareness or ability.  It is always richer than a simple conceptual understanding as it includes both issues of meaning and experience.  For example, dreams about dying are rarely about physical death; more typically they reflect a need that some part of ourselves, some set of beliefs, attitudes emotions must “die” or more accurately change and evolve.  Or, for example, a difficulty in developing respectful relationships or in maintaining flexible, clear boundaries may reflect unconscious beliefs about who we are and how others will treat us.  Understanding these patterns can help us make sense of our lives and allow more conscious decisions.

        Some of us become interested in the unconscious because we want our lives to work more smoothly.  Some of us are drawn by curiosity to this realm of reality which can never be fully plumbed and which can always direct our personal evolution.  In either case, deeper personal understanding can be expected to free us from old patterns and emotional burdens and to allow a more creative and enlivened engagement in our lives.