Sigmund Freud paved the way for this interest but he was by no means the first person to grapple with the concept that a part of the mind controls our thoughts and actions in some mysterious way.
The unconscious mind is like a sponge. It soaks up messages at times without us being aware of it – and often these messages come directly from the unconscious mind of someone else. In this way, messages about sensitive issues such as sex are passed on from parents to children, for example, without either side consciously realizing.
All experiences, both good and bad, are filed away in the unconscious. They can be taken from this store in various ways. The way that most of us are familiar with is in dreams. When we sleep, our internal censor sleeps, and so lets the unconscious have a free rein. Often, this is the time when our anxieties surface and some people believe that, if left to its own devices, our unconscious can find a way round most problems.
This is why dream analysis is so valuable to therapists when trying to assess the unconscious mind of their patients. Sexual fantasies can also give clues as to what is in the unconscious.
But of most interest to therapists, and to anyone concerned with the subject of the unconscious, is the fact that the mind seems to be especially good at storing away negative feelings. Painful ideas and memories from childhood and other times of life can be managed, so that they no longer live in the unconscious mind and therefore no longer trouble it.
Such thoughts and memories are ‘forgotten’ by the conscious mind and the individual cannot, however hard he or she tries, remember them.
The collective unconscious
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, extended this concept of the unconscious to include the idea of the collective unconscious. He asserted that we, as a race, have many notions in our unconscious minds that we have not directly experienced ourselves. He cited, for example, the almost universal fear of the dark and of snakes in most cultures, and claimed that humans over millions of years have inherited such fears and passed them on from generation to generation.
Hiding your emotions
All our basic instincts, such as the sex drive, come from – and live in – the unconscious, and most of its contents come from past experience.
Many emotions and ideas, both painful and pleasurable, are filed away in the unconscious, out of reach of the conscious mind. But things to do with sex appear to be filed away more than most. This is partly because the subject generally causes embarrassment, and partly because western culture tends to play down the importance of sex.
The processes of the unconscious mind are by no means straightforward. It does not think logically, as does the conscious mind. On the contrary, it easily becomes confused as it tries to fulfil its wishes.
Even during dreams, our minds play tricks on us and the brain can even dream in symbols to disguise the real objects of the dream. This seems to be especially true of dreams about sex.
There are many active mechanisms in our unconscious minds all the time, altering the way we behave and think.
• Repression is one of the many defences that the unconscious brings into play to protect the conscious mind from material it cannot cope with.
A good example of this is what we have been told about sex by our parents. Almost all mothers of teenage girls, for example, say that they have told their daughters about menstruation before they start, yet many girls claim never to have been told anything at all. Neither person is lying. The mother has undoubtedly told the girl, but she, because she is shy about discussing matters with her mother, represses it so that it comes to rest in the unconscious. She then consciously denies all knowledge of the matter.
• Denial is the next most common defence. Up to 40 per cent of widowed people experience the illusion that their loved one is actually present with them and 14 per cent say that they have seen or heard them. This is an example of the unconscious lying, to deny the loss.
• Projection is a way that we attribute to others those feelings and qualities that we most dislike in ourselves. So, if we are sexually inhibited, we can all too easily claim that our partner is the inhibited one, when, in fact, he or she is not.
• Reaction formation is at the opposite extreme. We obscure unacceptable feelings. For example, if we are untidy by nature we may, quite unconsciously, over-compensate by becoming obsessional about tidiness.
• Displacement is another common defence. In this, we are afraid, for whatever reason, to express our feelings directly to the person to whom they should be expressed. Unconsciously, we express them to someone else. So, a man can have a row with his boss yet, because of the danger of being sacked, he is unable to vent his wrath on him. He then goes home and becomes ‘unaccountably’ angry with his wife for no reason at all. She is naturally baffled and usually has no way of knowing what the outburst is all about.
Regression is a process in which we return to a former stage of psychological development, often in childhood. We all do this when enjoying things in a childlike way or when we are overwhelmed by threatening experiences, such as going into hospital for an operation.
In certain sexual circumstances, an individual can regress to being a child. This can be pleasant during lovemaking and, indeed, can be a major part of some couples’ sex lives. One or other partner ‘babies’ the other. However, it can also act to our disadvantage at times.
During arguments, many couples regress to childhood and act out old patterns of behaviour. What may have started as an adult conversation can deteriorate into the squabbling more common among young children.
Sublimation is yet another common psychological process that we engage in, quite unconsciously, when it comes to sex. We all have a sex drive but, for one of many reasons, it might not be able or suitable to be expressed in the sexual act at a particular time.
The drive, however, seeks some form of expression and the way in which this is done is called sublimation. Men tend to sublimate their sex drive into work and activities away from home. Women, however, more often devote their time to childcare.
Teenagers or adults in any one culture will tend to give much the same answers when asked about basic views on sex. This seems to suggest that we pick up messages about the subject even though we may never have received a formal sex education.
The messages have soaked into us over many years and will have often passed directly from the unconscious mind of our parents and other figures of authority to our own.
Some common messages in western culture relate specifically to the way in which we conduct ourselves sexually. These include:
• A woman who does not do what her lover wants sexually does not love him.
• Men are the sexual aggressors and should make the first move.
• Sex is dirty, sinful and shameful.
• Nice girls do not masturbate.
Such messages may have entered our subconscious at an early stage and been stored away ready to affect us later in life. This puts considerable responsibility on parents to gain access to their own unconscious so that they can do away with negative messages and not pass them on to their children.
This awareness can often be gained in discussion with your partner, or even with a good friend who you know will be honest with you. If there is a problem, neglecting it may, at worst, destroy the relationship.
Although the unconscious is a highly complex subject, any steps towards an understanding of it can help clarify the way we behave when there are no obvious explanations to hand.