Sigmund Freud was born on May 6, 1856. He is considered one of the great original thinkers who have altered and expanded our view of ourselves as human beings. Over the years, his name became a household word. His thinking became integral part of our popular culture and his concepts are thrown in cocktail parties and in the popular press. Though some of his ideas have remained controversial, many of his groundbreaking theories about the complex nature of the human mind and the unique power of the psychotherapeutic process, not only remain undisputed but, they have been tremendously supported over the years by modern medical research, neurology, as well as studies of infant and child development. Many psychological and psychotherapeutic traditions have since evolved but, Freud’s original thinking remains fundamental to the field of psychotherapy, psychoeducation and child development. As we commemorate Freud’s legacy in May, which is a Mental Health Awareness Month, I am going to focus on one of Frued’s monumental concepts: The Unconscious Mind.
Freud had always insisted that it wasn’t him who discovered the unconscious. He believed that it had always been the artists, writers and philosophers who had already discovered it and gave expression to it in their work. His contribution, Freud believed, was to deepen our knowledge of the workings of the unconscious and its relevance to our understanding of mental health and illness. Freud illuminated how we, as humans, have a very complicated mental life and often experience incompatible goals, motivations, contradictory thought & feelings as well as puzzling behaviors. Our conscious awareness and understanding of ourselves is only the “tip of the iceberg” while much of our mental, inner “world” lies in the depth of our souls: in the unconscious.
Freud helped us realize that as much as we might wish to believe it, ignorance is not bliss. Living unconsciously often has a powerful negative impact on one’s life. Unrecognized early traumas, unacknowledged losses, unattended pain – could put one at risk for repeating unhealthy patterns, weakening the quality of meaningful relationships, stagnates creativity and ultimately limits our ability to able to live up to our full, true potential. Emotional healing lies in self-knowledge. It demands us getting acquainted with ourselves; our wounds, losses & deep grief, tormenting conflicts, unfulfilled longings and painful disappointments as well as with all the joy, beauty and wonder we have stored in our souls throughout life. Making the unconscious processes more conscious, expands one’s freedom and allows us to choose from a more “enlightened” mind set. Indeed, Freud changed the Socrates’ philosophical recommendation “Know Thyself” – to a mental health imperative.
Two Minds Are Better Than One
But, Freud teaches us, that we can’t do it alone, at least not entirely. We require a presence of another mind to help us talk about, sort out and, eventually better understand ourselves. Freud once heard a young child who was afraid of the darkness call out, “Auntie, talk to me, I’m frightened” and the aunt replied, “But, what good will that do? You can’t see me.” To which the child replied, “If someone talks, it gets lighter.”
Even after 22 years of practicing as a clinical psychologist, I am still humbled by the powerful nature of the therapeutic “talk” in which one’s often hidden, misunderstood and even frightening experiences are shared and gradually transform. People often report feeling less “crazy,” “alone,” “alienated,” “invisible,” or “anxious” when their struggles, pains, triumphs, traumas and subjective way of being in the world – are all being deeply listened to and made sense of in the presence of another empathic, thoughtful mind of the therapist.
Indeed, it gets lighter, in both senses of the word.