Neuroscience has confirmed at least this tenet of Freud’s: the vast majority of our thinking and behavior happens outside of our conscious awareness. Pop psychology and “productivity” books abound these days about how to harness our tendency to go on autopilot. How do we form “effective habits”?
This line of thinking is actually not so very far away from the questions I hold in mind as a psychodynamic therapist. Since so much of our behavior is habitual, unconscious, and automatic, it can be hard to see why certain things keep going wrong in our lives. Changing our seemingly intractable patterns of painful relationships, frustrating career dead-ends, and relentless free-floating anxiety requires bringing to light these unconscious ways of being, examining them, understanding their context and origin, and giving them an opportunity to shift.
The fact is we can’t completely escape the reality that most of our emotional and mental activity happens unconsciously. We’d be constantly overwhelmed by the amount of internal and external stimulus our brains are constantly processing if we were aware of it all. Tuning certain things out is how we manage to function: we focus on what’s novel, unfamiliar, or extremely painful.
So what about this whole mindfulness craze that’s happening in the West? In my opinion, it’s certainly aligned with the principles of psychodynamic therapy: making the unconscious conscious. What’s funny to me is the marketing around mindfulness. It gets touted as a gilded road to bliss. But if you’ve ever done any mindfulness practice, you know the truth: being mindful often means coming into contact with a lot of pain, discomfort, and unpleasantness.
Somatic (body) awareness is a crucial component of mindfulness practice. Many of us are quite good at not being fully in our bodies. Our modern world has been built by people who were somatically out of touch with themselves, and it shows if you’re brave enough to tune back in. Things you might notice when you “drop in” to your physical self: the metallic, artificial taste in a great deal of food; assaultive, toxic smells; aches and stiffness in your body that you’ve acclimated to over months or years; and maybe a profound restlessness or exhaustion.
No wonder we don’t care to be in our bodies.
The same thing can happen when we open up the vault of our unconscious emotions, memories, and beliefs. There’s a lot of shit in there that can make us feel overwhelmed, helpless, and despairing. And so, when the door creaks open a little and we get a whiff of what’s waiting for us, our impulse is to shut and lock that thing as quick as we can.
Here’s the problem with that: when we aren’t in touch with what feels wrong, we’re very unlikely to be able to figure out how to change it.
Just because all that suffering and discomfort is out of our conscious awareness does NOT mean we’re not experiencing it. It continues to affect us in invisible ways. And as long as we can’t bear to look at it, we won’t get to see how it links up to the stuff that consciously bothers us in our lives.
Here’s an example: There’s a reason your massage therapist (hopefully) tells you not to take pain relievers before your appointment. Those pills mute the pain signal in our brains so we simply don’t feel (or don’t feel as accurately) what’s gone wrong in our bodies. So if we pull a muscle and take a painkiller, then subject ourselves to extensive tissue manipulation at our massage appointment, our body can’t tell us whether what our massage therapist is doing is actually hurting us more. Similarly, taking a painkiller for muscle pain as a strategy for jumping blithely back into “activities of daily living” puts us at great risk of further injuring ourselves.
Pain is our system’s way of telling us “Something isn’t OK!” Numbing it doesn’t fix the problem. Not only that, it’s likely to make room for things to get worse without our realizing it—until they get bad enough that we once again take notice. Our pain—somatic and emotional—may feel like a nuisance or worse, but it is in fact the beacon that will guide us back to health if we allow ourselves to attend to it.
In psychotherapy, as in mindfulness practice more generally, we allow ourselves to really feel and witness the pain we’ve been trying to escape, so that we finally have the opportunity to learn what it’s teaching us and resolve the root of problem. This process takes a great deal of courage, and in a culture of numbing and escapism, we don’t get a lot of support or instruction in how to do this challenging work. That’s why a therapist can be such a valuable ally.
I’m not going to bullshit you: undertaking the process of becoming aware of the places in yourself where you feel discomfort is no cake walk. It requires a great deal of resolve and a continual recommitment to the work. If you’re considering it, chances are you’re either someone who deeply values personal growth, perhaps as a vehicle to collective healing and transformation, or you’re in so much pain in your conscious life that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to address it.
Either way, welcome. I’m glad you’re here. If you’re willing to attend to your pain, you’ll find yourself rewarded with a more nuanced ability to experience the pleasure and joy that mindfulness also offers us. You’ll also find a greater sense of agency, a growing ability to create a life and world around yourself that truly fits.
If you’re ready to start this process with a skilled and dedicated ally, I’d love to hear from you. You can book your free 15-minute phone consultation today.