Agency and the unconscious

One significant difference in different types of psychotherapy is their approach to the unconscious. Some therapies ignore the contents of the unconscious and focus on what a person can introspect, while other therapies attempt to “make the unconscious conscious” as a means of creating change. Current brain research is supporting the recognition that a great deal of processing and decisionmaking is occurring outside of the realm of our awareness. Therefore, with the advent of new technologies, including PET scans, we can actually see activity in the right brain that is not reflectively recognized by the person owning the brain. In other words, we are getting hard biological evidence of unconscious brain processes.

It seems to me that the problem with the unconscious is that it makes me feel like I am not in charge of my mind. What is the point of making choices, trying to be a good person, or creating relationships if the most significant parts of who I am are outside of my awareness, much less my control. If I am not the agent in charge of my decisions, I feel helpless to direct my impact in the world or even in my own life.

The problem is, if I accept the idea of an unconscious, I have to accept the idea that my own experience of agency in my life is illusional. On the other hand, if I assert my own agency as central, I have to ignore all those times that my unconscious seems to be in charge: such as when I don’t do what I want to do or I do do what I don’t want to do. This leaves me in what seems to be an irresolvable dilemma.

Of course this leaves out an important factor: Brain development, and self development, take place in the context of relationships with other people. PET scans show the right brain lighting up when mothers look at babies and when babies look at mothers. Or, as Dan Siegel suggested: “Nature NEEDS nurture.” It is relationships that provide regulatory capacity, and that means we can choose relationships that will facilitate healthy right brain development and avoid those that do not. And that is where our agency, our conscious motivation, our intention ultimately direct the development and expression of parts of our mind that may not be directly accessed by our conscious experience. And this process of development and growth continues throughout our lives, which means we can keep on making choices about what we put into our mind and what we put our mind into.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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