Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
706 Cowper Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 • (650) 325-2576
License MFC 28308
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Making Friends with Your Unconscious Mind

by Carol Campbell, MFT

One reason to seek out psychodynamic psychotherapy is to get the help required in order to uncover important contents of your unconscious mind, in particular the ones that cause neurotic behaviors and unhappy relationships. We can get glimpses of what is going on in the unconscious by paying attention to such clues as slips of the tongue, daydreams, and dreams that occur during sleep. But the real engine of the therapy is provided by the therapist's role of listening with a psychoanalytic ear.

Whatever goes on between the patient and therapist can potentially be a clue about the patient's unconscious. The marriage and family therapist who works analytically has invested many years of training and personal analysis in order to be able to make deep sense of the relationship between patient and therapist. (That is one reason why analytic therapy tends to be more expensive than other types of therapy; the preparation is very costly.) Whatever the patient says tends to carry two meanings, one that is obvious (manifest) and one that is expressed symbolically (latent). The therapist's job in part is to help the patient feel reasonably safe and comfortable as the latent meanings of conversations gradually take center stage.

Our parents and society work hard to civilize us, so when we get to adulthood we usually are guarded about letting ourselves, let alone others, know the contents of our unconscious minds, which can be anything but civilized. The unconscious operates as an untamed world, communicating not with words, but with images and feelings of all sorts, including ones that are aggressive, hostile, sexual, seductive, conniving, envious, selfish, and so on.

So, to enter into psychoanalytic therapy is to put oneself into a strange environment in which the patient is encouraged to become curious about these scary, wild, and dangerous sounding beliefs and feelings that have been hidden away in the unconscious. Who wants to risk that sort of trouble?? At first, many patients quite understandably defend against anything that reveals aspects of their selves that in another context might seem shameful or elicit guilty feelings.

Early on in therapy, it's not unusual for a patient to feel criticized when the therapist has simply described in a neutral way what the patient has communicated. If the patient says she was late to pick up her child from soccer, and I say, "Something in you kept you from being on time," the patient might leap to conclusions and think I am criticizing her for being an irresponsible mother; did I not hear the part about how bad traffic was getting to the soccer field? In this case, the manifest story is the bad traffic, but the latent story – the mystery we need to solve – has to do with why it was important not to anticipate the bad traffic in order to arrive on time. Some part of her mind did not want to arrive on time, despite another part that, of course, did.

I can help the patient to befriend her own unconscious mind, so she can learn more about such powerful but unknown motivations. In this case, some important but unconscious objective is being met by making sure she is late. Our task together is to be curious about what that objective could be. By becoming friendlier and less defensive with the unconscious, we can find plausible answers to these questions. Then the patient has a clearer choice whether or not to continue behaving as previously directed by the assumptions and beliefs, which are often irrational, hidden in the unconscious until now.

As an analytically trained marriage and family therapist, I try to hear virtually anything a patient says to me both at its face value and also for its unconscious transference meaning. Let's say Christine comes to her therapy session and this conversation ensues:

Christine: "I'm so annoyed with Victor! I don't know how many times I've told him it drives me nuts when he just turns up the thermostat to 72 degrees without telling me. He just does it, and next thing I know I'm sweating like a pig. He has no consideration for what it's like to go through menopause! Why can't he just put on a sweater and suck it up?"

I could say, "You're really annoyed with him for making things uncomfortable for you." This comment would help Christine feel that I understand her anger with Victor. But it might not do much to help Christine become friendlier with her own unconscious.

If, instead, I were to say, "It's troubling when someone raises the temperature of the room when you aren't expecting it," I make a more useful response. I broaden the issue to being not just about Victor; it could also apply to any person in any room with her. She and I are in a room together, so my comment recognizes the possibility that Christine is introducing a beef she has with me.

In this case, perhaps Christine wants me to know how mad she is at me for something that happened in her last session, when I had surprised her with a perspective she didn't want to hear or think about. It caught her off guard, made her steam inside, and left her uncomfortable. Christine has trouble facing her own anger at me. But by telling me today about her upset with Victor, her unconscious mind gives us a way to address her anger at me for what happened in our room – the therapy room – the last time we were together.

As Christine and I build our therapeutic relationship over time, there will be many such moments, when it feels as if something goes wrong between us. Something gets triggered and needs to be attended to. By paying close attention to the transference and counter-transference (my reactions to Christine), I can help sort out what is Christine's issue, what is mine, and how we can get back on an even keel no matter what. Gradually, Christine will befriend her own unconscious, and not be as defensive when we discover another aspect of it, now that she can think creatively about it. She will be less apt to respond neurotically to life, more apt to have compassion for herself and others, and more able to enjoy intimacy with the special people in her life.

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Calls regarding appointments are welcome at my private voicemail: 650-325-2576.

Carol L. Campbell, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist providing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for individual adults and couples in Palo Alto, California. She has degrees from Brown University and Santa Clara University and has been licensed since 1991. Carol is a graduate of the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program sponsored at Stanford by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and was a candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California in San Francisco from 2010-2011. She is also a clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.

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