What we don’t know can hurt us




What we don’t know can hurt us. The “unconscious,” as Sigmund Freud professed, is the “unknown” or “not known.” That portion of subjective experience which is obscured, invisible to consciousness, at least “at the moment.” It consists largely of the parts of ourselves we deny, dissociate, despise, denigrate, dread and generally repress. What we repress comes back to haunt us with a vengeance. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of this phenomenon as “the return of the repressed.” Denial or dissociation are repressive defense mechanisms, and serve some necessary function in terms of preserving mental health. But when some significant aspect of ourselves is chronically denied or dissociated (i.e., repressed and made unconscious), the proverbial chickens eventually come home to roost. If, for instance, someone always denies their anger, these feelings will some day resurface tenfold, especially under stress, though the reason for and intensity of their rage may be unclear  and inappropriate to the current circumstances. This dark and treacherous territory to which these repressed “chickens”–or, more descriptively, “demons” are banished–is what Jung referred to as the “shadow.” It is related also to what Rollo May called the “daimonic.” The daimonic, according to May, “is any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person. Sex and eros, anger and rage, and the craving for power are examples.” Thedaimonic, can, by definition, be both destructive and creative. When the daimonic is habitually denied, it becomes more negative and dangerous. But when we acknowledge its presence and reality, it can be the life-giving source of energy, strength, power, spirituality and creativity. This can be said of the unconscious in general. So it is vitally important to learn to listen to one’s unconscious carefully, and to what it has to say about what’s happening in the psyche now and what needs to happen if the future, both inwardly and outwardly. Meditation,mindfulness and dream work are all methods of listening to and discerning the unconscious.The secret is to take the unconscious (and its complexes) seriously, treating it with the respect and sense of mystery, awe and wonder it deserves. And to recognize the ultimate futility of repression, rather allowing one’s self to consciously experience emotions as they arise, while at the same time learning to pause between stimulus and response rather than reflexively acting on them. We have both the freedom and responsibility to choose how we respond to our feelings. But that, like any other skill, takes practice.