A student came to see me this week who was in all kinds of trouble, without being aware in any way that the trouble lay completely within her own mind. The more she spoke, the more obvious it became that she was in the grip of a harsh inner critic, who was triumphantly bulldozing through her fragile sense of self. She could not work, or at least what she produced was terrible, dreadful (I had one of her essays before me; it wasn’t great but it wasn’t that bad, either). She could not work in her room, but she could not work in the library. Ideally she would work with a friend but there were no friends who would work with her. No, she could not approach any of her supervisors, they all hated her now, due to her inability to hand work in on time. She effortlessly blindsided my suggestions for improving her essays; she had tried them all before (she was a first year student at the beginning of her second term!). And her religion meant that she lost one whole day out of the week.
‘There are six others,’ I said, mildly.
She replied with an eloquent shrug.
‘It takes me days to get the reading done. I’m such a slow reader! And then, it takes me even longer to write an essay. Other people can do it in a couple of hours. I need four or five days and even then it’s rubbish.’
‘Well of course it takes you days if every sentence you write is subject to that harsh inner critic in your head,’ I exclaimed. ‘I wouldn’t want to put a sentence in front of it.’
But she could not see it. It was like watching someone who had been taken hostage, or was in the grips of that old-style demonic possession. I daresay, though, that if I had managed to get her to a place where she could recount her experience of herself, it would have been completely different to the one I had of her. There are certain states of mind, usually extremely emotional ones – childish rage and outrage, apathy, consuming distress, where we are more visible to other people than we are to ourselves, because these are the places where, under pressure, the social veneer falls away, and our other self comes to the fore, the unusually fearful, vulnerable or angry parts, which we generally call the unconscious.
People can get very tetchy if you talk to them about their unconscious motivations and desires. Understandably, because it’s not nice to think that in stressful moments the audience gets a clear view of all the ugly bits we’d rather keep hidden. Plus everyone gets fed up and frustrated by the way we all end up repeating situations we dislike, or refusing to do what we know is good for us, or reacting in excessive and illogical ways; it can feel impolite and intrusive to have it pointed out. And then again, the unconscious is precisely that which is beyond our control – so why bother talking about it? This is at the crux of the issue, though: the unconscious works to keep us innocent. My student couldn’t possibly blame herself for being her own worst enemy because she genuinely had no idea she was doing it.
But to see the unconscious as something we just want to hide away, something purely bad and self-denigrating would be to miss the point of our session. What mattered to the unconscious part of my student was not that I should offer facile solutions to her problems but that I should see her overwhelming distress and misery, her sense of imprisonment, her terror of failure. Those powerful emotions were standing on guard at the gates of some unresolved but potent grief, some sense of intolerable insufficiency that had been triggered by the ostensibly minor tragedy of writing a few essays and not feeling very good about them. My student needed rescuing, not advising, and unfortunately, given that I have a deal with college that I will not mess with the student’s minds (for very good reasons), I was not really the person to do that for her.
We tend to think of the unconscious as the repository of bad stuff, and it is certainly at bad moments that we get the clearest view of it, but in fact the unconscious is simply full of masses and masses of stuff. I’ve been reading a fascinating book on the subject, The Infinite Question by Christopher Bollas. You don’t have to get all Sturm und Drang to see what the unconscious is doing or to access the shadowy side of the self. Bollas suggests that the royal route to the unconscious is simply to recount an event with plenty of detail. The internal selection mechanism that chooses some details rather than others, that lingers on, or returns restlessly to, some parts of an anecdote is a handmaid to the unconscious. When I first thought about this, I felt convinced it was true, because it struck me there were two groups who already knew this intuitively: adolescents and writers. The adolescent who answers the questions ‘Where did you go?’, ‘What did you do?’ and ‘Who were you with?’ with the answers ‘Nowhere special’, ‘Nothing much’ and ‘The usual people’ is doing a brilliant job at protecting their tender selves from any kind of unwilling revelation. Novices of their social veneer, they have to shut their loving parents out of everything to be assured they are not showing anything that will unwittingly give them away. Writers, by contrast, want their imagined worlds to be seen, felt, experienced as fully and intriguingly as possible; they know that the right detail at the right moment sends the reader spinning down a track of myriad associations and feelings. Details in a novel are always so much more than just details; they are packed out with the kind of unexpressed knowledge that the unconscious specializes in.
Unexpressed knowledge, the unthought known: this is where my interest in Christopher Bollas’s work started, and the concept that leads him naturally to the unconscious and its primary role in our mental lives:
‘The unthought known is a form of knowledge that we contain based on our earliest experiences of the object world. Early meanings in human life, whether traumatic or generative, cannot be thought. The meaning of what we learn as infants, toddlers and small children is stored within us in various forms – as images, as paradigms that govern our assumptions, as moods that are part of the orchestral effect of our character. […] the child is too young to bear the emotions of powerful events and the thinking of all early life is deferred. Only later in life – in a kind of second coming – will stored affect be registered, often by attaching itself to a minor life experience.’
Bollas argues that what is known this way but not yet thought has a pressing need to be mastered and understood. Hence the unconscious is stubborn and insistent; the same problems crop up time and again, the same patterns assert themselves, demanding to be explored. The more we resist, the more likely we are to put ourselves back in difficult situations we long to avoid, when they contain a structure or a problem that causes us unconscious internal pressure. This is why Bollas suggests that ‘people are driven to work unconsciously, to seek realizations, insights and, above all, psychological change. […] Although we shall always resist certain recognitions, no resistance can outlast the dense power of the quest for knowledge.’ This is not, I should add, simply about the return of repressed memories of trauma or abuse. We all have unconscious data that requires processing, regardless of the kind of childhood that we had, because we were all once children, stranded in a world where we knew nothing in a momentous and threatening and even hopeful way. What comes out of that configuration lasts us a lifetime, because the need to understand is never fully assuaged, nor do we reach an end of problems and challenges. We cannot find the cure for life, as it were, only continue to puzzle away at its more pressing questions.
Which is why my student will continue to turn up at doors, whether mine or other potential rescuers, driven there by despair and bewilderment, until such time as she finds the courage and the context in which to deal with her other, uncomprehending, self.