The Key to Successful Therapy: Working with the Unconscious (Part 2/2)

95% of your mental activity is unconscious (e.g. out of your awareness). So why aren’t therapists talking about the unconscious?

This is a continuation of part 1 of this article. This article covers the the two main reasons therapists don’t commonly work with the unconscious:

1. Many practitioners don’t know how to work with the unconscious mind.

2. Working deeply with someone takes time, and this is antithetical to what our culture tells us we want.

Without going in to too much detail, psychology in the United States has steadily adopted the “medical model” of the treatment of mental health issues. This means that most clinicians are trained to look for symptoms, apply circumscribed treatment, and then move on to the next patient. As an example of the medical model, think about a patient breaking their arm. There is a clear cause (e.g. falling off a skateboard), and clear symptoms (i.e. a broken arm is a broken arm no matter who the patient is as an individual). Therefore, physicians can apply the standard treatment for a broken are (e.g. a splint or cast).

Because the medical model provides clear guidelines of diagnosis and treatment, it’s easy to see why it’s become so popular in psychology. And this professed simplicity makes it clear why so many therapists are trained in the medical model. Unfortunately, faith in this model is misplaced because people are not broken arms.

Imagine two people who seek therapy for depression. Despite having a common complaint, their histories, biology, development, current life situations, relationships, etc. make them two very different people! You can’t treat depression (or any other mental health issue) like you would a broken arm because a person’s psychology is made up of so many different factors. And any psychologist worth their salt will tell you that one person’s depression is different than the next, even if they meet the same diagnostic criteria! (Depression affects people differently, and it’s important to be aware of these differences, as these differences alter the treatment.)

The picture is a bleak one: despite the medical model being what is predominantly taught to new therapists, it fails to deliver the same results in the mental health realm as it does in the medical one.

In order to help a person create lasting change in their lives, a clinician needs to be able to get to the root cause of their problems, which, as we have said, is their unconscious mind. But the overreliance on the medical model of treatment means fewer clinicians are being trained in how to work with the unconscious.

The unconscious has long been understood to be predominated by what is called “primary process” thinking. An example of this is our dream life. The unconscious produces the dreams we have. And, as anyone can say, the thinking involved in our dreams is usually confusing, convoluted, complicated, emotional, intense, etc. How often do you wake from a dream and think, “OK, that made sense.” It never happens because the unconscious is not as linear in its thinking as the conscious mind.

Because of this, clinicians need special training and experience in listening to, and working with, the unconscious. The institutions across the US that provide this type of training are few and far between, but their work is important and valuable. The most common of these institutions are the ones that specialize in psychoanalytic training. This type of training utilizes over a hundred years of research, experience, and writing in order to effectively train therapists in listening to, and working with, the unconscious mind.

The next time you talk with a therapist, consider asking them if they have any training and experience in tapping into the unconscious, that deep part of who you are as an individual. Hopefully, in order to help provide lasting change, they will!

The other reason most therapists don’t work with the unconscious, in addition to the fact that the average therapist doesn’t get training in this area, is because working with the unconscious mind takes time. If you want lasting and meaningful change, it makes sense that it will take time to produce this change. (Has anything meaningful happened quickly? If only we could lose weight in 4 weeks!). But our society tells us to find the quickest, easiest route, even at the expense of getting the results we want.

For a minute, go back to the example of the broken arm. A physician will have a time-frame for how long the arm needs to be in a cast in order for the healing to be completed. No matter how much the physician or patient wants to shorten the time-frame – and no matter the type of doctor, the type of cast, or any other factors involved in the treatment – the arm will requirea certain amount of time to heal. There is nothing anyone can do to get around the fact that healing takes time.

And yet, there is an irony here because this is the exact mindset people take into their mental health treatment. Despite people not being broken arms, and mental health issues being much more complex than medical ones, people generally bristle at the idea that therapy is a long-term commitment. Unpacking and reworking the unconscious mind, which has built up its patterns of thought and feeling over decades, takes a substantial amount of time and energy.

The payoff is huge: imagine being free from patterns of thoughts and feelings that have harmed your sense of self, your relationships, your work, etc. But the commitment it takes to get to this payoff is equally huge. And because of the commitment required, and the desire to find faster results, the field of psychology has moved away from treatments that address the unconscious mind, even if psychology has moved to less effective treatments.

At Therapy Summit, working with the unconscious mind is the foundation of our BETR Method of therapy. We know just how important it is to our patients to get the results they want, and we aim to provide that through targeting each individual’s unique, unconscious make-up. By doing this, you can find last relief from your symptoms, and start living a more fulfilling life.

Since the vast majority of who you are as a person is housed in the unconscious, it’s impossible to expect any substantial internal change to occur without targeting this part of your mind.