Let’s face it, Freud was messed up. As he once said, “I found in myself a constant love for my mother, and jealousy of my father.” In a terrible blow to the birth of modern psychology, he projected his own neuroses onto his patients, formulating the theory that all neuroses were the result of repressed sexual fantasies in early childhood.
He went even further by pressuring his patients to “reproduce” infantile sexual abuse “scenes” that he was convinced had been repressed into the unconscious – whether or not his patients had actually suffered from abuse.
The lasting legacy of Freud’s theories is that he pitted the rational conscious mind against the hedonistic unconscious, creating a mindset that the unconscious is bad, unruly and often shameful. This has created enduring problems for the field of personal development.
Fortunately modern neuropsychology has led to a new model of the unconscious, which is grounded in measurable science and is far more self-accepting of the unconscious. It provides a new framework for personal development that is more effective and productive.
Freud’s Negative Legacy
Freud proposed that the human psyche could be divided into the id, ego and super-ego.
The ego is synonymous with the conscious mind. It is our rational thinking that can guide us to make wise decisions.
The id is completely unconscious. It is impulsive and operates on the pleasure principle.
The super-ego is the moral component of the psyche. It takes the moral high ground without worrying about practical realities.
For example, according to Freud, if you’re in a committed relationship but meet someone you’re wildly attracted to, your id will be telling you, “Go for it!” while your super-ego will be saying “Always be true to your vows.” Your poor ego will be stuck in the middle mediating between the two.
In this formulation, the ego has the never-ending and exhausting task of keeping a balance between the impractical hedonism of the id and the equally impractical moralism of the super-ego. When overburdened by its tasks, the ego employs defense mechanisms including denial and repression – pushing all those unruly and negative thoughts and feelings out of conscious awareness and into the murky unconscious.
Thus the unconscious becomes a festering trash heap of everything that is wrong with you.
Shame And Self Judgment
While most psychotherapists have evolved beyond Freud’s outdated ideas, his work still has great influence on therapists and the psyche of the general public. The enduring impact is that psychotherapy has been focused on “neuroses” – literally “diseases of the nervous system” – for the last century, taking the view that people are diseased and need curing. In many ways I think Freud has done more harm than good.
His theories have left us fearful and distrusting of the unconscious.
Moreover, for the last 100 years, Freud’s influence has reinforced a culture of self-judgment. This is especially evident in the pervasive shame people carry about sexuality in Western cultures. If you buy into his theories of repressed incestuous desires, then you can’t help but think you’re a disgusting pervert who deserves harsh judgment and needs to be controlled. More generally this experience of self-judgment completely pervades Western society. Everybody seems to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with them, and they need to be fixed.
In contrast, one of the essential steps in healing or self-growth is self-acceptance. Thus Freud’s model of shame and self-judgment – the legacy of a negative conceptualization of the unconscious – serves to actively inhibit personal development.
A Kinder, Gentler Unconscious
Modern techniques such as ECGs and functional MRIs, which allow researchers to peer into the living brain to see what is going on during cognitive and emotional tasks, have made the development of a new model of the unconscious possible. As a result, a radically different view of the unconscious has emerged over the last decade. The new model is based on observable fact rather than conjecture and fiction.
Here’s how James Uleman describes the new unconscious:
Unlike the Freudian unconscious, the new unconscious has no innate drives that seek gratification without regard to constraints of reality and society. Goals, motives, and self-regulation are prominent, without the conflict and drama of the Freudian unconscious.
Unconscious processes seem to be capable of doing many things that were, not so long ago, thought of as requiring conscious mental processes.
– James Uleman, Professor of Psychology at New York University
In other words, the unconscious is very similar to the conscious mind in that it has goals and motives. Rather than the conscious mind being the supreme regulator of the unconscious, as Freud believed, it turns out that the unconscious has its own self-regulation processes. Sure, the conscious mind or ego can at times regulate the unconscious, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
In fact, the unconscious seems to be capable of pretty much everything that the conscious mind can do.
Turning the old theory on its head, the new unconscious shows that the conscious mind emerges from the unconscious brain. In other words, the unconscious comes first, and then conscious mental awareness is built on top of those unconscious processes. For example, pause for a moment and pay attention to the feel of your clothes on your body. Right before you read that sentence, you had unconscious processes going on in your brain to monitor the tactile senses in your skin, but those processes were completely outside of your conscious awareness. Your conscious mind then directed its attention to those senses, and you became consciously aware of the feel of your clothes. Conscious awareness emerged from unconscious processes.
The conscious mind is in essence one part of the brain that is capable of being aware of processes that are already happening automatically – unconsciously – in other parts of the brain.
The conscious mind is housed mostly in the pre-frontal cortex, a relatively small brain area just behind your forehead.
In the contemporary theory, we owe our very sense of consciousness to our unconscious brains. This is in stark contrast to the Freudian model that saw the unconscious as the festering dumping ground for things our conscious minds can’t deal with. Rather than a landfill, the new model sees the unconscious as the workhorse that does almost all of our processing, very little of which ever makes it up to conscious awareness.
I like the new conceptualization of the unconscious much better.
Plus it has the advantage of being based on scientific observation of the brain.
Your Unconscious As Your Ally
It turns out that unconscious processes in our brains account for more ‘high level’ mental processes than could have been imagined a decade or two ago. Examples include goal setting and goal execution, most of our emotional processing and most of our motor control.
In fact, all of our daily life is interpreted unconsciously before it reaches conscious awareness, and almost all of our behaviors are executed by our unconscious, not by our conscious, mind.
Rather than seeing the unconscious as a shameful adversary as Freud did, it’s much more useful to think of it as a friend and essential ally; both in our daily lives and in our pursuit of growth and development.
Using Your Unconscious Brain
This is the first article in the Neuroscience of Body-Psyche series, which explores how recent advances in neuroscience provide powerful models for personal development.
Later articles in the series will show you how to build a cooperative relationship between your conscious mind and unconscious brain, in a way that brings out the best in both.
You’ll also discover how you can use personal development processes that leverage the power of the new unconscious – such as hypnosis and body-centered meditations – to be successful in your own journey of personal development.