Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. By that definition, we all are sometimes, if not often, insane. How can it be that perfectly intelligent people do such obviously counterproductive things so much of the time? Why do we do the things we know we shouldn’t do, and why do we fail to do the things we know we should do?
So much of ordinary life is a mystery to us. Why do children tend to repeat the mistakes of their parents? Why do second marriages often wind up just like the first? Why are self-help books so rarely helpful? In short, why do we make the same mistakes, over and over again, seeming never to learn?
The simple answer to these questions is that our unconscious mind greatly influences all that we do. Understanding the features of the unconscious mind is a key to making changes that last. We cannot work to improve something we do not understand, and this is the basis for the psychoanalytic idea that insight leads to change. We first need to understand what makes us tick.
One of the basic principles of psychoanalysis is that the mind is like a glacier. So much of what motivates us and concerns us–holds us back and pushes us forward–lies beneath the surface. We do our best to work with what we know–the tip of the glacier, the conscious mind. But powerful forces lie beneath the surface, the unconscious mind. Psychoanalysis is one of the most developed ways to gain access and understanding to the unconscious mind, and thus to have an opportunity to influence it for the better. Meditation, deep love connections, spiritual experiences, dream work, and other practices also are avenues to working with unconscious life.
Melanie Klein, a psychoanalyst who developed the ideas of Sigmund Freud in London, believed that the unconscious affects us from the beginning of life. Each of us comes into the world pre-programmed to experience life in certain ways. Some of us are more sensitive than others. Some are shy, others outgoing. Some are more prone to aggression, others withdraw in the face of conflict and anxiety. Some lean more on the intellect, others on emotion. This hard-wiring that is commonly known as temperament is the nature side of the nature-nurture balance that shapes how a personality develops. If you have any experience with babies, you know exactly what I’m talking about!
Each of us comes into the world with expectations of how the world will treat us and how we will respond, and then our early experiences confirm or challenge these conceptions. A particularly warm family experience can soften the sharp edges of a prickly porcupine temperament. A hostile and perfectionistic family experience can intensify that same predisposition. An abusive environment can weaken the resolve and resilience of even the most optimistic little personality, and a supportive, challenging environment can foster her great success in life. We are a blend of our hard-wiring and the software operating system of our early environment.
The power of the unconscious is in its tendency to repeat these patterns that get laid down in the earliest months of our lives. We live out these inner and outer experiences over and over again, and often we don’t know it and can’t see it. Psychoanalysis seeks to help us understand how we operate unconsciously–why we do the things we do–so that we can know more and more about these unique strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, and vulnerabilities. By understanding what makes us tick, the unconscious is brought into the world of consciousness. Only then can we begin to make different choices and to make changes that last.
One of Freud’s famous phrases is where id was, there ego shall be. The modern version of this idea is that where the unconscious was, the conscious shall be. There are secrets that we keep, even from ourselves. The wisdom of psychoanalysis can bring these secrets out of hiding, into the light of day. Understanding ourselves is the beginning to changing ourselves. By itself, insight is not enough; but it is the essential first step in changing our ways.