The Unconscious Always Gets What it Wants

by Mark Sichel, LCSW

We live with a barrage of inner conflicts daily. An inner conflict exists any time two opposing desires are present in a single person at the same moment. The conflicts can begin from the moment we open our eyes, when the adult part of us wants to get up and go to work and the child-like part of us wants to stay in bed and watch TV in our jammies. Usually, the conflicts are relatively small and easily resolved. Ambivalence, being pulled in two directions at the same time, about what time to actually get out of bed, or what to eat for lunch, or which outfit to put on is technically an inner conflict, but it's such a small one that it doesn't cause much wear and tear on our psyches. These are the small choices, the small inner conflicts, that we consciously resolve every day.

We all, however, also have conflicts of which we are not so readily aware. For example, a client tells me that he much wants to be in a relationship with a woman, yet he is unwilling to do anything like asking a woman out in order to meet his goal. I suggest to him that there must be a part of him that doesn't want to be in a relationship. He vehemently and earnestly denies this idea, despite the evidence to the contrary implicit in his passive behavior.

Another client, a pretty young woman who is forty pounds above the weight she considers ideal, tells me that she wants to be thinner and that she's willing to try anything to lose weight, because her extra weight is causing her unhappiness in many areas of her life. However, when presented with the evidence of her caloric intake, her sedentary lifestyle and her reluctance to join a support group, she still does not comprehend that part of her must NOT want to be thin. If all of her --without conflict-- DID truly want to be thin, she would be making different choices.

Evidence of a person's unconscious inner conflicts can be readily observed through behavior, much more clearly than though words. When a person says he wants to achieve and stand out at his job, yet he comes late, has frequent lethargic periods and alienates his supervisor, he is demonstrating the symptoms of an inner conflict that he is not consciously confronting. He will have all kinds of rationales for his lapses in job performance, none of which he will attribute to an unconscious desire to hold himself back. If, however, he takes the time to contrast his behavior with his words, he might be able to see that he has a powerful unconscious need to sabotage himself.

When intimacy issues come up, people can get even more confused. All of us have needs for intimacy --warmth, affection, closeness, sex-- yet these powerful needs clash with other needs for space, privacy, private time and the need to define ourselves. How many times have you encountered people who say that they want to be in a relationship, yet they have no success finding one and their behavior gives no indication that they are even trying? How many couples out there complain about a lack of intimacy, yet repeatedly act to thwart its emergence?

This schism between action and words occurs as a result of the unconscious conflict between the need for companionship and the desire for privacy and isolation. The man who comes home drunk every night, yet laments his lack of intimacy with his wife is simply fooling himself. If he wanted closeness he wouldn't come home smelling like a brewery. The wife who complains about lack of intimacy, yet goes to sleep every night before her husband can even finish brushing his teeth is simply fooling herself. If she wanted intimacy she would make herself available for it.

Couples who come to therapy for marital problems are often shocked when I interpret their fighting, bickering and quarreling over trivial issues as unconscious actions reflecting the clashing conflict between their needs for space and their needs for intimacy. What better way to act out the conflict than to ask for intimacy in a way that pushes the partner away? Look at your behaviors, and ask yourself what they mean. You'll benefit greatly from observing your actions rather than your words, for then you will understand your unconscious. As the recovery pundit Guy Kettelhack writes in "Dancing Around the Volcano," the unconscious "has a genius for getting what it wants."


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