You may not want to get in touch with your messiest feelings—sadness, rage, resentment—but one way or another, they're going to get in touch with you.
"Of course I'm out of my mind," said one of my daughter's friends the other day. "It's dark and scary in there!"
I wish all of us were so honest. Freud's great contribution was the recognition that consciousness holds only a small fraction of the things we know and feel. Beneath this tidy space lie the subconscious and unconscious levels of thought—cavern systems containing hidden labyrinths and spooky creatures. It's a place most of us avoid, pushing away dark thoughts in a process known as repression.
The problem is that, as therapists like to say, "What we resist persists." The further we withdraw from difficult issues, the more likely they are to spill out. The only way to keep this from happening is to go spelunking in our own forbidden, forbidding depths.
The Things We Almost Know
Repression sometimes occurs involuntarily—say, when soldiers in battle experience so much pain and fear that they psychologically dissociate and later have a flat, emotionless memory (or no memory at all) of the event. Most repression, however, involves an element of choice. This is not the kind of explicit decision-making we use to solve intellectual problems but the conditioned avoidance of psychological pain. It's like the nearly unconscious way one learns to take an extra big step over the loose floorboard in the attic. At some level, we know what we've repressed. We just won't go there.
This can be exhausting, because the mind doesn't like hiding things from itself. What we pretend not to know flits around the edges of our peripheral vision like bats, cloaked in the dimness of the subconscious, too scary to really scrutinize but too unnerving to completely ignore. We often deal with this by keeping our attention riveted on other things: eating, shopping, work, television, alcohol—anything but quiet relaxation. The best long-run result we can hope for is chronic stress; the worst, flat-out breakdown.
To figure out whether you may benefit from mental cave diving, take this quiz.
Five Steps to Express What You've Repressed
The antidote to repression is expression: opening up the dark places in our minds and allowing whatever is in there to come on out. Here's a basic five-step process that helps your conscious mind tunnel through the walls of denial.
1. Set Up a Buddy System You wouldn't explore an uncharted cave alone, so start by making an appointment to go mind-spelunking with someone reliable. If your score on the quiz is high, this someone had better be a therapist. If your score is low or moderate, make plans to go through the steps below with a trustworthy friend or significant other.
2. Dig For The Truth Now you're going to shine a light around your mental grottoes by answering the following questions. Be absolutely honest, but don't overthink your answers.
What do I almost know?
What do I almost feel?
What would I want to do if it weren't forbidden?
What am I tired of hiding from myself?
What really happened, though I act as if it never did?
What is it that my family and I all know but no one ever talks about?
These questions were invented by my cousin Sylvia, a massage therapist, who uses them to help her clients. Repression can have a physical component—we literally tense up in order to keep the lid on our dark places—and Sylvia developed the questions to gently guide people who feel inexplicably flooded by information or emotion when they physically relax for the first time.
If you have very little repressed mind matter, your honest answer to each of Sylvia's questions might be "nothing." But you may uncover a shocker. I once had a client I'll call Betty who obsessed about work and never talked about her personal life. When I asked her "What do you almost know?" she replied, "My first husband molested our daughter." As I gasped, she raised one eyebrow, said, "Huh!" and returned to chatting about her job. I wanted to discuss the issue, but it turned out that Betty had forgotten what she'd said (I sent her to a psychotherapist immediately).
3. Shine the light of words The recipe for releasing buried demons is simple: Know what you really know, feel what you really feel, and say what you really mean. It doesn't matter if the words you use to reveal the truth are written or spoken, poetic or clumsy. As long as they're utterly candid, they create a channel that opens what you know subconsciously to the luminous clarity of conscious thought.
4. Master (Non)Reaction Almost by definition, uncovering buried information will expose you to some uneasy sensations—anger, desire, sorrow, elation. Whatever the feeling, react by not reacting. Hold still and know your new truth. The ability to sit calmly at this crucial moment is your lifeline, your infallible guide back to the safe surface of consciousness. This can be a purely psychological process, like realizing that your last boyfriend wasn't adorably eccentric just like dear old Dad; he was a dishonest boozer—just like dear old Dad. Or your discovery might require action—for instance, confronting a wrongdoer (like my client's child-molesting ex-husband) or taking steps to repair damage and keep it from spreading. Either way, precipitous action will make things worse. For a few minutes, just absorb the truth. Emotion will crest and fade repeatedly, each wave leaving you less fearful and clearer about what to do next.
5. Discover Re-covery Set a limit on your expression session. Less than half an hour usually isn't enough time; more than 90 minutes, too much. About 15 minutes before your time is up, rebury issues that don't require urgent action. That's right, I'm suggesting that you re-repress what you've uncovered. You're not going to forget that it exists or fail to deal with it, but processing can, and usually must, happen gradually.
Tucking away a newly exposed truth is easier than you may expect—after all, you've been storing this knowledge out of consciousness all along, so you have a nice hidey-hole for it in your mind. Close your eyes and see the issue you've uncovered. Picture yourself putting it back into the nook it occupied until a few minutes ago. See yourself covering it with gravel, promising to come back later. Then go back to business as usual.
Unless you're dealing with severe trauma—in which case, I repeat, you need professional help—you'll find it weirdly easy to behave as you always have, even if you've unearthed a real stunner (you're adopted, you've fallen in love, you've always been a Democrat at heart). If you dig through your dark places consistently, you'll find yourself beginning to behave in more enlightened ways. You won't have to think about this; new action will arise naturally from the clarity and illumination you've brought into your deep self.
It takes courage to explore the secret caverns in your mind, but if you do, allowing plenty of time and trusting the process, you'll discover that there is treasure hidden in them. Beneath consciousness lies repression, but beneath repression lies wisdom. The more you let yourself explore the truth about your inner world, mapping the channels your mind has created, the more you will find yourself making good judgment calls, knowing what to do next, feeling purposeful and peaceful. Your life will work more smoothly. You'll have a better effect on the world. And best of all, you'll never again be quite so afraid of the dark.