"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.


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