The Unconscious, It Is – What Yoda Teaches Us About the Power of the Unconscious

How the Unconscious Drives Behaviour

Luke Skywalker:   What’s in there?
Yoda:   Only what you take with you. 
I love this scene in Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back because I believe it perfectly illustrates the role of the unconscious in our lives. In this scene, Luke turns to enter a spooky and dark cave and what he comes face to face with is the feared (and unconscious) forces of darkness and anger personified by the presence of Darth Vader.  In his vision, he enters in to battle with Vader and eventually decapitates him.

The cinematic insinuation is that Luke has deeply unresolved issues related to his own core identity as a man and a Jedi. The image of him defeating Vader (his Father) provides a context to better understand his complex internal struggle regarding good and evil, dark and light. It is a metaphor for what lies in his unconscious world and how it dominates him because it is unexplored and outside of his conscious awareness. The power it has over Luke is precisely because he doesn’t have access to these emotions on a conscious level. 

As a shrink I am often asked questions that are very similar to this sentiment. I am asked if I am going to psycho-analyze people at various social settings, as though I will somehow, find or create some kind of content that is not already operating intra and inter-personally. There’s an underlying insinuation that the content that surfaces isn’t generated from their own psyche’. Or, there is the undertone that I will discover some kind of “fact” or psychological treasure that “solves” an issue or “fixes” a problem. None of which is the journey I seek to collaborate on.  I am not in the business of fixing people because the notion that we are ever truly “broken” is incongruent with my philosophical beliefs.

The reality is, you will only find what already exists inside of you, even if you are largely unaware of that content and the power with which it operates as a controlling force or dominant pattern in your life. Given the space, and fuelled by genuine curiosity, your patterns, themes and content will emerge. What you discover will be deeply contextual and powerfully influential, as it reflects your beliefs, patterns, fears, and often trauma(s) that are a result of your unique experiences and temperament.  But make no mistake about it; you bring it to the journey.  I am merely a passenger offering a mirror for reflection. 

Unconscious patterns are formed early in life and stored away, often not fully emerging as dominant pattern(s) until we are well into our young adulthood.  Eventually, the unconscious reigns supreme over the vast majority of our decision-making processes from the careers we “choose”, to how we communicate and confront conflict resolution, to the people we are drawn to for intimacy and partnership. 

I am loath to pull the bloom off the rose of what we call “chemistry” or attraction in this society. Phrases such as, it was meant to be, it was love at first sight, or he/she is “The One.” These notions of chemistry are a really lovely way to look at attraction and it offers a mystical interpretation to something that is actually based almost entirely on the modelling patterns absorbed throughout early development and we continue to experience throughout maturation. From this understanding, chemistry is unconscious emotional patterns of attachment and connection influencing the subtext of our mind.

On one side of that coin are all the intoxicating elements that draw us into “love”, lust and attraction.  If we flip that same coin over, we have the seedy subtext of our unconscious emotional patterns that surface in the interpersonal domain. It is for this very reason that I often hear people reflect that the things they were most attracted to in their spouse are now the very traits that drive them apart.  Quite literally, they are opposite sides of the same coin. A package deal, if you will. It’s the emotional equivalent to a BOGO deal (you buy one, get one for free). 

In the beginning, when you were drawn to this person, you called it chemistry and you built a life around the belief that it was “fate” or “meant to be.” Now, usually years north of the lust, you find the very same trait(s) to be the bane of your existence. This side of the coin is noticeable only in the nuances of a relationship and not easily detected, for the most part, in the early and lustful days of romance (as an aside, I’d define “early” as the first two years).  It is through the passage of time that deeper, much more subtle, contextual nuances emerge related to conflict resolution, communication patterns, parenting patterns and styles, deeply held character based personality traits, and on and on.  

Unconscious beliefs influence virtually every aspect of your personality development and call into question the notion of “free will”, as we play out patterns from our past under the guise of individuality and freedom of choice. Generally speaking, I tell my patients at the start of therapy that what ever you are aware of or come into therapy knowing you want to address, is helpful. But it is not what’s really “going on” at your core. It’s what we are unaware of that holds the most influence over our psyche’.

[bctt tweet=”It’s what we are unaware of that holds the most influence over our psyche.” username=”hey_sigmund”]

Once something that was unconscious becomes conscious, you can never un-know it. You may choose to ignore it, suppress it (suppression is always conscious; repression is unconscious), or pretend it’s not there, nagging at your consciousness, but you can never again be unaware of it. This is the start of what we would call wisdom or insight (hence the phrase “insight oriented therapy). You begin to understand what is happening underneath the surface of your behavior and patterns. You can begin to observe your choices and behavior from a deeper lens of reflection and shift your response to your feelings and emotions. You can begin to metabolize and move through areas in your mind where you had previously felt “stuck” or stagnant or uninspired and yet you couldn’t pinpoint any exact “thing” that ailed you.

The “symptoms” you came to address end up being only the low hanging fruit of our emotional world. Once we get to the core of that symptom pattern we can trace it back to its root system and begin the process of deeply address the areas and patterns in your life that no longer serve your needs or wants.

Long-term change requires the marriage between deep insight about how and why our mind operates the way it does and persistent and relentless effort to tweak and shift patterns that are no longer congruent with your newfound insights.  The mind is the seat of insight, while the brain is the epicenter of change.  Breeding an environment of curiosity and wonder about how your mind absorbs, processes and metabolizes experiences is the role of the therapist.  Going about changing long held unconscious patterns is the job of the patient. And as Yoda says to Luke later in the same scene in Empire Strikes Back “do or do not. There is no try.”


 About the Author: Dr Sarah Sarkis

Dr Sarah SarkisSarah is a licensed psychologist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally hailing from Boston Mass, she has a private practice where she works with adults in long-term insight oriented therapy. She works from an existential psychology vantage point where she encourages her patients to “stay present even in the storm.”  She believes herself to be an explorer of the psyche and she will encourage you to be curious about the journey rather than the destination.  She emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment.

She approaches psychological wellness from a holistic and integrative perspective. Her therapeutic style is based on an integrative approach to wellness, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and/or mind/body techniques to help clients foster insight, change and growth. She has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected.  Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Brene’ Brown, Irvin Yalom and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few.

Please visit her website at DrSarahSarkis.com and check out her blog, The Padded Room

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One Comment

Karen S

Thank you for this exact subject matter. I have learned to think and believe very similarly, yet to
put into any sort of logical layman’s terms has been difficult for me to explain and to sound like I know what I’m talking about.
It can be mind blowing to realize how each of us ‘think’, given the circumstance, and so very often a huge factor in regard to the outcome of any situation or experience, and how the end result or impression left can still be a bit skewed.
For all the years I have tried offering the most concise, simple answer for my husband to consider in regard to his chronic dissatisfaction with life, that might ultimately come down to ‘how he thinks’…
I now realize it is NOT a simple concept that everyone can understand and implement, until it happens for them.
You can’t really make someone comprehend this. Such an overlooked basic concept that becomes almost totally unconscious once you and your mind become aware of our unknowing previous tendency to bias.
(Hope this makes sense!)

Well said, Sarah!
I am a new fan.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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