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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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