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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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