Describing how our minds work and how we think affects our daily lives is no easy task. Sometimes we need the professional and expert advice of psychologists and psychotherapists to have a clearer picture of how our minds work. One of the foremost theorists about the workings of the human mind was Sigmund Freud. He described the human mind as divided into three different levels: the conscious, subconscious and the unconscious. To make an easier analogy, Freud likened these three levels to an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is the conscious mind, the partially submerged and visible part below the waterline is the subconscious mind, and the biggest invisible portion of the iceberg that is submerged in the water is the unconscious mind.
Before we specifically discuss the relationship the conscious and unconscious parts of our minds, we first need to define the three different levels of the mind according to Freud’s theory:
Conscious mind. The conscious mind comprises everything that is in the scope of our awareness. This is the facet of our mental processing that includes things such as the sensations, perceptions, memories, feelings and fantasies. Closely associated with our conscious mind is our subconscious mind which includes our memories that we readily retrieve at any time and bring into our awareness. It is also referred to as the preconscious.
Subconscious mind. The subconscious/preconscious mind is the part of the mind that represents regular memory. We may not be consciously aware of the all the memories we store in our minds at any given time, we can retrieve them and bring them into consciousness when needed.
Unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is likened to a large container of our feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that are outside of our conscious awareness. Most of the contents of the unconscious mind are socially unacceptable desires, traumatic memories, and painful emotions, like feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict. According to Freud’s theory, the unconscious part of our minds continues to influence our behavior and experience, and we are mostly unaware of these underlying influences.
How does psychotherapy fit into bringing the unconscious information brought into conscious awareness? Freud’s theory was put into practice by using the technique called free association. He believed that unconscious feelings can be brought into conscious awareness through this technique in which he asked patients to relax and say whatever came to their minds without any consideration of how trivial, irrelevant, or embarrassing it might be. By analyzing these streams of seemingly random thought, Freud believed he could uncover the contents of the unconscious mind where repressed desires and painful childhood memories existed. Also, Freud believed that things in our unconscious mind can be made available to our conscious mind in disguised form, most commonly in the form of dreams. He surmised that if the contents of our dreams were analyzed, we could discover the influence of our unconscious mind to our conscious thinking and actions.
The modern theories and practices of psychotherapy were built upon Freud’s fundamental ideas about the human mind and his early theories about psychotherapy. Now, modern psychotherapy generally aims to improve an individual’s well-being and mental health, to resolve or mitigate behaviors, beliefs, compulsions, thoughts, or emotions that can be distressing or troublesome, and to improve his/her relationships and social skills. Now, we can fit the theories about conscious and unconscious parts of the mind with the aim of psychotherapy in order for us to understand our unconscious mind and harness its power to influence our conscious awareness into positive thoughts and actions.