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How to Break Repetitive Cycles

If you want lasting change, you've got to go deep to make it

Have you ever wondered why? Why perfectly intelligent people do such obviously counterproductive things? Why we so often are drawn to the same kind of destructive relationships? Why we sabotage ourselves? Why we are chronically late, or keep drinking too much, or keep making bad financial decisions when we are trying so hard to change?

Freud suggested the metaphor that the mind is like a glacier (the so-called “topographical” model of the mind). So much of what motivates us and concerns us—holds us back and pushes us forward—lies beneath the surface of consciousness. We do our best to work with what we know: the tip of the glacier, the conscious mind. But powerful forces lie beneath the surface: the unconscious mind.

The unconscious mind is conceived as a container for the split off, unwanted, and frightening aspects of our lives—feelings, thoughts, and experiences that we cannot face consciously. The mind protects itself from such perceived dangers by burying them in the unconscious for safe-keeping—Freud called this repression. But since these experiences are still very much alive, the container of the unconscious is like a grave filled with living beings. What gets buried there isn’t dead. It still has its say and its sway.

Models of psychotherapy, like psychoanalysis, that reach deep below the surface of consciousness are the kinds of models that can give you a real chance at breaking this crazy yet all-too-human repetition cycle. Difficulties are addressed at the root, at the headquarters where these unconscious forces live. When we shine a light on the unconscious, we can better see what’s going on in there. Facing our unconscious fears and fantasies rather than avoiding them brings a whole new perspective. Over time, it actually tends to make them less scary. The monster under the bed is revealed to be just what it is: more imaginary than real.

One of Freud's famous phrases is where id was, there ego shall be. The modern version of this idea is that where the unconscious was, the conscious shall be. There are secrets that we keep, even from ourselves. But these buried secrets are also the key to the possibilities of real change. If we want to make real changes—lasting changes—we’ve got to go deep to make them.

Copyright 2014 Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D. is the author of the newly released book, Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out