First, as mentioned in the "Straight Thinking" section of the last chapter, we are prone to over-simplify the causes of our behavior. Remember the "fallacy of the single cause?" Almost every action has many causes, perhaps 15 or 20, maybe more. It is not our custom to think so complexly, but it may be closer to reality. Secondly, the strength of each of the causes is probably constantly fluctuating, so the precise prediction of human behavior is very difficult. The murderer might have run away from the victim or broken down and cried or killed him/herself, if he/she had waited one more minute. Thirdly, there are influences on our behavior that we are ashamed of and deny. Being open-minded to the complex causes and to the unconscious factors operating might greatly improve our coping with real problems.
If we could honestly explore and accept every possible motive, thought, or feeling within us, regardless of how mean, perverse, or shameful it is, presumably we wouldn't have Freud's kind of unconscious, i.e. a pool of repressed threatening, immoral, inconsiderate, destructive, self-defeating forces that influence one's thoughts and actions in unknown but usually unhealthy ways. Why shove scary, evil thoughts out of your mind, if recognizing those thoughts and handling them will help you understand yourself and make reasonable decisions? Ask yourself: Who would I feel safer with, a friend who recognizes his/her resentment or jealousy of your brains or possessions or love life and monitors his/her thoughts and feelings to guard against acting on those irrational feelings in hurtful ways or a friend who was oblivious to his/her feelings and their causes? The answer is obvious.
Nevertheless, you may still worry that recognizing all these evil impulses will cause you to lose control or, at least, cause you stress. I understand. Indeed, some discomfort is likely, e.g. if you are homophobic or just have a reaction of "yuck" to imagining sex between two people of the same sex, yes, it is going to be uncomfortable to also realize some positive attraction within you to homosexual activity. Examples of uncomfortable thoughts in this area: realizing your liking and wanting to be with your best same-sexed friend has some similarity to homosexual "love," males realizing their interest in observing and comparing penises, females finding breasts attractive (and why not, they nursed the same as boys), and getting a little aroused by an X-rated movie of homosexuals. But, by increasing self-awareness and going through some stress, you may become less hateful, less discriminating, more understanding, and more at ease interacting socially with homosexuals. You are not going to become homosexual if that isn't your natural and powerful inclination. So, why be so afraid or appalled?
It may also be reassuring to remember that having a thought or a feeling is not the same as carrying out the act. As discussed in chapter 6, thinking of beating up on somebody is not the same as doing it. On the other hand, repeated thoughts about assaulting people don't sound too healthy and probably increase the likelihood of undesirable actions. If Jimmy Baker and Jimmy Swaggart had thought less about prostitutes and affairs, they probably would have been less likely to act out. If they had totally denied to themselves any interest in other women, they might have had other problems--an obsession with stopping prostitution or topless dancing, condemning all "johns" to hell, and similar actions, called "reaction formations." A wise self-helper will understand and control his/her thoughts as well as behavior.
As Freud openly admitted, therapists usually find they have tendencies similar to their clients. After seeing patients, Freud devoted time every day to self-exploration. If therapists did not have this awareness and tolerance of their own basic drives, they would surely have more difficulty helping their patients gain insight. Part of becoming an effective therapist and, likewise, a good patient is to become open-minded, to accept that everything is true of you to some extent. This is "a hard pill to swallow"--what about murder or incest or becoming totally dependent? You may have very little tendency in certain directions, but there is probably some. The point is not so much that we are all potentially vile, crude, and dangerous, but rather the idea is that we should be able to explore within our own psyche and soul. It can be an exciting, fruitful adventure.
- To learn to accept needs and ideas that have been denied. This may include saintly motives, such as the urge to feed the 30 children dying somewhere every minute from starvation, as well as sinful ones.
- To recognize the likelihood that behavior is complexly determined.
STEP ONE: Look for multiple causes of behavior and consider that "everything is true of you."
I have consistently encouraged you to think of the causes of your behavior as being complex. First, as chapter 2 says, there are five parts to every problem--behavior, emotions, skills, cognitive and unconscious factors. Each part has many causes, e.g. if the problem is being overweight, the behavioral habit of eating dessert at lunch and dinner is one aspect of overall eating behavior. But, overeating is also a function of many other behavioral-environmental factors, such as childhood and current eating habits, food availability in the house, tradition and social environment, spouse's and friends' attitudes, and so on. The lack of exercise is related and also caused by many factors. Likewise, emotions--stress, loneliness, sadness, guilt, feeling inadequate, and anger--may contribute to eating. Each emotion has its own complex history and causes, and its own connection with eating. The lack of knowledge about calories and cooking skills can contribute to overeating, as can denial, rationalizations, excuses, a defeatist attitude and other rational and irrational cognitions. Finally, we have unconscious factors, each with its own learning history. By now the foolishness of the fallacy of the single cause, referred to in chapter 14, should be clear to you. Humans are complex. Probably most behaviors or thoughts or motives have 15 or 20 or more contributing causes.
Besides the obscurity due to complex causes, this method is also concerned with embarrassing causes which are hidden from ourselves. How can we possibly overcome our own barriers to seeing threatening, unpleasant causes of our behavior? First, by increasing the value we placed on awareness and, second, by decreasing the shame and repugnance we feel towards an unconscious motive. Just being open-minded and honest with ourselves is all we can ask. But it takes practice. Remember from the beginning paragraphs, the question is not, "What am I?" but rather "How much am I this way?"
STEP TWO: Look for evidence of unconscious needs or feelings.
Surely you occasionally have self-critical or even self-destructive thoughts: "I hate myself," "I want to be mean," "I should be punished," "I am bad," "I'd like to die," or some very negative feeling. Do you take risks with your life by driving fast or reckless? Do you smoke or drink (even one beer knocks off brain cells) or over-eat? Do you neglect a possible health hazard? Do you unnecessarily disclose your faults and mistakes? Do you break the law and, thus, risk your reputation? Maybe there are more of these self-defeating thoughts and impulses than you are aware of, i.e. unconscious influences.
Surely you occasionally have very mean, angry thoughts: "I'd like to kill him" or "I wish I could prove to everyone what a jerk he is." Do you hold grudges and want to get revenge? What about sexual urges and motives? Do you have sexual dreams that embarrass you (or would if you told)? Why do lots of people fantasize about being a prostitute or gigolo? Do you leer and recognize your sexual attraction to people other than your current lover? ("Oh, sure," you say, "I'm human.") Well, besides these conscious feelings is it possible that many other sexual needs are kept in your sub-conscious?
Surely you occasionally wish to be as free as you were as a child, without responsibility and duties, taken care of completely, held and stroked, and perhaps even feed by breast. Do you like to curl up in a ball ("fetal position") under a warm blanket--is that returning to the womb? Do you wish to be powerful, perhaps handsome or beautiful, admired or even worshiped by others? Do you enjoy beating others in some competition, perhaps even enjoy seeing others fail sometimes? Might you be willing to neglect the needs of some people in order to gain advantage for yourself over others? Might this overlooking of others' needs be an unconscious way of avoiding seeing a responsibility you have to help them?
I am not saying you will do awful things--murder, incest, steal, abuse, lie, etc.--but I am suggesting that maybe you have tendencies to do all kinds of things. Not very strong, but a little... a potential. Instead of denying all evil impulses, I'd encourage you to explore them, see if they might be there; if so, accept them and understand them, and keep them under better control than if they were unconscious. Are you resisting looking for certain feelings? The more you resist and deny any possibility of feeling a certain way, the more you should look for evidence in that direction. Example: I once saw a young couple with marital problems. One disagreement was about having sex as a couple with a male friend. The husband wanted all three to have sex together. When I asked if he had some homosexual interests in the friend, the husband immediately became very angry at me, accusing me of distorting his motives, of being in the "dark ages," and wanting to make something "perverse" out of an open marriage. He protesteth too much.
Don't just look for unacceptable urges, look for good impulses that may also be held in check by fear, "being reasonable," or selfish interests. Examples: Loving someone or, better yet, everyone, adopting an abandoned child, giving up a good paying job for one that provides care to others, doing volunteer work, sharing some of your most intimate secrets with a friend, etc. Quite possibly we unconsciously repress our saintly tendencies as well as our sinful impulses.
STEP THREE: Try to understand some of your baffling behavior by listing all the possible causes. Look for "unfinished business."
If you are still trying to digest the idea that everything is true of you (and have not yet thrown up or thrown the book away), select a specific problem, behavior, or interaction to understand better. Go through the five parts (see chapter 2) and list all the causes or influences you can imagine for each part. What needs might be satisfied by this behavior or problem? What are the possible obvious and hidden payoffs? Consider all the outcomes that might actually occur and ask, "Could I possibly be wanting that outcome?" (answer "yes" even though you consciously think that outcome would be terrible). What old emotional hang-ups could be aroused in this situation? For example, does this person or the situation remind you of some emotional experience in the past, some "unfinished business?" This is frequently a powerful unconscious factor. Examples: a new boy/girlfriend reminds you of the old one (and you respond inappropriately); the boss reminds you of your father; taking a test reminds you of flunking the last one.
When you run out of ideas about causes, try to find even more:
- Read about this sort of behavior or problem (see the next method), add to your list other peoples' ideas about causes.
- Ask friends for their honest opinions about causes and influences in your situation.
- Talk to people who have or have had the problem.
- Discuss the problem with a respected person, a psychologist, or other persons.
- Some therapists (Mc Mullin, 1986) have already prepared a list of all the possible causes of a specific problem, e.g. agoraphobia, they can think of, including events, thoughts, and other feelings. Examples: anger, guilt, sexual urges, loneliness, fear of going insane, feeling unreal, fear of losing control (panic), money problems, demands by others, failed at something, etc. You can add to your list the ones that seem true for you (and make a mental note of the causes not true for you).
You are likely to identify 10 or 15 conscious causes and 5 or more unconscious causes. Like in brainstorming, don't criticize your ideas about causes, just record the influences as they occur to you, even if they seem unlikely or ridiculous. You will evaluate each cause in the next step.
STEP FOUR: Weighing the importance of each cause or motive or influence.
All behavior is 100% caused, so take the list of all possible causes of your problem and assign each cause a percent, according to its importance or degree of influence, so that the total is 100%. Use your knowledge of behavior, your intuition, or your best hunch to assign weights. It will, of course, take some adjusting of percentages to get the total weights to equal 100%. But it is usually eye-opening to see how many causes are involved and to realize that even the most powerful causes may only contribute 10 or 15 percent of the total.
A different approach was used with phobic patients (mentioned in #5 of the last step). Each person was asked to list 10 situations in which they panicked and 10 similar situations in which they had not panicked. Then they rated which of the possible causes existed just before they panicked...and before not panicking. Thus, they identified probable causes of their panic in several situations...and conditions that do not lead to panic.
STEP FIVE: Use your analysis of the causes as a guide to strengthening the factors that produce the desired behavior and to reducing the troublesome factors.
All self-help involves trying to increase the factors that produce the desired behavior and reduce the factors that produce the unwanted behavior. Example: suppose you get mad at a lover because he/she did something that unconsciously reminded you of a disliked parent. If you become aware that one of the causes of the excessive anger is the similarity between lover and parent, i.e. "unfinished business," you can talk to yourself and reduce the inappropriate anger by saying, "Hey, my lover isn't my parent and I'm not going to be irrational about this." Without insight, you are left with "my lover makes me so mad" or "I have such a temper." The insight-oriented therapist depends on the rational part of the client to detect and correct the irrational, unconscious parts. The cognitive therapist, however, might simply focus on the irrational expectations made of the lover (without worrying about the reason for these expectations); the behavior therapist might desensitize you to the lover's behavior that made you mad (without regard to how you originally learned the anger response); other therapists might teach you how to handle the anger, as in "fair fighting," (without analyzing the source) and so on. All methods might work, but insight seems cleaner and more complete if, as in this case, awareness of the unresolved anger results in fewer over-reactions in a variety of situations.
Let's suppose at age 24 you are looking at the causes for your procrastination. One factor among 15 or 20 might be a resentment of having to work and a wish to return to your care-free years of 8 or 10. All of us yearn for the security of being totally cared for, being free of responsibility, having the time to do whatever we feel like doing, etc. If we thought about it consciously, such child-like wishes would be seen as unreal and foolish. Yet, if left unconscious, the wishes can exert some influence, perhaps through the vague feeling that if I don't study or do well on this job (procrastinate), I can go live at home and dad will get me a good job and everything will be comfortable and wonderful. Some part of you has to tell the scared, dependent part to face facts and stop screwing up your life.
Please note that unconscious factors frequently exert very little influence relative to the conscious payoffs, emotions, skills and thoughts. Also, note that unconscious factors may strengthen desirable tendencies as well as unwanted behaviors and feelings. Examples: the same sexual interests that push a person to get fat to avoid temptation may push the same person at another time of life to lose weight to be sexier. The same drive for child-like dependency that leads to procrastination may be directed differently and push us into over-learning for exams.
If you are psychologically ready for this open-mindedness, then little else needs to be done. You will apply what you read about others to yourself; you will wonder if friend's and stranger's problems and urges exist in you too; if you look for unconscious factors, you will find them. If you are resisting the idea, then you may never see many unconscious factors in yourself or in others. But you will have to continue working hard to deny the evidence for the unconscious discussed in the next section.
If you attempt to examine all the causes of a problem, as described in steps three and four, it should only take half an hour to come up with the initial list. But if you read or talk to people and ponder extensively about the causes, then a few hours will be needed. Once the list is pretty complete, the assigning of weights won't take but a few minutes, just give a quick gut response; maybe ask a friend or a counselor; no one knows the truth.
The major barrier is rejection of the idea of having illegal, immoral, sinful, gross, mean, selfish impulses lurking inside you without your awareness. You won't look for these influences if you don't believe in them and/or find it too embarrassing or painful. If your resistance to these ideas is quite high, there may be some wisdom in your reaction; frankly, I wouldn't push it too much.
Actually, the evidence for unconscious factors is compelling. In the split-brain studies, these people clearly have perceptions, responses, motives and emotions that escape their awareness. Under hypnosis, people can do things they don't remember and they can carry out post-hypnotic suggestions without knowing why. In multiple personalities, one personality is often not aware of all the others. We all use defense mechanisms. No one would deny that playing, partying, sleeping, listening to music, watching TV and so forth are used sometimes to avoid and forget unpleasant duties; yet, we aren't always aware of what we are doing. We often do not realize that our own irrational ideas cause many of our emotions. Therapists repeatedly find unconscious motivations and "unfinished business." All of us are at times puzzled by our own behavior and feelings. We frequently forget the way we originally learned to respond, think, or emote in a certain way; in a sense, the causes become "unconscious" as we forget. No one can deny these facts, but some people will still refuse to face and look into their unconscious.
Freud would also quickly point out that the unconscious is very clever. It might easily persuade you that your unconscious factors are of little importance day to day, hardly worth thinking about.
Some therapies, such as Gestalt and Psychoanalysis, assume that once you have discovered some force in your unconscious, you will automatically handle the force in a healthy manner. Almost as though the unconscious drive loses its power once the owner becomes aware of it. This may not be true. We need to know much more about handling these vile impulses we all have.
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
I know of no solid objective evidence of the benefits of uncovering unconscious motives and traits, relative to the benefits from non-insight methods. Yet, thousands of therapy patients feel that gaining understanding of their feelings and behavior has helped them to change and feel better. In the process of going through training to become an insight-oriented therapist--and while doing therapy--one gradually accepts the idea of unconscious factors. We psychologists haven't yet proven that insight therapists or their patients are more aware of their unconscious or more able to handle personal problems than others. In fact, Ellis (1987) says we keep on fooling ourselves even after therapy. This denial of the truth may, in some instances, actually help us feel better about ourselves (see discussion in the introduction to this chapter). So, there are potential dangers in becoming aware and in remaining unaware.
What is certain is that a single reading of this method will not throw open all the doors to deep, dark secrets within you. The unconscious will not reveal its secrets unless it is safe to do so. Uncovering the unconscious is a long, complex, unending process. In therapy it can sometimes be upsetting. Only a therapist should be trying to force open doors to another person's unconscious, for instance by expressing hunches about what is hidden in the client's unconscious. Friends and non-professionals should generally stay out of this. But we can push open our own doors without much danger. If the "secret" would be terribly upsetting, you just won't be able to open the door yet. To some people exploring the unconscious is a great adventure. It is a vast, fascinating world.
About 25 years ago I was 20-25 pounds overweight. As part of my very first self-help project, to lose weight, I listed the causes of my overeating. The first 11 factors were environmental factors, like having lots of food around, and learned habits, like having a "sweet tooth," poor eating habits--candy bars--during the day, a family tradition of a big supper and snacks in the evening, and a drink as a way of socializing. Then there were 5 or 6 unconscious factors, e.g. to displease my wife, to avoid other women, to allay anxiety and feel well nourished, to be "big" and make myself more imposing, and to kill myself with a heart attack. I lost the weight primarily by joining Run For Your Life. Yet, I should have considered the unconscious factors more seriously since I was both divorced and had heart trouble a few years later. The main point is, however, that even in such as commonplace area as eating, there are several possible unconscious factors.