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6. What is the difference between conscious and unconscious anxiety?

Conscious anxiety is that which we know we fear. Snakes, heights, germs, a first date, a big presentation, taking a test, or going to the doctor are all common conscious fears. Unconscious anxiety is that which is beyond our conscious awareness. This anxiety most often declares itself when someone has a panic attack  seemingly out of the blue.

The person might say that he is “freaking out” but cannot say what the trigger was. Perhaps he was driving home for Christmas and harbored deep, unconscious resentment at his family’s rejection of his partner but was not able to know consciously at that time that this distress was at the root of the panic attack. The two - conscious and unconscious awareness - can also go together. A person can tell you he is afraid of blood but be less able to tell you that he hates blood because it reminds him of the death of his mother years ago when she went to the hospital bleeding. Or, a woman may fear blood because of her or her mother’s not knowing how to handle her first period. Now he or she consciously fears losing his or her spouse from an accident but cannot tolerate that idea or feeling and so avoids these partially conscious fears and focuses consciously instead on hating avoiding blood.

Rick’s comments:

My anxiety disorder is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I find that my anxiety is provoked by both fears I know I have and ones of which I’m not even aware. When I’m facing something that makes me nervous, like a doctor’s visit or an unexpected bill, the symptoms of my OCD intensify. For example, I might say, either out loud or to myself, phrases or thoughts which I repeat endlessly. Or I might feel the need to touch something (the T.V. detective Monk, a fellow, if fictional,OCD sufferer does this, too).Or I might avoid certain words and numbers or combinations of numbers (such as but, 4, or numbers totaling 18). Or I might replay in my mind an old argument I’ve had with someone. Sometimes these and other symptoms pop up even when I am not confronted with something that I know makes me anxious. Maybe when I have nothing to worry about, I find that relaxation something to worry about!

Selma’s comments:

When I started analysis, I believed in the unconscious when I read about it. I was reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, but I actually didn’t believe it pertained to me. I believed in my ability to exercise willpower and the poem by William Henley that most spoke to me, Invictus, ended with, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” At that time, I believed conscious willpower was the only way to achieve mastery of my fate. Of course, I always failed. But I always started again, with what I thought each time to be more willpower. Freud’s delightful idea of the unconscious, so attractive on the printed page, I didn’t hold to have much to do with me.

In all the years of my treatment, evidence of unconscious activity, both desirable and very much undesirable, consistently appeared, no matter what I called it (and I never-ever-called it unconscious drive). I had all kinds of names for it however, and frequently in the beginning years, I  decided I did these undesirable things because of my analysts. I thought that through his suggestion he made me do them! It took a long time for me to really understand that what I did came out of my head and from my needs and feelings. It took even longer (in years, not months) to have respect for that process and to not invest so much in my willpower that, for sure, put all the things I didn’t want to do into great activity. Eventually I learned that I put in place my excessive attempts at willpower because of my very strong feelings that exactly the opposite should happen.

For example, I always dieted. I considered myself very fat, and if I were up a pound, I would frequently not continue on with my social plans, being so ashamed of my ballooned look. In actuality, I weighed 112 pounds at 5 feet, 4 inches.

I had great willpower (which also broke) and had so many restrictions that I felt were life-giving. Breaking one food restriction meant falling into chaos. It took me a long time to know (not know in my head, but in my gut) that I needed all these intense restrictions because of a tremendous desire to eat. I was never actually hungry, so this realization was very hard for me to figure out. More than that, I negated at every possibility what this desire to eat meant to me until there was no turning away. I had to accept my persistent desire to return to an infantile state. Psychologically for me, all else represented a separation from this feeling of being taken care of that I could experience only as death. I could not turn away from this knowledge because its evidence was so present in my life, and not always consciously. I saw supremely strong signs of active, demanding powerful, heretofore unconscious activity that in this example shaped my eating anxieties and all of the energy I spent in their management.

As my treatment deepened, I was more able to use my beloved willpower as a conscious application to my unconscious drives, which I then accepted as a real part of me. For example, I used the public library extensively, as I loved to read. It was available and accessible, and my books were always overdue. I had library fines of $30 and upwards. One day, I griped about them in a session, and then quickly went on to more seemingly pressing, important problems. My analyst wanted to go back to the library fines - why were they so high? I retorted that with all of my problems, library fines were no significant place to work. I went back to the serious, upsetting problems.

And back he returned to the library fines. This back and forth repeated, and I became very angry. Finally I jumped up from the couch and said that if he was concerned about my library fines when I had real problems, then he was crazy and certainly couldn’t help me. I did not know what I was doing there and stormed out. I intended to end the analysis.

I came back the next day, not apologetic, and not subdued. But at least I was willing to see this thing through. In time (and I don’t mean by that afternoon), I could see that returning the books on time contained for me a deep sense of separation that I couldn’t tolerate. These books gave me such joy and told me in every way stories of life and how to live life; they provided a great loving, substitute mother.

Was I going to return the books and give that up? Never. When these notions took root in my head, the overdue books trick never worked for me again. It was over. In the end, the gift to me wasn’t that I no longer had library fines, but rather that I understood a little bit more about what I was doing with my life. One little piece of deep knowledge all of a sudden opened other doors, and I could see similar behavior in so many other areas of my life. I didn’t even have to think about it or make an effort. The patterns that no longer worked for me disappeared. I wasn’t playing those games anymore. I began to use my energies in much more creative ways.


Unconscious - the thought processes of which one is not aware.



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