If the unconscious is below a person’s conscious awareness how is the therapist aware of it and how can the person begin to address it? The unconscious manifests itself in its effects. As we covered in the defense mechanisms’ blogs, they are a product of the unconscious; when a person is unable to deal with the reality of her/his situation the unconscious mind protects the person by employing defense mechanisms. So if the pathological, immature, or neurotic defense mechanisms are deployed below conscious awareness the therapist must get at what is going on underneath these defenses to help the client resolve underlying issues, which will help guide her/him to the use of higher level defense mechanisms.
One of the most frequently associated ways at getting at the unconscious in popular culture is through dream analysis. I personally have a different take on dream analysis, but I’m going to review the psychodynamic understanding of dream analysis. In psychoanalysis, the theory behind dream analysis is that the themes of dreams and the images in dreams provide insight into the unconscious. By interpreting dreams, the psychotherapist to the client the therapist provides insight into the client’s unconscious mind. After the dream analysis the unconscious becomes manifest in conscious awareness and the client can begin processing and resolving her/his underlying unconscious conflicts. Here’s a quick review of some popular dream themes.
Another method a therapist may use to uncover the unconscious is through free association. The client is presented words in isolation, such as “cat”, “shame”, “mother”, to which the client responds with the first word that comes to her/his mind. The theory being is that if the client is not actively thinking about her/his response then the unconscious will be manifested in her/his word choice. So if the therapist says “mother” after a string of neutral words, and the client spontaneously replies “anger”, then the therapist and client would explore the root of that anger, e.g., is the mother an angry person, is the client angry at the mother?
The last method revealing the unconscious that I will cover is projection. Projection operates on the theory that the client will place her/his unconscious thoughts onto a ambiguous stimulus. One of the most familiar ways for doing this is the Rorschach test where the client indicates what s/he sees in an inkblot. The client’s responses are recorded and then interpreted depending on the nature of the description. Another test the Thematic Apperception Test, where the client is presented a neutral scene and asked to write a story about what occurred before the picture was taken, during the picture, and after. The theory is that unconscious themes will immerge based on the story the client writes. There are other projective tests such as Draw-A-Person, Sentence Completion, and Animal Metaphor you can read about here, but all operate on the same principle of having the person project her/his unconscious on ambiguous stimuli.