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Unconscious Processes : How Our Past Affects Our Present.


Our past experiences, in particular our childhood experiences, create in our brains unconscious processes that affect our present.

This idea is based upon various sub-types of psychoanalytic theory. These include:

1) Freudian theory

2) Ego psychology

3) Object relations theory

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1) Freudian Theory

According to Sigmund Freud, often referred to as the ‘father of psychoanalysis’, the essential and fundamental drives that galvanise human behaviour are :

a) The sex drive

b) The aggressive drive

(this makes sense in terms of evolutionary theory, as these drives would have helped our ancestors survive and reproduce/pass on their genes to the next generation).

Importantly, however, Freud stated that people are largely unaware that these drives partially determine their day-to-day behaviour; the process by which the drives exert their insidious influence is unconscious. According to his theory, such powerful, primitive and animal drives reside in the ID (by which he meant the part of the brain which is not directly available to the conscious mind).

Freud went on to explain that because we are bound by society’s rules and values, we cannot allow ourselves to give these drives free rein. Instead, we (at least partly) suppress them. According to his theory, it is the part of the mind that he called the SUPEREGO which keeps these powerful drives at bay (it is then the EGO’S job, influenced by both the superego and the id, to direct our behaviour in such a way that it is in accord, as much as possible, with society’s expectations. Clearly, of course, we cannot simply indulge drives emanating from the id with the spontaneity of wild animals; civilisation, and the moral codes we have imbibed over the course of our lives, precludes such behaviour.

How our ego and superego function is largely determined by our culture, society and the values we learned from our parents as we grew up.

The third part of the mind, then, already referred to above, Freud theorised, is the ego. Its impossible job is to somehow satisfy the needs of the id whilst not impinging upon the rules our superego imposes upon us. Because this can’t be done, compromises need to be made continually.

To employ the use an analogy, the ego is a bit like a referee in charge of a fight between a crazed chimpanzee (the id) and a pious, sanctimonious and domineering aunt (the superego).


2) Ego Psychology

Inspired by Freud’s theories, ego psychology aims to help us adapt our behaviour to the demands of the society and culture in which we live.

As stated above, the ego is in a more or less constant state of conflict; it needs to continually try to balance the opposing demands of the id and the superego (see above) in a manner which society deems to be acceptable.

Essentially, then, ego psychology aims to help the individual adapt to the particular society in which s/he finds him/herself immersed. This involves, for example:

  • help with impulse control.
  • help with relating to others appropriately.
  • help with controlling emotions.
  • accurately perceiving the demands of reality and acting accordingly.
  • improving coping mechanisms.
  • help to reduce unhelpful defence mechanisms.


3) Object Relations

This theory is based upon the idea that the view we developed of ourselves and others during our childhood deeply affects how we relate to others in our adult lives.

According to this theory, we have a marked tendency to repeat our old ways of relating to others. For example, if we were abused during our childhood, we may, as adults, be unconsciously drawn to form relationships with others who will abuse us.

Why should this be? It is theorised that we have a strong, unconscious drive to repeat our early life traumatic experiences so that we can ultimately gain mastery over them. This is also known as the repetition compulsion.


In summary:

a) We can say that Freud believed that the superego develops in individuals as a result of the moral codes they absorbed as they were growing up from, for example, their parents, society and culture. Also, he believed that the part of the mind he called the ‘id’ houses our most basic, animal instincts and drives, although these are generally unconscious.


b) We can also say that, according to object relations theory, that the way we interacted with our primary caregivers when we were children has a powerful effect upon how we relate to others in our adult lives. Again, however, the effect is likely to act largely via unconscious processes.


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David Hosier BSc Hons ; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).



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