A Metaphor for Understanding the Human Psyche
At least, it’s a metaphor that works for me.
First, let’s start off with my totally loose and irresponsibly vague definition of the human psyche: the psyche is the collection of processes connected not only to the brain and mind, but to the heart, emotions, and body, that comprise the whole human. The psyche isn’t just the mind, and it isn’t just the workings of the brain, and it isn’t just the emotions.
Merriam-Webster defines it as: the soul, mind, or personality of a person or group. I appreciate this simplicity, but even a thirty-second review of personality theories would boggle the average mind in their complexities. So, for the sake of ease, let’s just say it’s all that stuff. Together. In one bag of skin and bones.
There are shitloads of theories out there about how the human psyche works. The one that rings truest for me, particularly as a therapist-in-training with a penchant for anti-oppression, is a theory that Freud contributed to that we know as “topographic theory.” He didn’t invent it necessarily, but his focus and expansion on it brought it into the limelight of psychology. And, all things being fair, he added to it the elements of structural theory (which include the id, ego, and superego), but we’re not traveling to that side of Freudville today.
There are a lot of professionals in the field of the mind, brain, and mental health who will poo-poo everything Freud ever said, and that’s fine. I personally don’t believe that it’s (yet) possible to explore every facet of consciousness with technology; just because you can’t measure the unconscious doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It makes all the sense in the world to me, so I’m sticking with it.
See, Freud (and company) believed that the human psyche consisted of several major domains. These aren’t to be confused with actual regions of the brain or body; rather, they are as-of-yet-immeasurable collections of processes that combine and contribute to each. They are divided up, loosely, like so:
- The Superconscious: this is where morality lives (and therefore, hypothetically a person’s connection to the divine)
- The Conscious: this is where we live all day, making observations and having thoughts and checking things off the to-do list
- The Preconscious: things that don’t hang out in our conscious but can be easily recalled or examined live here (like your cell phone number — you’re not thinking about it right this second, but you easily could retrieve if you needed to)
- The Unconscious: this is where all of our learned behaviors, habits, biases, and darker motivations live (cue scary music)
Freud used an iceberg to visualize topographic theory (as in, most of our psyche/awareness rests beneath the water while only a small portion of it peaks above), but I want to share with you my version of how I see this theory. I even drew you a picture.
In the diagram, you’ll see a happy little boat floating in the sea. We each live in our own happy little boat, so picture yourself in there, reclining peacefully and definitely not thinking about being lost at sea or sharks. There are no sharks in this metaphor.
Let’s start with what we can immediately see all around us from our boat — this is the conscious. This is what we’re currently observing, thinking about, or focusing on. We can see the water, smell the air, and think about those things as they’re happening. Maybe we’re ticking things off the to-do list, like rowing the boat or watching the birds.
Above us, in the proverbial “heavens,” lies higher thought, above but certainly attached to physical reality. Many of my fellow woo people describe it as a state of unity with everything in the universe, attained through means like meditation, ecstatic dance, trance, hallucinogens, etc. Freud called it the superconscious, and that’s the sunny sky you see above your happy little boat.
If we peer over the edge of the boat into the shallow part of the water, there’s stuff floating there just beneath the surface that we can fish out when we need or want to. This is what I prefer to call the subconscious, whereas Freud called it the “preconscious,” because I picture it like this ocean — literally just a watery layer beneath what’s conscious. Sometimes things are easy to recall from the subconscious, and sometimes they bob up later when we stop focusing on them, like when you forget a word and it comes to you while you’re thinking about something unrelated.
Now, no matter how hard and long we look over the edge of that boat, there’s a deep territory in this ocean of the psyche that we’ll never be able to see as clearly as we can see in the conscious, or from which we can retrieve things as easily as from the subconscious. This is the unconscious, and, like the actual deep sea, it’s home to a lot of weird shit. The stuff down there is generally not easily accessible. Things in the conscious world sometimes trigger shit that lives down there, and we’re left going, “Wait, why am I even thinking about this?” or “Why do I suddenly want to lock myself in the bathroom until I calm down?” Some of the things that live down there can include childhood trauma, social conditioning, and internalized self-hate. The roots of most of our behaviors, habits, and emotional responses are down there. Nostalgia and weird associations, like how the scent of my godson’s shampoo made me feel immediately at peace because it smelled like something else that made me feel at peace a long time ago, swim around down there. The roots of bias against others swim around down there, too, often after decades of subtle conditioning through exposure to media, family, religion, and society.
With practice, we can learn to discern what shit has bubbled up from the deep, but for many of us, it requires working with a therapist that can help make the connections.
“Unconscious” is a word that I hear people use when others seem unaware of the reasons for their own actions, and yet we rarely spend time looking into the depths of our own psyches. Let’s be honest: it’s dark and scary down there, and who the fuck knows what’s hiding in the cave you built when you were 6 years old.
That being said, it’s not enough to just assume that within our conscious awareness lies everything we need to know about ourselves, our emotions, our urges, our motivations, and our reactions. So much of all of those things are rooted in the unconscious, and we are often too afraid to look, because it may mean painful memories, or it may mean uncovering memories that our minds have actually made us “forget” in order to protect us. The unconscious is formed largely throughout childhood and adolescence, when our brains aren’t developed enough to understand or process many of the terrible things that happen to us. (And “terrible” is a spectrum where one thing is not necessarily the same level of terrible for two different people.) This is the territory of the origin of our defense mechanisms, developed over decades to protect us from experiencing pain.
So, that’s my Freudian-co-opted theory. I’ll be talking more about the unconscious in particular in future writing, but it felt necessary to chart it out first. Remember, most psychological theories are just that: theories, because understanding the complexity of the human psyche is far beyond our current level of technology. This one resonates the strongest with me.
What about you — can you relate? Can you pinpoint things that bubble up from the deep in your life? How do you think it works? Thanks for reading!