Why Awareness & Insight Are Essential in Personal Growth


 Why do we do the things we do? What makes us choose one path over another? What drives us to sometimes undermine our best intentions, ignore our own needs, sabotage our closest relationships, and steamroll the boundaries we set to protect ourselves? These are questions that arise time and again in therapy. We are often baffled by our own behavior and emotional reactions, which can seem irrational and counterproductive. Some of us even describe feeling “hijacked” at certain moments when we knew what was best for us and did exactly the opposite.  So, what’s the deal here?

As uncomfortable as it might be to acknowledge, the seemingly rational, got-it-all-together voice that runs the show in your head (what depth psychologists call the ego) isn’t always the one in charge.  In fact, I’d argue that most of the time, your ego only *thinks* it’s in charge. For better or for worse, we all function under the covert influence of our unconscious minds, which Carl Jung defined as

Everything of which I know, but of which I am not at the moment thinking; everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten; everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind; everything which, involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want, and do; all the future things which are taking shape in me and will sometime come to consciousness; all this is the content of the unconscious… Besides these we must include all more or less intentional repressions of painful thought and feelings.

 One powerful entity that makes its home in the unconscious is what Jung called a complex. A complex is a highly energized collection of memory, thought, emotion, bodily sensations, and perceptions that arises in response to a perceived negative event or dynamic in your life. When a complex gets activated, it sets in motion a pattern of physical responses, emotional reactions, and adaptive behaviors that mobilize to protect you from what this programming sees as a threat. For example, if you grew up with a mom who you experienced as invasive and controlling, you might have developed the defense of being secretive and tight-lipped about your life and choices to avoid her interference. On an emotional level, you might have felt anger and resentment that she didn’t respect your autonomy or trust your judgment. So when you encounter another person–your partner, a boss, some guy at your kid’s soccer game–who resonates with that “invasive and controlling” dynamic you had with your mom, you get flooded with anger and create a story that you have to protect yourself by withdrawing because they don’t respect your ability to make good choices.

 Over time, these complex-driven strategies start to wear thin and lose their effectiveness, often to the point where they are actively working against your current intentions and ideas for who you want to be. If I’m primed to see my partner as invasive and controlling, as in the above example, I’ll shut down or blow up every time they question something I’ve done or a decision I’ve made, which is going to really hamper the honest and vulnerable communication I need in my relationship (and it will probably activate one of my partner’s complexes in turn!). Since this is all happening outside my awareness, I end up confused as to why I keep reacting this way or embedded in the idea that the problem exists within my partner and they are to blame.

It’s not difficult to see how having something you’re not aware of making decisions for you might be a bit humbling and unsettling–we all want to believe that we’re the captains of our own lives. This is one reason why therapy can be so valuable. Working with a therapist (such as moi) can help bring our patterns and complexes into greater conscious awareness so that we are better able to identify them when they pop up in our lives and to understand our previously incomprehensible behaviors and reactions. This in turn can lead to greater self-compassion and a more open dialogue with the parts of ourselves that perplex and confound us (Internal Family Systems, anyone?). And while awareness and insight alone aren’t sufficient to create lasting change (womp womp), it’s impossible to start that process without them.  

For more info about next steps once you’ve gained some personal awareness, stay tuned for Part II: “Okay, I’ve got some insight…now what do I do with it?