NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Making Big Changes: The Role of the Unconscious and Why You Might Not Be Able to "Just Do It"

Making a major change in your life--even a change you really want--can be challenging.  Many self help books and motivational coaches urge people to "just do it!" as if you could just power through to automatically change.  Although this might be true sometimes, this is a superficial view of what it takes to overcome an emotional block you might encounter when you want to make a big change. What is often overlooked is the role of the unconscious mind in the change process (see my articles: Making the Unconscious Conscious and Experiential Therapy and the Mind-Body Connection: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Making Big Changes: Why You Might Not Be Able to "Just Do It"

On the surface, it seems logical: You want to make a change in your life, so you make a decision to do it and it gets done. But we now know that most of mental processing occurs on an unconscious level. 

So, although you might think you can just push yourself to make a major change, your unconscious mind initiates the process or, as often happens, gets in the way of your making the change.

Clinical Vignette
The following vignette, which is a composite of many cases with all identifying information removed, illustrates how the unconscious can get in the way of making a major change and how experiential therapy can help:

When Alice came to therapy, she was frustrated and confused about why she was procrastinating with starting a new project she really wanted to do, which involved a major change for her.

Alice told her therapist that there was no doubt in her mind that she wanted to take advantage of this new opportunity to write for a prestigious journal. She knew that being able to publish her scholarly articles would give her the professional exposure she wanted and open up new doors for her.  

And yet, she explained, whenever she thought about submitting her articles to the journal editors, she felt so much anxiety that she got a headache and upset stomach. She tried to reason with herself that there was nothing to cause her discomfort, but she still felt so anxious that she couldn't even sit at her computer.

This left Alice feeling confused and frustrated because she just couldn't understand what was holding her back.  She was also aware that if she procrastinated too long, the editors might withdraw their offer and she didn't want that to happen.  So, to buy herself some time, she negotiated a delay and the editors accommodated her, but she knew she couldn't delay indefinitely.

Prior to coming to therapy, Alice worked with a life coach to help her to get motivated.  The life coach gave Alice various exercises to do, including writing about her core values.  He encouraged her by telling her to remember her past successes, and he also advised her to do affirmations about her new goal. But nothing worked--she still felt sick whenever she thought of this new opportunity.

Not only was she unable to start, but she also felt like there was something seriously wrong with her because her inaction didn't make sense to her.  Her life coach advised Alice that whatever was creating the obstacle for her was beyond the scope of coaching, and he advised her to seek help in therapy so she could work on a deeper level.

Alice's therapist explained to her that, even though, on a conscious level, Alice wanted this opportunity, she was encountering an unconscious block that was getting in the way.  She also explained how they could uncover this block using Experiential Therapy (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Regular Talk Therapy).

Her therapist described the various types of Experiential Therapy, which use the mind-body connection, like EMDR therapy, AEDPSomatic Experiencing and clinical hypnosis,. She explained how these modalities uncover and overcome the emotional blocks that were getting in Alice's way (see my article: The Unconscious Mind and Experiential Therapy).

Over time, Alice's therapist helped Alice to get into a relaxed state so she could use a method called the Affect Bridge to go back to the earliest time when she felt this type of anxiety.  Her therapist explained the Affect Bridge could get to the root of what was triggering Alice's anxiety to uncover the problem.

During one of the sessions using the Affect Bridge, Alice recalled a memory she had not remembered in a long time:  When she was in high school, she came home from school feeling very excited because her English teacher said she wanted to recommend Alice to be a writer on the school newspaper.  Alice loved to write and she had always wanted to write for the paper. But when she told her mother about it, her mother frowned and told her, "Don't forget where we come from."  

Since Alice was a very obedient child and she knew her mother disapproved of her writing for the high school paper, she turned down the opportunity, which made her sad; however, she didn't want to make her mother unhappy.

Later on in that same therapy session, when her therapist was debriefing her, Alice explained that her parents immigrated from Eastern Europe just before Alice was born.  They had very little money when they came and they relied heavily on other family members, who were already in New York, to help them until Alice's father was able to get a job.  They often recalled their impoverished circumstances and the importance of family by saying, "Don't forget--always put family first."

Recalling that memory also prompted other memories where her mother disapproved of other opportunities that were presented to Alice.  Each time it was as if her mother believed that these opportunities would create a wedge between Alice and her.  

Even the thought of Alice going to college was fraught for her mother--until Alice's guidance counselor convinced her mother that Alice would have better job opportunities if she went to college.  This was something her mother understood because it involved work and survival, so she relented, but she wouldn't allow Alice to go away, so she had to go to a local college.

Recalling those memories caused Alice a lot of sadness and anger.  Even though she loved her family and she had been especially close to her mother, she wished she had been able to defy her mother to take advantage of these opportunities.  But, she explained, as a teenager, she didn't dare.  She was too afraid of standing up to her mother, and she believed it would break her mother's heart.

"But why is this affecting me now?" Alice asked her therapist, "I'm 45 years old, and both of my parents are long gone" (see my article:  Reacting to Your Present Circumstances Based on Your Traumatic Past).

As they continued to work together using Experiential Therapy, Alice realized that, even though her mother was no longer alive, her internal experience of her mother still had a powerful influence on her.  She realized that her mother didn't understand and she feared that if Alice took advantage of these opportunities, Alice would begin to move away from her family emotionally or physically.

Gradually, Alice also realized that, unconsciously, she was still trying to appease and reassure her mother that she was still loyal to her family.  Even though her parents had been dead for a number of years, this unconscious wish was still very much a part of her.

After Alice had this realization, she knew it was not only important to her career that she write for the journal--it was also important for her emotional development to stop operating under these longstanding unconscious thoughts. 

So, with some mixed feelings, she submitted her first article to the journal.  She also continued to work in therapy to grieve for what for the opportunities she missed in the past and to overcome some lingering guilt she felt about doing something she knew her mother would have felt threatened by if she were still alive.

Experiential Therapy Helps You to Overcome Emotional Blocks

Her therapist helped Alice to work through the earlier trauma using EMDR therapy, so Alice was able to let go of the remaining emotional blocks and work on her new project without guilt or hesitation.

The unconscious mind has a powerful role in your decision-making.  So when you encounter an obstacle in making a decision or moving forward with a plan, your unconscious mind is likely involved.

Sometimes there's an old unconscious emotional block, like "I'm not good enough" or "I'm unlovable," which is out of your awareness, which keeps you from making the changes you want (see my article: Overcoming the Internal Critic and Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

Experiential therapy can help you to make the unconscious conscious, as illustrated in the vignette above, so you're free to live fully in the present without trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you've been struggling with a problem despite your best efforts to solve it, you could benefit from working with an experiential therapist.

Rather than struggling on your own, you can overcome the obstacles holding you back so you can live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 or email me.