Ways To Uncover The Unconscious Motivations That Are Holding You Back
Many of the problems people struggle with have clear, on-the-surface explanations. For example:
- They're not good at making small talk, because they never learned the principles behind it, or got much chance to practice them.
- They're afraid of the dentist, because they had a painful, traumatic experience while getting a root canal ten years ago.
- They get so-so grades in university, because they have poor study skills, untreated ADHD, and don't really feel passionate about their major.
- They have periods of depression and mania, because they have Bipolar Disorder.
And there are many ways they can address these issues on that observable, surface level:
- Reading some tips on making conversation, then spending some time testing them out
- Learning a mix of anxiety management skills
- Learning how to catch and challenge the irrational thinking that sustains their worries
- Gradually facing their fears in real life
- Processing the memories of the upsetting events at the heart of their fears
- Improving their study and time management skills, rethinking their career path
- Finding the right medication, if they have a condition with an established biological cause
Sometimes these approaches work. A student procrastinates too much, they learn some tips to motivate themselves to get started, problem solved. At other times these methods help somewhat, but they don't completely fix the issue. Occasionally they don't work at all. Someone may say, "I realize my anxiety is illogical, and I know a dozen relaxation techniques, but it won't go away" or, "I can't seem to stop putting everything off until the last second. I don't want to tank my grades, but I can't seem to change. I've tried every trick in the book and nothing sticks."
In these cases there may be a hidden, unconscious motivation behind their behavior. When I say a motivation is "unconscious" I just mean you aren't aware of it. I'm not claiming everyone's behavior is driven by kooky Freudian dynamics, like that we all want to kill our fathers and marry our mothers.
There are two common types of unconscious motivation, and they're more mundane than anything like an Oedipus Complex:
- Being out of touch with the painful emotions connected to an event - It's possible to fully repress the memory of a difficult or traumatic incident. However, what happens more often is someone will be aware it happened, but disconnected from how it actually made them feel at the time. They'll tell themselves it wasn't that big a deal and didn't affect them much. Actually, their true unresolved pain is still locked in their mind, and colors how they respond to similar situations years later.
For example, a woman is offered a job in a different part of the country, and is surprisingly anxious about the thought of accepting. She's not sure why, as it's a great opportunity and well within her abilities. She moved a ton as a kid, and consciously looks back on it as a bit annoying, but not that bad. Actually, she found it really upsetting. It was awful having to always be the new kid, and then leave her friends a year or two later. She felt like nothing in her life was safe or stable. But at the time she pushed all that down, because her parents praised her when she acted "mature" and "independent". She's lived in the same city for years as an adult, but her old, unacknowledged feelings are coming up again at the thought of moving once more.
- Inaccurate "rules" or "lessons" about life you observed as a kid - As children we quietly take in our environment and form conclusions about how the world works. Sometimes we're consciously aware of the observations we make. At other times we're not. Our mind makes an unspoken assumption about life, which can be based on skewed "kid logic", and then starts operating under that rule. The rule may make no sense, but it can't be questioned because you don't know you have it.
For example, despite hating and knowing about the pattern, and trying his best to resist it, a guy is always in the middle of some kind of crisis. Growing up his parents were busy and self-absorbed. They only seemed to show him any affection or attention when he was sick or injured. His preschooler brain concluded, "I can only get love and support when I need help."
If you've hit a wall trying to treat your issues on a surface level, you may be able to reach another level of progress by digging around for any unconscious motivations that may be driving them. Once you've unearthed a previously hidden motivation it's much easier to work with. You can process and release the true emotions associated with upsetting moments from your past. You can hold old "life lessons" up to the light, and they'll often fall apart when you can finally see how outdated and inaccurate they are. A belief or emotion can exert a lot of influence when it's buried and free from scrutiny, but once you know about them they lose much of their power.
That's not to say simply discovering an unconscious motivation will always instantly cure all your problems. Sometimes you'll examine a newly discovered belief, and it will still seem true on a gut level. There's more digging to be done about why it feels so true. Sometimes you'll uncover an assumption or disowned emotion behind one of your insecurities, and successfully deal with it, but it's only one of seven separate unconscious factors keeping your low self-esteem afloat. Again, you've got to go back and poke around your mind for the rest.
Techniques for uncovering your unconscious motivations
Uncovering the unconscious factors that drive your issues isn't always quick or easy. Here are a variety of tools to do it. You may need to throw several at each issue before you find one that works. A tool that does an amazing job of discovering one hidden belief may be a dud on the next one. You also need to practice each technique, as well as the broader skill of tuning into your mind and body and watching what appears.
First, working with a therapist can be helpful
It's possible to explore your mind on your own, but it is easier to do with a counselor who works from this perspective. There are a few reasons:
- When you're exploring your mind you need to be on the receiving end of a technique, then relax and tune into your inner world to see what comes up. It's hard to be in both headspaces at the same time, where one part of you is the "therapist" giving the instructions, and another is the "client" who's concentrating to see what appears in response. If you're with a counselor they can worry about running the show, and all you have to do is focus on how your mind responds.
- A therapist can help you see your blind spots. Even if you're deliberately trying to find your unconscious motivations, you may miss what's right in front of your face. Parts of your mind may not think it's safe to uncover certain material, and subtly hinder your search. A counselor can help you explore areas you wouldn't have thought to investigate, or spend a bit more time with things you'd instinctively rush past. They have the training and experience to know where you might need to look.
- They can help you work past mental blocks to using the techniques. Again, a part of you may be invested in your not solving your problems. A therapist can keep you on track if your mind goes blank, you suddenly feel an inner resistance to going further, and whatnot.
- You're more likely to get distracted or zone out when you try to do this work by yourself. You'll lay down on the couch with the intent to probe your mind, then want to get up and do the dishes a minute later. In a counseling session you've set aside some time for this task, and the therapist is taking the lead. Again, you can relax into the role of just tuning into what your mind shows you.
- If you've been through more severe trauma it's riskier to explore your unconscious on your own. It's not that it can never be done, but you're likelier to stumble on something that triggers intense emotions and makes things worse. A therapist can help you explore slowly and safely, and be there to help you recover if you step on a landmine.
Again, I'm not saying you have to hire a counselor. By all means try some of these methods by yourself first. But this is honestly one area where you can make quicker progress with a professional by your side.
Here are the actual techniques:
Quietly sit with a memory or concept and see what emotions come up
Sometimes we're not in touch with our true emotions around an event because we've never set aside some time to actually consider how we feel about it. Every time it comes up we quickly find a way to brush it aside. Here are the steps:
- Decide on a specific memory (e.g., the time my parents got into a fight in front of everyone after my middle school play) or broader concept (e.g., my parents fought a lot when I was a kid) to focus on. It could be something you know you have at least some emotional reaction to, but you want to explore it further, or it could currently not evoke any emotion, but you suspect there could be more there.
- Take some time to get a clear sense of the memory or concept. Create a vivid image of it in your head.
- Do your best to turn your inner monologue off and just quietly sit and tune into what emotions come up in your body. Pay attention to what physical changes are happening. Is your heart beating faster? Are you clenching your jaw? Do you have that "about to cry" feeling in your eyes? Is your neck getting hot and flushed? What emotion do those changes represent?
- If you can identify an emotion, like anger, observe it for a while and see what happens. If there's a faint spark on an emotion, see if it grows with some attention. After doing that for a bit gently see if there are any other emotions alongside it. Is there some sadness or fear beneath the anger?
- As you sit with your emotional reaction to the initial event or concept, see if your mind naturally shifts to a related one. Repeat the process. For example, your thoughts drift to memories of your uncles fighting, and you see what feelings come up to that.
This exercise can feel foreign and difficult if you're not used to turning the intellectual, analytical part of your brain off and getting in touch with your feelings, but you can build that skill with practice.
You may uncover emotions connected to the event you didn't realize were there. Like you may have known you were embarrassed about your parents fighting in front of your friends, but weren't aware of how angry you were at them. Or you could find you have a complicated, mixed reaction to an event you could have sworn you felt nothing about at all.
Float Back Technique
This can help you get to the origin of stubborn or perplexing issues.
- Think of a behavior, belief, pattern, emotion, etc. you're confused about, e.g., being afraid of commitment, even though a part of you wants to settle down
- Take a minute to bring the associated feeling up in your body. It helps to think of a recent time when you felt that emotion, or the behavior appeared (e.g., your awesome new boyfriend mentioned meeting his friends, a sudden wave of fear passed through you, and you made an excuse to put it off a few weeks. When you think back on it you feel tense in your neck and upper chest.)
- Sit with the feeling for a moment, then ask yourself, "When did I first feel this way? When's the earliest I can recall experiencing this?"
- Don't try to consciously rifle through your memories and deduce what the answer is. Try to quietly sit with your mind and let something naturally bubble up. Be patient if it doesn't arise instantly. If an answer appears, take note of it, then see if anything else comes up later.
- If you get a memory from age 10 or older, note it, then see if you can get anything from a younger age.
You may get a memory of an event you already knew was linked to your issue. In that case try using the previous technique to see if there are any repressed emotions associated with it. You might also get a memory that surprises you, and you'll see a connection you hadn't thought of until now. Explore that further.
Downward Arrow Technique
This is a way to drill down to the core beliefs at the heart of your issues. You'll see it often used in the later stages of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, though it hardly owns the broad concept.
- Start with a fear, thought, or belief connected to your problems.
- Ask yourself one or more of the following questions, depending on which seem to fit best: What does it mean if this is true? What would be bad if this was true? Why is this important? Of course, you can fiddle with the wordings to make them match the starting phrase.
- Whatever your answer is, ask the same questions for it. Keep doing this until it feels like you've hit on a fundamental belief about yourself, other people, or the world.
Here's an example:
- "I'm nervous to ask my co-workers to hang out."
- "Why is this important?"
- "I want to make friends, but what if they say no?"
- "How would that be bad if it was true?"
- "I'd worry they'd tell everyone else at work how desperate I am."
- "How would that be bad if it was true?"
- "Then everyone else at work would laugh at me and I'd be the office reject."
- "How would that be bad if it was true?"
- "I'd feel terrible and humiliated. Every day they'd find new ways to mock me."
- "What does this mean if it's true?"
- "It would confirm my suspicion that everyone's awful and mean-spirited deep down."
- "How would that be bad if it was true?"
- "I'd know for sure everyone's a jerk, and I'm alone in the world."
- "How would that be bad if it was true?"
- "I'm helpless and can't cope on my own."
That example ended with core beliefs about other people being mean and untrustworthy, and being all alone and unable to take care of yourself. It's easy to see how it could have landed on something else, like feeling worthless or unattractive.
Sometimes you'll reach a point where you could go down one of two branches, like you have two separate answers about why you're afraid of being turned down. You can follow one branch to the end, then go back and finish the other one. You might unearth a different core belief each time.
Feel into an upsetting emotion
It can be hard to get at our unconscious motivations when we're in a calm, analytical mood. We have more access to them when our emotions are charged up. When we feel a distressing emotion our first instinct is to try to make it go away, but if you turn toward it and see what's there you might uncover something useful. This technique can be uncomfortable in the moment, but the payoff may be worth it.
Only try this with emotions that are distressing, but bearable. If one feels intolerably painful, don't play with fire.
- Ideally you'll naturally be feeling the emotion you want to delve into, like anxiety over the thought of asking your boss for a raise. The end result may not be as strong, but you can also try to call up the emotion by vividly imagining a recent time when you felt that way.
- If you're feeling the emotion, but it's a tad too intense, see if you can use some relaxation techniques to calm yourself a little. You don't want the feeling to go away entirely, but take it down a notch so it's not too uncomfortable and distracting.
- Once the emotion is at a workable level, quietly sit with it for a minute or two. Feel how it physically appears in various spots in your body.
- Without thinking about it too much, start making statements that speak from the emotion. Repeat each one a few times. Test out various phrases and see which ones feel true right now on a gut level.
- If a statement lands and feels very true and seems to amplify the emotion or change it to another upetting one, start repeating it. Your emotions may increase further, and another statement may come to mind. Keep doing this until it feels like you've landed on something meaningful.
- Again, if the emotion gets a bit too strong, back off a little and take some time to let it cool off.
For example, you get in touch with the anxiety around asking your boss for a raise. You let yourself feel the anxiety and sink into it. You start repeating test phrases like, "I can't do it", "It's too scary", "What if she says no?", and "What if she fires me?" The last one lands, and you repeat "What if she fires me?" for another thirty seconds. You start to feel sad and the phrase, "I'll be out of work and have no one to rely on" pops into your head. You start repeating that and really begin to feel down. You suddenly think, "No one cares about me", and that really hits you hard. You're starting to tear up as you repeat, "No one cares about me". You also get a memory of your Dad moving to another country when you were five.
That no one cares about you is obviously a deep emotional truth, and in some way connected to your fear of asking for a higher salary. With that and the memory of your Dad moving away, you've got a lot of material to investigate further.
Guess at the origin of an issue
If you're not sure what may be at the root of something, try guessing about it from various angles. Even if it feels like you're making stuff up at random you may still unintentionally draw on your own experiences and spit out something surprising you can look into further. Here are some options:
- Ask yourself, "If I had to take a wild guess about what caused this issue, what's the first thing that comes to mind?" - Try to answer quickly without thinking too much. You don't want to go into a Careful Analysis mindset, but to speak off the cuff and see if your mind fills in a gap for you.
- Ask, "If someone else was having my issue, what would its origin story likely be?" - What life experiences would they have? Who would have taught them to think or behave a certain way? Again, try not to spend too much time crafting an answer.
- "If I had to make up an imaginary backstory for myself to explain my current struggles, what would it be?" - For example, someone improvises a backstory that could explain why they feel like they're not good enough. They spin a tale of a little kid whose parents signed them up for a lot of extracurricular activities, leading them to believe their Mom and Dad didn't like them and wanted them out of the house. They pause and think, "Whoa.... where did that come from? Why did I say that of all things? Though come to think of it I was always kind of torn about having to do so much stuff after school..."
If you consistently struggle at a certain time of year, ask if anything was going on at that time in your past
Someone may know they always feel depressed and grouchy in March because that's when their mother died. However, at times we'll be disconnected from the old event that kicks off a rough patch every year like clockwork. If you always feel sad, fearful, or angry at a particular time of year, take a moment to think about whether anything significant happened at that time while you were growing up. Sometimes you'll hit on an obvious connection that you were somehow blind to all this time.
Make a list of all the things that trigger your issue
For example, if you have bouts of worry or hopelessness, write down all the little things that set it off. When you write everything out you may spot a larger theme you couldn't see when you were focused on one episode at a time. For example, someone may already know they're prone to worrying when they're reminded about their family obligations, but not realize they can also slip into that mindset when they feel envious of a friend or colleague.
Imagine yourself getting an amplified message about your issue
If you have a belief about yourself, like "I'm not good enough", imagine a situation where you receive an exaggerated version of it, then see what comes up.
- Picture yourself in a movie theater with the words "You're not good enough" displayed on the screen in huge letters.
- Imagine being surrounded by a crowd of people all telling you you're not good enough.
The extreme imaginary scenario may lure out memories or associations you wouldn't normally get to if you were just sitting around dwelling on your insecurities in a more typical way.
Coherence Therapy is a counseling method based around the premise that many personal problems have a functional unconscious purpose. This technique, and the next two, are some of the core methods it uses to explore what those purposes may be.
- Think of a recent situation where your unwanted symptom, like anxiety, low self-esteem, or procrastination, appeared. For example, you were at a party and wanted to approach some guests you didn't know, but stuck with your one friend the whole night.
- Take some time to vividly imagine yourself in that scene. See the world through your eyes. Fill in what you can hear, touch, smell, and taste.
- Imagine the moment before the symptom came up, the lead up to feeling anxious, worthless, deciding to put off a chore, and so on.
- Imagine yourself not having the unwanted symptom, and beginning to act how you would if it was absent (e.g., at the party you excuse yourself from your friend, then confidently walk up to another group and introduce yourself.)
- As you imagine being free of the symptom, tune into how you're feeling. Are you uncomfortable in some way? Do you feel tense, nervous, sad, lonely, reluctant, angry, or as if you're bracing for something to go wrong?
- if it's there, sit with that feeling of discomfort. Try to get a sense of what feels true when you're in that mindset. Give it some time if nothing comes to you right away. For example, you may feel uncomfortable at the thought of acting socially confident, and when you stay with that feeling you slowly realize you believe if you made more friends you're going to want to stay in town, and you don't want that to happen because you fear you'll end up like your dead end relatives. A part of you wants to keep being lonely, so you'll be motivated to move away.
If you give this technique an honest go and can't seem to connect with a downside of your problem symptom being gone, try the next one.
Two-Step Symptom Deprivation
With this method rather than imagining not having the problem symptom itself, you think about what trait, behavior, or attitude change you'd need in order to stop it. You then imagine a detailed scene in which you possess that trait, see if any discomfort comes up, and check into whether it reveals anything.
For example, someone feels angry and is prone to starting arguments. They try the regular Symptom Deprivation exercise but don't feel any discomfort at the thought of their angry or argumentative nature being gone. It seems like nothing but upsides. They think about what it would take not to feel angry and decide they would need to truly believe most people have good intentions and aren't out to get them. They imagine going to the office with this mentality and start to feel uneasy. They realize they have a deep sense that they'd be weak and vulnerable if they were fundamentally trusting. They feel safe and powerful when they're grouchy.
This one can seem gimmicky at first, but as always, you may be surprised at what comes out of your mouth.
- Come up with the beginning of a sentence about why it's either good to have your problem symptom, or bad not to have it. E.g., "When I come across as quiet and insecure, part of me wishes..." or "I can't be confident and outgoing, because..."
- Say the start of the sentence, then without hesitating or thinking too much, say a phrase that completes it. Almost let the sentence finish itself.
- Keep repeating the start of the sentence and finishing it until nothing more comes to mind. Don't judge or overanalyze what you say. Just keep going as long as you can. E.g., "I can't be confident and outgoing because... I'll get rejected... everyone will hate me... I'll make a fool out of myself... I'll get too full of myself and hurt my friends... wait, what did I just say?"
Try out a few sentences to see if some of them are more productive than others. You might find you don't think of much when you word it in terms of why it's useful to have the problem, but get lots of ideas when you're thinking about what could go wrong if you didn't have it. The first few sentence endings may be fears or motivations you're already well aware of, but later ones may catch you off guard.
Investigate your anxious fantasies about scary outcomes
When we're worried about something our minds will spontaneously come up with scary images of our worst-case scenarios. Usually these mental movies make us more nervous, and we try to make them go away in one manner or another. If you step into the imaginary scenario and explore it you can sometimes gain some clarity about what's really behind your anxiety. Why are you so scared of this one horrible future, out of all the other things that could go wrong that you don't give a second thought to?
First, take a moment to call up your anxiety-inducing worst-case scenario. You know the broad situation or theme, but what are you actually picturing? Where are you? What are you doing? For example, you're worried about messing up at work, getting fired, and becoming homeless. You get mental images of driving around in your car, looking for a parking lot to sleep in without being disturbed.
From here there are several things you can try:
- Ask what happened in the "..." - So you messed up at work, got fired... and became homeless. In your imagination the time between making a mistake on the job and being on the streets is almost instant, but in real life a lot of additional things would need to go wrong before you had nowhere to live. Ask yourself what you assume happened in that "..." What went awry that you weren't able to salvage the situation. Maybe after reflecting on it you realize you believe you couldn't go to anyone for help if you were unemployed and running out of money. You have a deeper fear that no one cares about you and is willing to support you, and that's why you're so excessively afraid of getting something wrong at work.
- Ask yourself what traits you'd need to avoid the worst-case scenario - Why are so quick to assume you'd end up destitute if you lost one job? What traits are you missing that would allow you to pull out of that dive? Again, you might realize you lack the confidence or faith in humanity to ask anyone for help, and that's tied into a deeper fear of being abandoned.
- Ask if the emotions you feel in the worst-case scenario scene remind you of anything - I'm not saying to feel the general anxiety about your future falling apart. I mean to imagine yourself in a grounded, realistic scene of the feared scenario, then tune into how you feel there. Then use the already-mentioned Float Back Technique to see if it reminds you of anything from your past. For example, you picture yourself driving around searching for a secluded parking lot to sleep in. You feel vulnerable, like you're sneaking around and looking for a hiding spot. You realize you felt this way in the fourth grade, when you tried to avoid bullies in the hallway. You unconsciously imagine a homeless future as being equivalent to how weak and scared you felt in elemantary school. You're so scared of ending up there because your feelings about that time in your life are unresolved.
- Play the scene out further - Sometimes when you imagine a scary scenario you jump right to the awful conclusion. At other times you picture a more mundane day-to-day part of it, and there's just this vague assumption something bad will happen soon. E.g., your mind goes to that image of searching for a parking lot to camp in for the night. Okay, so you're driving around. Then what goes wrong? Do you not find anywhere to sleep, and feel miserable as you try to stay awake all night? Do you find a spot, then get attacked by comic book hoodlums in the middle of the night? Do you get discovered by the police and thrown in jail? Once you have a better sense of how you think you'll suffer, you can apply one of the other approaches on this sub-list. Like if you're afraid of being locked up, why do you assume the cops will be so hard on you?
- Pause the scene at the beginning and see what comes up - We get anxious. We imagine a scary situation. We then get sucked into the fantasy and start thinking about how it will go badly, or begin strategizing about how we could survive in it. Instead, wherever the scene starts, stop there and notice what's going on inside. For example, in your mind you appear in the middle of your parking lot search. If you let the search play out and tuned into that you'd get the feelings from the previous example, about being hunted and vulnerable. If you pause before the mental video starts you may get something else. Like you may get this insecure, uncertain, antsy feeling, and if you do the Float Back technique you'll realize it reminds you of how you felt before starting university, when you were really worried about living away from home.
I made each sub-technique bring up something different mainly to give some variety to the examples, but you may find it actually goes this way for you when you use this appraoch. If there are a lot of unconscious factors feeding into one anxious worry, different techniques may bring out their own material.
Parts work or ego-state work
This one is way more complicated, and there are whole counseling methods based around it, like Internal Family Systems therapy, so I can only give a broad overview and point you at other sources.
In parts work, a.k.a. ego-state work, you imagine your different behaviors, urges, opinions, and patterns as separate entities, then talk to them and learn how they believe they're helping you, what old wounds they carry, and so on. It's not that you literally believe you have multiple personalities, more that by talking to your various parts in an imaginative, symbolic way you can often access material you couldn't get at by logically trying to analyze yourself. Parts work can seem flaky and woo-woo at first, but it can be surprisingly powerful.
What do I mean by "parts"? Here's an example everyone understands right away. Let's say you get home from a long day at work. There's a part of you that wants you to go to the gym, then cook a healthy dinner when you get back. Another part of you wants to order a pizza and unwind by watching a movie. Each is still a piece of "you", but they represent different urges or life strategies. One wants you to be disciplined and healthy. The other wants you to enjoy yourself and relax.
If you did parts work with these parts you'd flesh them out and turn them into their own characters. You'd let your mind automatically fill in the details rather than consciously forcing it. You may get a mental image of the Healthy Part as looking like you, but with rigid posture and dressed as a stuffy teacher. The Relaxer Part may appear as a cartoon hippy. You could then converse with each part and ask what job they do in your mind, how they're trying to help and so on. The Relaxer may tell you its role is to help you enjoy life, lighten up, and not work yourself to death.
That kind of information alone can be useful, but you can go a step further by asking a part what it's afraid would happen if it stopped doing its role, and when it first learned that worry was valid. The Relaxer may say it's afraid you'd turn into a boring, passionless robot if all you did was try to work and optimize your health. It may tell you it first came online after high school, where you were lonely because all you did was study, and you were deeply lonely. It doesn't want you to go back to that phase in your life.
A part that wants you to chill out is fairly benign. You can also get to know parts you're less keen on, like insecure or self-critical ones. They can also tell you how they ultimately think they're trying to help, and what adverse events created them.
Aside from parts that carry out various broad strategies like "Stay healthy", "Relax and have fun", or "Always be critical of yourself so you avoid making an embarrassing mistake", there are also ones that mainly hold onto painful old emotions. Like there may be an eight-year-old part that carries the fear and sadness of getting sick and having to spend a week in the hospital. Working with these parts can reveal upsetting events and emotions you didn't know still bothered you.
Again, that's a very simplified overview, and not nearly enough to do parts work on yourself. If you want to know more I recommend the book Self-Therapy by Jay Earley. It's a readable, practical guide on how to do parts work on yourself using the principles of Internal Family System (IFS) therapy. You could also search for articles or videos on IFS. It's not the only kind of counseling that does parts work, but it's organized and fleshed out, and fairly popular at the moment.