Unconscious Personality Processes
Unconscious personality processes are a subset of unconscious processes that occur in human information processing in the areas of affect, attitudes, cognition, memory, and skilled motor sequences. While all these processes affect personality development, it is the relational unconscious comprising unconscious affects, cognitions, and memories that encodes the nature and quality of our early relationships that most directly affects our adult personality, adjustment, and relationships.
Introduction: The Concept of the Unconscious
…human megalomania will have suffered [a]…wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind…. (Freud 1917, p. 285)
Today, the idea of the unconscious is scientifically indisputable. LeDoux (1998) declared that “…unconscious processing is the rule rather than the exception” (p. 71). Many cognitive and affective processes, including memory, cognition, affect, motivation, and attitudes have an unconscious component. Each of these areas of human functioning may be subsumed under the rubric “unconscious personality processes.”
There have been many reworkings of Freud’s vision of an unconscious powered by repression, a key one of which is the intersubjectivists’ relational unconscious (Kenny 2014). Most of these reworkings represent a shift in the conceptualization of the contents of the unconscious from Freud’s repressed instinctual representatives to dissociated, unformulated self-states that are enacted in interpersonal relationships. These self-states are derived from and represent internalized object relationships operating at various levels of psychological organization. These structures contain not the forbidden impulses, drives, and phantasies of classical psychoanalysis but intolerable affects that have been defensively dissociated to protect against re-traumatization. They cannot be integrated because of the absence of a responsive enough environment. The relational unconscious is fluid in the sense that these defensive processes are responsive to the nature of the caregiving environment and to psychotherapy – greater attunement results in less affective dissociation in fewer affective domains.
The Structure of Memory
Memories can be broadly divided into two main categories – explicit memories (also called declarative memories), which are memories that have been symbolized and can be recalled and verbalized, and implicit memories (also called procedural or nondeclarative memories), which are memories that have never been experienced in symbolic form (Atallah et al. 2004). Experimental evidence from cognitive and memory research has identified distinct neuroanatomical correlates of these two distinct processes – implicit and explicit – in cognition and memory. For example, the hippocampus is essential for explicit but not for implicit memory, which is more closely associated with the amygdale, particularly in fear conditioning.
Memory is activated by either external or internal retrieval cues or both (Rustin and Sekaer 2004). Hence, “each memory is an amalgam of the memory itself and the retrieval cue” (p. 70). Freud used the term “preconscious” to describe processes stored in memory that were readily retrievable, rational, reality-oriented and linked to language, a description akin to the concept of “explicit memory” used in cognitive science today. The term “explicit” defines processes that are conscious, that is, able to be thought about, articulated, and acted upon. Explicit memory can be categorized into semantic memory that stores words and concepts and episodic memory that stores specific events.
The term “implicit” denotes those processes that cannot be consciously retrieved or articulated but are nonetheless expressed in other nonverbal systems such as the sensory, somatic (i.e., psychosomatic illness), or behavioral (i.e., acting out without awareness). Implicit or procedural memories are remembered and stored as gestalt or whole memories that cannot be divided into components. This tends to make them both robust and inflexible because the memory is perceptually bound; it is remembered in the circumstances under which it was laid down (Rovee-Collier and Cuevas 2009). Emotional conditioning, including fear conditioning, does not require conscious awareness of the temporal association between stimuli and responses (LeDoux 1998), nor is language necessary for this implicit form of infant learning/memory because other systems – behavioral, visual, somatic, somatosensory – store infant (preverbal) experiences.
Information is encoded in memory along networks of association whether or not the information is conflictual, and these networks can influence thought and behavior to the extent that they become activated unconsciously …all thought, memory and perception, including our most complex cognitive processes, may actually involve activation of networks of association, where the units or “nodes” on those networks may be as small as a single neuron or set of neurons. (p. 1071)
Another form of implicit memory involves the execution of complex motor sequences such as walking or playing a musical instrument, but these are not relevant to the present discussion.
The Role of Memory in the Relational Unconscious
In addition to the sensory and motor forms of implicit memory, there is a third form – relational, the feeling of being-with-another (Mancia 2006; Bendit 2011). Implicit memory is now understood to be the way in which presymbolic and preverbal experiences of trauma and other mother–infant relations are stored (Kenny 2013, 2014). Infants build networks implicitly, based on their ongoing interactions with their parents and other significant others that Stern (1985) called “implicit relational knowing” or “representations of interactions that have generalized.”
The robustness of implicit memories explains, at least in part, the durable nature of our internal representations, the beliefs, attitudes, and interpersonal behaviors regarding self and others that have formed outside awareness in the early part of the lifespan and which define our “personalities.” They cannot be recalled and are difficult to modify even when variations are introduced. Further, there is some degree of independence between knowledge/memories acquired implicitly compared with those formed under overt, explicit conditions. Many semantic and episodic memories are laid down on a single trial, compared with implicit relational memories, which require many repetitions over time to be encoded.
Chronic maternal misattunements during infancy are coded first implicitly, and later, as language develops, in semantic memory as facts of the kind “nobody cares” or “nobody responds,” “I’m not important” or “I don’t matter.” The experiences thus coded cannot be consciously remembered and therefore are unlikely to be responsive to cognitive therapies such as cognitive reframing. These semantic memories cause intense emotional pain. Subsequent experiences of emotional pain trigger the original unbearable self-state without any recall of their origins, thus giving the present situation the same emotional intensity as the original experience against which the person-as-infant felt helpless. Any form of emotional unresponsiveness from important people is likely to be sufficient to trigger the original abandonment/annihilation fears produced in the original situation during infancy. These representations or ways of knowing are re-enacted in subsequent adult relationships.
The psychological equivalent of the physical response to life-threatening situations – tonic immobility or “playing dead”– is dissociation (another unconscious personality process). Emotional experiences that are too painful or traumatic or are judged to be unacceptable to the primary attachment figure are split off or separated from other emotional states that are more “acceptable” to the caregiver or tolerated by the individual and which can therefore be integrated into one’s sense of self. The intolerable affects remain dissociated, undeveloped, and stored somatically, that is, in the body and tend to be persistent, indelible, and unconscious. This situation creates the risk of rapid shifts from manageable to overwhelming states of mind. Hence, failure of attachment relationships can undermine the development of cortical structures that are associated with both affect regulation and mentalization. The result is chronic hyper-arousal, such as that seen in severe anxiety, which cannot be modulated by mentalizing or seeking comfort from an attachment figure (Schore 2009). Such hyper-arousal is experienced outside of one’s control because the disturbed attachment experiences have resulted in the lack of a stable sense of self with the capacity for symbolic representation of one’s own mental states. Hence, their affect remains intense, confusing, poorly labelled or understood, and above all, unregulated.
The attachment system remains active during adulthood and continues to exert a significant influence on psychological and social functioning. Adults respond to perceived threats with activation of the mental representations of attachment figures laid down in infancy and childhood, as a means of coping and regulating emotions. When these attachment systems are faulty, their activation at times of stress and crisis is likely to result in emotional dysregulation in which anxiety feels unmanageable. Such systems are not able to support the mitigation of distress or the attainment of felt security. Instead, distress is intensified and alternative, secondary attachment strategies involving either hyper-activation or deactivation of the attachment system are triggered.
People who experience attachment-related anxiety, that is, anxious attachment, in which the predominant concern is the unavailability of the attachment figure in times of need, will hyperactivate the attachment system to attract the attention of the emotionally absent caregiver. Expressions of this process include catastrophizing about the severity of the threat, insistence about their need for support to deal with it, behavioral re-enactments, i.e., spontaneous expressions of trauma linked to behaviors in everyday activities, trauma-specific fears, posttraumatic play (in children), phobias, fear avoidance reactions, nightmares, repetitive compulsive behaviors, and obsessional thoughts.
In contrast, those who experience attachment-related avoidance, that is, an avoidant attachment style, distrust their attachment figures and will deactivate the attachment system and minimize the threat or danger in favor of dealing with it alone. Those who are securely attached demonstrate both a strong sense that they can manage the threat and seek support from others to aid their own coping efforts if needed.
Affective processes can be unconscious; people defend against their entry into consciousness using unconscious defense mechanisms (Spezzano 1993). Non-symbolic codes may persist into adulthood for those who have suffered severe psychological trauma in childhood, particularly at the earliest stages of prelinguistic development. The inability to symbolize is accompanied by the use of primitive defenses such as compulsion to repeat, splitting, projective identification, dissociation, fragmentation, and affects that are unmentalized and unregulated.
The relationship between unconscious affect, the use of defenses to keep the affect out of consciousness, and physiological reactivity has been experimentally demonstrated. Clinically derived assessment procedures, such as early memory narratives that assess implicit psychological processes (Shedler et al. 1993) can identify defensive denial of distress, reports of “illusionary mental health” (p. 1117) and associations between denial and physiological reactivity.
Westen (1999) drew the following conclusions from this body of research: (i) affective processing occurs unconsciously with and without the aid of defenses; (ii) people use defenses to keep unconscious thoughts and affects out of awareness; (iii) people may not be able to articulate their feelings because they may not want to know or they have not had to make the link to (unconscious) associations that gave rise to their affects. This is because associative networks that link affects and mental representations are built without conscious awareness.
Research on developmental and unconscious processes has informed our understanding of how memories laid down in infancy arise and are transformed through retrieval cues triggered by subsequent experiences. Gradually over the first 3 years of life, sensory-motor forms of communication give way to verbal and other forms of symbolic communication. These inputs are coded in infants before they acquire language, such that they continue to affect perception, behavior, and relationships into adulthood. There is now recognition of the importance of these early, preverbal stages of development and the existence of both symbolic and nonsymbolic codes of mental functioning that exert significant impacts on personality development in adulthood, many of which remain unconscious (Lecours 2007).
- Freud, S. (1917). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. Volume XVI (1915–1916): Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. In J. Strachey (Ed.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVI (1916–1917): Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis (Part III) (Vol. 16, pp. 241–463). London: Hogarth.Google Scholar
- Kenny, D. T. (2013). Bringing up baby: The psychoanalytic infant comes of age. London: Karnac.Google Scholar
- Kenny, D. T. (2014). From id to intersubjectivity: Talking about the talking cure with master clinicians. London: Karnac.Google Scholar
- LeDoux, J. (1998). The emotional brain. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.Google Scholar
- Rovee-Collier, C., & Cuevas, K. (2009). The development of infant memory. In M. L. Courage (Ed.), The development of memory in infancy and childhood (2nd ed., pp. 11–41). New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
- Spezzano, C. (1993). Affect in psychoanalysis: A clinical synthesis. Hillsdale: Analytic Press.Google Scholar
- Stern, D. N. (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant: A view from psychoanalysis and developmental psychology. London: Karnac.Google Scholar