Forget the Unconscious; An Essay

by Claude Steiner PhD

Often in discussing transactional analysis with fellow professionals I find that they express astonishment over our apparent rejection of "the unconscious."

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Clearly, consciousness is only the tip of the mental iceberg. We have been accused of being over-simple but we are not so simple as to doubt that obvious fact. 

Let me first state Berne’s position. Berne was always respectful of psychoanalytic theory and at no time quibbled with any of the major concepts in that system. He simply believed that there was a better way of curing patients and he agreed with Freud that psychoanalysis probably was not an effective method to produce cures. Berne was a logical positivist and an admirer of Ludwig Wittgenstein who was a vehement supporter of speaking only of the observable and verifiable.

Regarding concepts such as masochism, transference or the unconscious he wanted us to use them in a precise manner, as defined by Freud. Masochism, he reminded us is the sexual enjoyment of pain; he objected to the use of masochism in the vulgar sense of self-defeating behavior. The unconscious is not merely subconscious, preconscious or out of awareness but dynamically repressed Oedipal ideation kept out of awareness by a certain amount of permanently cathected energy..

A huge amount of significant "mental" –neural-- activity takes place out of awareness that is not, in the psychoanalytic sense, unconscious. It is also quite possible that some ideation is not merely out of awareness but dynamically repressed in the manner described by Freud. Those legitimate, unconscious phenomena should not be confused with simple unawareness. Often what gets defined as unconscious is simply an idea that the client, who didn’t trust his therapist sufficiently chose to keep to him or herself; to call that idea unconscious is what Berne called a "jazzy" excuse for the therapist’s lack of attunement skills.

Any one who wants to be precise as Berne did will avoid the indiscriminate use of the unconscious concept. For myself , as a transactional analyst who believes in talking only about that which I can examine with my senses, I seldom use the term, and never in therapy except "between quotes.".

The unconscious, the id, the seething cauldron are colorful, historically useful, enormously popular metaphors whose reality is, so far, unverifiable. (since whatever is dynamically repressed is not readily available for measurement) When discussed, it is probably best spoken about with a healthy skepticism.

A matter, you might say, of semantics. Yet more needs to be said. There is tension within transactional analysis regarding its relationship, past and present, with psychoanalysis (PA). No one can argue that our theory is not connected to PA; Berne’s early training was certainly psychoanalytic and permanently influenced him. Everyone who thinks psychologically today is informed by psychoanalysis: we fully accept the fact that childhood events affect us a grown ups, that childhood sexuality is a fact and a determinant of our personalities and, of course, that consciousness is only a fraction of our mental life.

But there is something else operating within TA regarding psychoanalytic thinking and practice. A colleague recently stated in a letter to me that "the reality is that where TA is thriving -attracting trainees and publishable material, the interest is towards developing its psychoanalytic roots." I certainly see (and regard with alarm) the interest toward developing the psychoanalytic roots of TA, which I suppose I have made sufficiently clear, is both regressive and lacking in courage. I know those are strong words but I cannot find a better, less offensive way of expressing what I believe is going on. Regressive because it is going back historically within a discipline (transactional analysis) which was developed by Berne as a counterpoint, and in dialectical opposition to (PA). Lacking in courage because it takes a safe, armchair, philosophical, one-to-one, mental approach to the world's most pressing problems when what we need is a risk-taking, pragmatic, action oriented, group based approach. TA needs practitioners who are proud to be just that--transactional analysts-- instead of dissimulating their allegiance to TA and taking safe haven in their consulting rooms, cozy with psychoanalytic ideation and its tortured, largely unread prose.

I am firmly committed to offer an alternative to this "interest toward developing psychoanalytic roots." My guess is that TA thrives wherever it is taught because it is TA. When it is taught with "psychoanalytic tendencies," people are interested in spite of them rather that because of them. What makes TA thrive are TA's core concepts on one hand and trainers who are fair, loving and devoted on the other.

Ultimately my position concerning Berne's contribution—that all there is to know about people can be learned from their transactions--is that it was as farsighted in his time as Freud's was in his and that it has not even begun to be understood, even within TA, and even as it has already influenced the helping professions indelibly.

Claude Steiner

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