My hope is that I’ll one day experience the love I long for and I fear that day will never come.
My hope is that, in time, I’ll be successful, and my fear is that I’ll forever be doomed to failure and mediocrity.
My hope is that I’ll eventually experience myself as inherently adequate, confident and good enough. My fear is that I’ll never stop feeling inadequate, anxious and fundamentally “bad”.
Our hopes and fears compliment one another. They are opposite sides of the same coin. Our hopes grow out of our fears, and our fears are the product of our conditioned history.
As a result of our conditioning, we are left with a particular set of deep convictions. Some of these are obviously positive, while others are more obviously negative. We take these negative convictions and find their positive correlate, which then becomes the project that we consciously identify with.
If we feel unworthy of love, then our project is to receive love. If we feel that the world is out to get us, then our project is to overcome this threat by exercising our authority on the world and getting what we want from it.
In many ways, this project is desirable. We set out to overcome the unfortunate convictions of our early childhood by aiming towards something better. The pursuit of this ideal vision pulls us out of despair, motivates us, and gives us a sense of direction. In the process of identifying with this conscious aim, we push the negative conviction into the depths of our unconscious.
All the same, as Freud painstakingly made clear, our conscious intentions (our hopes) are oftentimes overpowered by our unconscious convictions (our fears).
So, somebody who fears that they will never be loved seemingly inexplicably sabotages a relationship just as it seems to provide them with what they’ve always been looking for.
Or, somebody who has always craved success gets anxious, panics and subsequently behaves in a way to ensure that they don’t get where they’re trying to go.
The Freudian View
The Freudian view, as I understand it, is that the unconscious attains its satisfaction in the frustration of the conscious desire. In the conscious mind – the mind that I identify with and am aware of – I am clear that I want success and love. Unconsciously, however, I am convinced that I am not worthy of either. The unconscious exerts its influence over me, and achieves its aim – which is to stay true to its convictions – by impelling me to act out and frustrate my conscious intentions. This is the mechanism at play when are baffled by our behavior.
In this sense, the unconscious is an impediment to growth that needs to be overcome. The way to overcome it is to make “the unconscious conscious”. To uncover and identify its beliefs, pinpoint the origins of those beliefs, and, ultimately, to integrate them into our conscious psyche. In this manner, the unconscious loses its ability to exert its influence over me from the shadows.
Once integrated, my conscious intent to be successful will no longer be thwarted by my unconscious conviction that I am not a successful person. My conscious hope to go left won’t be at the mercy of my unconscious fear that, at the end of the day, I always go right.
In this view, the unconscious is an adversary that must be overcome so that we are more free to pursue and achieve our conscious aims and hopes.
The Issue With It
There is a problem with this view: I am effectively at war with myself. I am in a state of ongoing struggle between my conscious intentions and my unconscious convictions. My unconscious – effectively, me (because what is my unconscious but an aspect of me) – is something that I need to overcome. I am something that I need to overcome.
This is like the fingers trying to overcome the hand to which they are attached. The effort is futile. Even if you cut off the fingers, you are still left with the hand (but not the fingers).
But, do I have a better solution? I just critiqued the father of psychoanalysis, the man who revealed the mysteries of the unconscious to us more fully than anybody before him, and who offered a remedy that, although, flawed, has been shown to be effective (though people will, of course, disagree with that claim).
Well, I don’t, per se, but somebody does. A Buddhist view – a “Fruitional” view offered by the likes of Bruce Tift, Jack Engler and John Wellwood – would advocate for an attitude of basic acceptance of all aspects of ourselves, as opposed to basic struggle against those aspects of our being that we don’t like.
The Buddhist View
The idea here isn’t integration (molding the unconscious into the conscious so that the conscious mind becomes free from unconscious “powers”), but fundamental acceptance of both energies as valid. The Western view, as mentioned, relates to the unconscious as something outside of oneself to be overcome. The Buddhist view, in contrast, sees the unconscious as an inherently valid part of us to be accepted.
This does away with the state of struggle. “Integrate and overcome” becomes “accept and live with”. I am no longer at war with myself.
I look at my hope (my conscious intention) and my fear (my unconscious conviction) at the same time. I want to be successful and I feel unworthy of success. I want be loved and I have a deep belief I’ll never receive it. (I want to go left and, deeper down, I believe myself to be somebody who goes right.)
When I bring each of these out into the open and hold them simultaneously, I do away with the state of struggle between them. I own my fear and my hope. To illustrate this, imagine a horizontal line. Up until this point, “hope” was above that line and “fear” was beneath it.
My efforts were aimed at climbing the ladder of hope, so to speak, and distancing myself from the fear beneath.
But, because the fear was still a part of me, it would exert a certain influence over me, pulling me back down into that which I was trying to escape.
When I acknowledge the fear as an equally valid part of me – a quality of my experience to be accepted instead of repressed – I effectively do away with the horizontal line, the vertical line, the rope and the ladder. I bring my fear into relationship with my hope. A relationship of equals, they now sit side by side.
My subsequent actions, no longer marred by a compulsion to get away from something, can be based on truly conscious choice. I no longer compulsively climb the ladder of hope as a means of escaping my fear, only to be pulled back down again.
Instead, I choose, on a purely practical level, to take a path that leads to success and love. This is a genuine choice (not compulsion) because I am no longer trying to escape some aspect of my experiencing. I simply choose to take a path that leads to success/love for no other reason than that doing so is likely to improve the quality of my life.
I move forward out of curiosity, or for purely practical reasons, but not out of some emotional drama the aim of which is to overcome or escape my fear.
As I move towards what I want, fear in hand, I grow in strength. The fear doesn’t disappear or evaporate, but I grow around it and with it. I become strong enough, confident enough, courageous enough, to move forward, fear and all.
Our deep-rooted, unconscious convictions about our various shortcomings are not a problem to be overcome. It is the way we relate to them – or, more aptly, refuse to relate to them – that makes them appear as such.
The continued effort to suppress that which we don’t want to be aware of gives it power. The higher we climb, the more exhausted we get, and the more the rock threatens to pull us back down.
The secret is, we’re not actually at war with ourselves. We only pretend to be. This game of pretend gives rise to an ongoing experience of struggle – my hope against my fear. Because the struggle is against ourselves, there is no winning. The way to “win”, the way “out”, is to break frame. To realize that the struggle is self-generated. And unnecessary. And futile.
The struggle can be over in a flash, but that requires making our negative convictions – our fears – conscious. Making them equally worthy of our acceptance, love, attention and approval. Hope and fear can exist side by side. In fact, they already do. Let yourself wake up to that fact.
Unburden yourself of the costs that come with pretending that an aspect of yourself can somehow be “not okay”.
Aim towards your desired future not because you need to escape some aspect of yourself, but simply because it sounds interesting and worth the journey. Move towards that future with both your hope and your fear as valid aspects of your experiencing.
Note: If you feel that you could use support in identifying those unconscious fears/convictions and in allowing them to exist as you pursue the life you want, I’d be happy to assist you in that process.