Being human means that we all have different impulses, instincts and emotions … they become feelings once we have processed them and put them into words and can acknowledge and recognise them. Strangely in certain circumstances this reality is denied which means that we can only have a number of feelings (e.g. happy, joyful, and perhaps sad) but some of the others seem to be seen as inappropriate (e.g. hatred, anger, envy and depression) so they remain as instincts and emotions rising in us but unable to be acknowledged and so the energy behind them cannot then be constructively used. Unfortunately as both negative and positive emotions are part of being human the negative ones have to go somewhere so they inevitably get repressed and then acted out – but unconsciously.
Here’s an example:
Susan is helping serve the tea and coffee at a church meeting. She gets there at 7 for coffee at 7.15 and the meeting at 7.30. She arrives carrying the milk and biscuits to find Ann already there. Ann has put out a table with some cups and found some old milk somewhere. Ann says to Susan: ‘I’m helping you this evening but I was told to get here for 6.45. I hope you don’t mind but I’ve set it all up?’ Ann is smiling so much it seems as if her face will crack, but she is also anxiously reiterating, ‘I hope you weren’t cross that I set it up; I know that if you’re doing something you might want to have set the table up yourself and laid out the cups…’
Why is Ann anxious and doing so much smiling and placating Susan? Because of course Ann is angry; she is angry because she thinks that Susan is late (although Susan has said that she wasn’t given a time to arrive and thought 7 would be fine). Susan has also said that she doesn’t mind Ann setting it up as Susan is aware that she, Susan, doesn’t really want to do this chore anyway but felt that she ought to. Similarly Ann felt she ought to and hadn’t wanted to leave home so early. The two circle each warily and then after a few skirmishes about who is doing what … Susan is to do the coffee and Ann the tea … Ann turns away and leaves Susan to do it because of course she has had to act out her fury – unconsciously of course, as she dare not be aware of what she feels but whatever it is it’s making her uncomfortable around Susan.
Of course it’s not just at church meetings as it happens in families too, Kahlil Gibran’s story called ‘The Sleepwalkers’ is about this sort of thing:
In the town of my birth there lived a woman and her daughter, and both walked in their sleep. One night, while silence shrouded the earth, the woman and her daughter walked fully asleep, till they met in a garden under the cover of heavy mist.
The mother was the first to speak. ‘At last!’ she said. ‘At last I can tell you what I always wanted to say! Yes, to tell you who destroyed my youth, and are now building your own life on the ruins of mine! I want to kill you!’
Then it was the daughter’s turn to speak and these were her words: ‘Oh hateful woman, selfish and decrepit! You come between my freedom and my self! You would like my life to be but an echo of your own withered life! I wish you were dead!’
At that moment the cock crowed, and both women woke up. ‘Is that you my treasure?’ said the mother tenderly. ‘Yes, it is me, dearest mother,’ answered the daughter with equal tenderness.
Both our actions and sleep reveal the secrets of the mind and so the pressure from the unconscious is temporarily relieved – but in the daylight it is all covered up again.