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Unconscious Harm

nuclear mushroom photoIn 1900, when Freud published his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, he elaborated on his most important discovery: the unconscious. Basically, he thought that most people are out of touch with about 70% of what’s in their minds. Humans want to believe what they want to believe, and they don’t want to know about their dark sides: thoughts, memories, and attitudes that make them feel guilty, afraid, and angry, as well as motivations they don’t want to admit.

Not only do people not want to know about most things that are in their minds, they become furious if someone suggests they have these things in their minds. There is an old saying, ‘The truth hurts,” which describes this phenomenon.

Parents want to think they are good parents. Hence they relegate to the unconscious the things about their parenting that may be harmful to their children. A father may be strict and punitive with his children. He comes home from work, finds a toy on the floor, and goes into a rage. “Who left this toy here?” He grabs one of his children and spanks the boy in a fit of rage. But he is unconscious of why he does this. Unconsciously he does it because he had a lot of anger inside him, going back to abuse he received as a child. He justifies his anger as, “children need discipline,” and remains unaware of the harm he is doing.

A mother may have a double standard toward her son and daughter. She views her daughter in a positive way and encourages her to go to college and make something of herself. She views her son in a negative way. Men, she believes, have dominated and exploited women for hundreds of years, and it is now “our turn” to shine. Unconsciously, she blames her son for what she believes men have done to women, and her attitude toward him reflects this blame. Her son had nothing to do with what she believes men did for hundreds of years. He is an individual who was just born, and he has done nothing to women. Yet his mother raises him to have low self-esteem about his gender, and justifies it with negative judgments about men. She is unconscious of the harm she is doing to her son, and rationalizes her double standard as something he deserves because of his gender.

A young man enters college and has an instant dislike and distrust of one of his male professors. This professor is always smiling and the young student views that smile as conceited. “He thinks he knows everything. He thinks he’s superior to his students,” the young student thinks. So he begins to try, in various ways, to out-smart and knock down the professor. He contradicts the professor whenever he can and gets into a “war” with this professor. When the professor speaks to the student privately about his misconduct in the class, the student views that as being victimized by the professor and he makes a complaint to the Chair of his department. The student is unconscious of his anger toward authority figures that can be traced back to abuse by his father. He projects that anger onto the professor, distrusts the professor’s motives, and degrades him.

He projects his anger: He doesn’t hate the professor; the professor hates him.

Oh a societal level projection also comes into play. Political movements deny their own hostile motives (or justify them through rationalization) toward opposing political movements. They see the opposing political movement as hateful, but their own behavior is beyond reproach. Countries deny their own hostility toward other countries, while attributing that hostility toward the enemy countries. Countries exaggerate the negative when it comes to their enemies, while idealizing themselves. This causes harm and leads to unnecessary wars.

The United States, for example, condemns North Korea for developing nuclear weapons. However, the United States has also developed nuclear weapons and is the only country to have used them. The US is unconscious of his own “will to power” and attributes that will to power to North Korea and views it as evil. The US sees itself as the “defender of the free world,” a rationalization that allows it to be unconscious of the harm it does in many ways, such as building more nuclear weapons than any other country. If you build them, you will use them.

Many people deny the potential harm to our planet of global warming and pollution. The current U.S. President pulled out of the Paris Agreement to fight against global warming. The US has led the world in its emissions of greenhouse gases, which directly effect global warming and climate change. Yet it remains unconscious of the harm it has done and continues to do with respect to global warming and climate change , and instead it focuses on the harm other countries are doing, such as human rights violations, and denies the possible harm of global warming.

Stephen Hawking, a world-renowned physicist, recently predicted that because of the various threats to our existence such as global warming, pollution and nuclear war, humanity has only a century left to evacuate the planet and become multi-planetary species. Many companies continue to plow down the rainforests and use coal and fossil fuel; many countries continue to build nuclear weapons. These companies and countries are unconscious of the harm they are doing and make up rationalizations as to why Hawking is wrong. They even laugh at Hawking, implying that he is a mad scientist.

Freud’s discovery of the unconscious was perhaps the most significant discovery of the 20h Century. If people were aware of their unconscious they would be able to solve their individual problems as well as their societal and worldwide problems. As it is, the unconscious is hardly spoken of any more and Freud and his theories have been largely dismissed by people who are upset about his theories. In Western Society we are more concerned about offending people than we are about being in touch with the truth.

Maybe we’ll find another planet to inhabit, but how long will it take for our unconscious harm to destroy the next planet?

Unconscious Harm

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2018). Unconscious Harm. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2018, from


Last updated: 7 Jan 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 7 Jan 2018
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