Emotional Health

When the Past Interferes with the Present

Freud discovered that dreams were the perfect tool for this: he called them “the royal road to the unconscious.” Dreams are produced by unconscious material trying to come to the surface. While often superficial about recent events, (“day residue”) they held hidden messages that were disguised by the dreamer (“dream work.”)

You will find insights into your unconscious in the waking world, and not just by free association. Forgetting things that are conflicting, for example, is sometimes the result of what is known as a “Freudian Slip,” a term that is also used when we say something we did not mean to, but betrays our unconscious in some way.

Thoughts, images, and even music flow into our conscious mind all the time and these can be used too to gain insight.

Here is another example:

Rebecca found herself humming a jingle from a commercial that she hadn’t heard for 40 years, that went “Hot dogs, Armour hot dogs . . . what kind of kid likes Amour hot dogs?” She thought this was strange until she remembered something her husband had said the previous day. He told her that he had heard that when a woman wore the combination of a leotard and tights, they made for impenetrable “armor” against men groping them. Rebecca did not react at the time, but had been suffering recently from anxiety caused by the many revelations in the news about powerful men sexually abusing women. Having been an abuse victim in her teens, she was finding these reports triggering and lately had been feeling physically uncomfortable around some men, even her husband. The words in the jingle, “Armour,” relating to her wish for armor to shield her against, and hot dogs, a clear phallic symbol, one that also neatly refers to men who are both “hot” and “dogs” around women.

Rebecca’s discomfort is an example of how zombies work. While usually she had a good relationship with her husband, sexually and in general, the abuse revelations had awakened the “zombie” memory of her time as a victim. Though she had spent a good deal of time working it through, the memory of past trauma lived on in her unconscious, and was usually dormant. The daily drumbeat of allegations brought them back.

Rebecca wasn’t happy about this, of course. She did not like reacting to her husband as a predator, and was disturbed to find this zombie attacking her once again. Along with fear, this monster brought insecurity, guilt, and feelings of worthlessness. This is because of one of the essential and problematic elements of the unconscious: when we repress a memory, it is preserved, as if in amber, at the time it was formed, and is not amenable to adult logic.

So, when a child is sexually abused, the memory formed is one that is seen from the viewpoint of the child, and who she was at that time. A child, whose understanding is limited, usually react as if what has happened to her is her fault. It is common, if not universal, for abuse victims to feel they must have done something to cause it, and by letting it happen they are bad in some profound way.

This example illustrates how zombies can prevent the development of self-compassion and self-love. Instead of feeling empathy for her younger self and the trauma she sustained, she carried feelings about it that actually served to diminish her sense of self worth and confidence.

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