Early on in treatment I ask all of my clients, "Do you believe in the unconscious?"
"That's a weird question!" they say. "I never thought about it, wait a minute, what is the unconscious?"
As a culture we don't really talk about the idea of unconscious motivations. It raises a lot of scary questions. If we are motivated by desires that we are not aware of do we really have any control? Do we have free will? Are we just victims of our past? These are heavy topics that psychologists, philosophers, and sages have been puzzling away at for the entirety of human history. Although we don't have an answer, we certainly know that there is more to reality and the mind than what is readily apparent and easily accessible.
In short, the unconscious is a set of motivations and drives that influence our decisions. It is the part of our decision making system that we are not aware of. You may have experienced this: have you ever set out to make a decision or a change and felt yourself trapped or stuck instead? Have you known something to be true in your head but didn't feel that way in your heart? Have you ever experienced an emotion that didn't seem to "fit" with the situation? That's the hallmark of the unconscious at work. The process of addiction is a mostly unconscious process.
A big part of the work of psychotherapy is to make our unconscious, conscious. The idea is to understand ourselves on an intimate level so we can increase our free will and choice in any situation. By illuminating our darkest places we can radiate more fully in life.
This is achieved by tracking thoughts and sensations in a process know as "free association," essentially saying the first thing that comes to mind, or commenting on a powerful body sensation or emotional experience. Then, it is my job as the therapist to keep track of any patterns and to help the client deepen their exploration by remaining focused.
If the unconscious is flowing we'll get to a very emotional, and often confusing place together in therapy. My clients will sometimes be at a loss for words, or start acting out in crying or in rage. This is a good sign! It means that we are exploring new territory. By coming back, again and again, to these dark waters we can begin to draw a map. We can learn what pulls us into these states and what old memories or behaviors come out of them. And then, we can truly be free.