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Five Levels of Awareness
Adam Blatner, M.D.

Revised, August 5, 2008

One way to think about dynamic psychology is to recognize that people operate on several levels of consciousness at the same time. I've been able to discern five of them: (1) open expression; (2) secrets; (3) self-deceptions; (4) unconscious beliefs and feelings; and (5) things never considered. These levels may be appreciated as forms of what one can express openly, admit to others or oneself--or not, as the case may be.

Level 1 refers to whatever tends to be expressed relatively freely in a given situation. The person is able to admit these ideas clearly to others as well as to himself. (Please excuse the male gendered pronouns.)

Level 2 refers to what can be admitted to oneself and perhaps confided to trusted friends or one's psychotherapist.  This is the category of secrets, or opinions kept to oneself out of discretion.  The key here is that the person still is clearly aware of these thoughts.

Level 3 involves those thoughts which are only occasionally admitted to oneself; indeed, much of the time such thoughts are actively avoided, denied, or even countered by opposite thoughts. For example, a person might say to himself, "Me, scared? Heck, no! I'll take 'em on anytime. I'm ready for 'em. Ain't nobody gonna scare me!" This is the "pre-conscious" level. Psychotherapy involves primarily loosening up the client so that he can admit some of these mixed thoughts and feelings to the therapist. In psychodrama, the double's role is to help articulate some of these points.

Level 4 involves those ideas which are not admitted to oneself. This is what psychoanalysts call "the unconscious." The ideas are so uncomfortable that they feel incompatible with the person's sense of self. An interesting point is that as people in therapy begin to develop more trust in the therapist and more self confidence, some ideas or feelings that were at level 4 begin to shift into level 3, and later on, even into level 2.  This is called "insight."
      It is generally a rule not to try to "interpret" or bring to the client's attention ideas or feelings that are operating at level 4, because they will bounce off, be rejected, and the therapist making this assertion will be unconsciously experienced as hostile. "I don't know what you're talking about," is close to the experience of statements made about level 4. Furthermore, the wording of such statements are rarely aligned with the inner wording of anything even related to these feelings or ideas. They are not in what Carl Rogers called "the client's self system" ---i.e., the words the person would use to describe himself or his own thoughts or feelings.

Level 5 refers to those ideas which have not previously been considered. It involves information which, rather than being repressed, must be introduced from the outside. Through meeting people with different beliefs, life styles, modes of behavior, and ways of thinking, we discover that the world is not like our families and cultures of origin.

Further Considerations

Regarding Level 4. Another type of unconscious material are those types of awareness that haven't yet developed enough coherence to reach awareness. These are rough intuitions or preferences that haven't been processed through language or been paired with enough contrasting experiences to be noticeable. When all you've ever experienced was a certain state, you might not recognize what it's like to be more free, or more loved, etc. In this case, certain experiences in life tend to open people to new possibilities which may not register in consciousness until a sufficient number of associations, words to express these new ideas, and the like have constellated.

Regarding Level 5: Growing older, meeting people with different backgrounds, we find that there are other individuals, families, neighborhoods, or cultures which are both more promising of positive experience and more threatening of negative experience than we have known. Learning of levels of abuse and alienation in others can help us become more forgiving (and, indeed, grateful) for our own backgrounds; on the other hand, learning of the possibilities of love, harmony, patience, and playfulness in others may help us to dare to want more, and to recognize the limitations of a situation to which we may have become numbly resigned.

Resistances to Awareness

People need time and help in opening to the awareness of many types of ideas. If one has become accustomed to living in a certain fashion, perhaps associated with inhibitions, constrictions, and self-controlling asceticism, the prospect of greater freedom, vitality, openness, wisdom, and responsibility can be sensed as overwhelmingly threatening. This is because the innate desire for innocence and freedom is a vulnerable state, associated with the "inner child" complex. As such, it is also associated with feelings of weakness, and a vulnerability to shame, guilt, and rejection. (In mature adults, rejection can be managed by having a broader range of responses, knowing one can turn to other sources for support, can draw upon other experiences for self-affirmation; however, many people aren't mentally prepared for this level of resilience. Thus, novelty is somewhat threatening.)

Further, for people who have had interpersonal trauma early in their lives, many desires are in a sense "amputated" or denied. To be invited or tempted to open to areas of experience which are associated with such risks leads to anxiety. Thus, what is repressed is the capacity to believe oneself capable of enjoying the newly discovered pleasures.

Techniques of modeling, group support, sharing, role playing (as rehearsal), and the like all serve as techniques for both drawing the fullness of personality forth (which is another way for describing aspects of individuation) and for desensitizing the associated fears of daring to dream and desire. The point here is that it takes time, encouragement, reassurance, and continuing effort.

The Power of Expectation

Just noting the idea of these categories of mind to some minor degree opens them up. For many people, the very idea of there being thoughts and feelings that aren't known, unconscious, is new, and even a bit foreign. By talking of this in a matter-of-fact fashion, just as we now talk about there being germs and cells too small to see, or stars not visible to ordinary vision, a type of alertness is generated.

So, for both the fourth and fifth level described above, there is a spirit here of "seek and ye shall find." Based on the findings of psychology, the experiences of many other people, we
can speculate on the probability of certain phenomena even though they haven't been specifically discovered in the individual patient. It's like searching for and finding a star or a subatomic particle based on clues from mathematical equations. Indeed, simply presenting this continuum as a cognitive structure tends to suggest to patients the existence of deeper levels of awareness and to invite them to explore these realms.

Depthanol and Articuline

These are words I've made up to suggest two magic pills: Depthanol is a little like truth serum, a pill that suggests that one can access feelings and thoughts that are otherwise unavailable. Articuline works to help people to put words to these feelings and thoughts even though ordinarily one might not be able to do it. For example, if one is role playing a young child who ordinarily couldn't express emotions clearly, imagining using these pills allows one to imagine what that child might be feeling if such emotions could be more clearly expressed. The point of this magic pill technique is to encourage the person in daring to exercise his or her imagination.

Sometimes, this device can be also used for pets, or inanimate objects: "What if this bed could speak? What experiences would it report?" "What has this dining room table seen happen?" These are merely dramatic devices that help people express their subconscious projections and fantasies–and we're all doing this all the time.

Working as a Psychotherapist

This structure of five levels of awareness also implies a progression of gradual awareness and "interpretation," beginning with the most superficial mode of expression, and proceeding in steps toward the deeper issues. First, there's an acknowledgment of the overt behaviors, then reflection of the expressed nonverbal elements. A fair amount of time should be spent on the third level, which is very rich. Inclusion of the many parts of the self, healthy adaptations, secret sources of pride, self-affirmations, associated interests and ideals, and other positive dimensions should balance (if not predominate over) explorations of sources of doubt, shame, and loss. This confirms the rich complexity and individuality of the other, and anchors the patient in themes of positivity that must become part of the explicit, shared reality before the patient is encouraged to dare to confront the negative elements. Furthermore, by working with the upper three levels as important aspects of the personality, there's less of a tendency for the patient to experience the explorations of more unconscious issues as reductionistic and demeaning.

For example, if the patient is in a psychodrama, and the auxiliary ego working as a double is expressing gradually more pointed self-disclosures, the double's using this system of graded levels of awareness can be helpful in building a more effective working alliance. Feedback from the patient becomes the source of correction, more accurate empathic statements, and a growing "tele" between patient and double. In this interactive dynamic, after first demonstrating the fullness of the first two levels, the patient can be helped to express himself at levels three and four, and to explore the possibilities of level five.

A final point: These five levels also reflect a mixture of interpersonal and intrapsychic beliefs regarding what is appropriate to share with others and what is appropriate even to carry within one's own consciousness. Such judgments are key determinants, aside from the specific thoughts and feelings which may or may not be admitted into consciousness or the interpersonal field. Thus, therapy also is aimed at a re-evaluation and growing discrimination about how problematic ideas and feelings should be handled. There's a softening of barriers to sharing oneself. Helping patients to explicitly choose which feelings or thoughts are okay to admit openly, which shouldn't be communicated to others or even admitted to oneself, and to wonder about those which might not have been considered yet, all are important component processes in psychotherapy.

In summary, the construct of five levels of decreasing self-awareness and self-disclosure can be useful in working with therapists (or psychodramatic doubles). More importantly, it can serve as a framework which encourages patients to explore levels of self-deception and increasing awareness, which thus promotes a more dynamic treatment alliance.

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Comments?  Email to adam@blatner.com