Define: Unthought Known

The “unthought known” is a phrase that I first heard through my therapist, when we were talking about trauma and memory specifically. But immediately, I recognized it as extremely useful to identity development, especially in that many of us feel that we’ve always been this way (whatever way “this” might be – queer, kinky, gendered), but never really knew that we were.

That’s basically the definition – something you’ve always known but have never thought about, have never really known that you know.

I remember going through these realizations multiple times as I developed a feminist identity, then a queer sexuality, then a butch gender. As soon as I had those moments which really “clicked,” I was almost confused as to why I hadn’t gotten to this sooner. It was so familiar on a cellular, deep-gut level, and yet it was never how I’d been previously.

One of my former writing mentors used to say, art is a way to get to know what you don’t know that you already know, and I think that’s related – or, maybe more specifically, art is one of the techniques that we can use in order to get the unthought known to become the thought known, as sometimes the creative process can take us to new places and uncover connections to things that are already inside of us, but that are not quite conscious.

I did some research online trying to find more references to it, and there is not a whole lot. It’s a psychology term that was coined in 1987. I did find one interesting essay – Embeddedness, Reflection, Mindfulness and the Unthought Known by Michael Robbins – which is worth reading. Only 4 pages, and it discusses some very interesting concepts related to the unthought known and mindfulness.

What then is the “unthought known”? Christopher Bollas first coined this provocative phrase in 1987 (Bollas, 1987). Basically it refers to what we “know” but for a variety of reasons may not be able to think about, have “forgotten”, “act out”, or have an “intuitive sense for” but cannot yet put into words. In psychoanalytic terms, it refers to the boundary between the “unconscious” and the “conscious” mind, i.e. the “preconscious mind.” In systems-centered terms, it refers to the boundary between what we know apprehensively, without words, and what we know, or will allow ourselves to know, comprehensively with words. (In many ways, although the methods are very different, the psychoanalytic goal of “making the unconscious conscious” is equivalent to the systems-centered goal of making the boundary permeable between apprehensive and comprehensive knowledge.) [… W]e conceptualize the unthought known as what we already know but don’t yet know that we know.

Embeddedness, Reflection, Mindfulness and the Unthought Known by Michael Robbins

I find it really useful to think about in terms of gender and sexuality, since so much of those identity concepts are deeply, deeply embedded but often completely subconscious. What do you think? Are there particular things in your life that have been “unthought knowns”? How did you get them to be thought knowns? What was your identity development process around them?

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

8 thoughts on “Define: Unthought Known”

  1. Kim says:

    Hey Sin,

    This is an interesting term, and really resonates for me. The first unthought known to make it's way into my consciousness was the concept of reincarnation and karma, when I was 14. I remember coming across the concept for the first time, quite unexpectedly, in a book and thinking "Oh yeah, that's right" – it was like I was remembering something I'd always known.

    With kink, it was a bit different. I can now recall having daydreams at a very young age about being flogged, and then I suspect I repressed it because it clearly wasn't 'acceptable' to have those thoughts. Then, about a year ago, it came up organically in an online conversation with a BDSM butch dom friend, and again I thought "oh, yeah, that's right!". My life then proceeded to unravel as a result of that realisation, and I still haven't found equilibrium yet, but it's a vital part of my identity, and I'm glad that I am finally integrating it into my life.

    I agree with you about art being a way to tap into these unthought knowns, but I also think the online medium can help. For example, I had known that dom for some time face to face, but it was only in the cyber context that we both felt free enough (probably precisely because it ISN'T face to face) for our conversation to move into darker, less 'acceptable' places, and for us to make those realisations.

    Thanks for your blog, btw. I love reading your thoughts and your smut. I hope Kristen's birthday weekend is a success :-)


  2. Mugsie says:

    I really love this term. I know there have been several things I could apply this to, but I also can’t really remember them right now. Sometimes when I do hear the unthought known in words, I have difficulty telling if it’s already been a thought known, or if it just resonates so deeply that it takes a second for me to realize it hadn’t been articulated like that before.

  3. genderkid says:

    I've had those "aha" moments in my life in relation to gender, but I'm not sure if the identities I assumed already existed as "unthought knowns". Robbins' article talks about translating non-verbal content into words, but words have a historical context; can precise identities –queer, transgender– exist before the word that defines them?

    Nevertheless, I find this concept very interesting. For years I've felt that something about my identity was wrong, and I've gone from identifying as lesbian to butch to genderqueer to queer trans fagdyke boy; each label being a better approximation to my gender than the previous one.

    Still, I feel that assuming each of those identities added something new to my "unthought known": for instance, I didn't feel the need to switch pronouns until I discovered non-binary genders. I don't know if I would say that I was always trans; it's just the identity my path led to, for now at least.

    I love the article's idea that bringing "unthought knowns" into consciousness can help to set us free.

  4. Fran says:

    Certainly my queerness was an unthought known. The majority of my college and post-college friends were gay and I was naturally drawn toward places that had more than a few gay folks around. But it was the early-mid 90s and butch femme was not at all popular – so unpopular it never occurred to me or any of my friends that I might be femme. I was the "straight not narrow" ally. :)


    My femme mentor – who is likely your writing mentor – just turned to me one day and said "I hope this doesn't upset you but you are a big queer honey. You just are." Shortly thereafter she gave me a copy of Stone Butch Blues and it was while reading that book that I became known to myself. I had visceral responses every time I touched the cover. It was a wonderful experience. It took a while to get there and it was bumpy at first; my first queer date was with a FtM who was wonderful but still had a girlfriend…my first butch girlfriend swept me off of my feet and slammed me onto my back spectacularly hard. She could unhook a bra like Mickey Rourke back in the day. We said I love you at 2 wks. She broke up with me 6 wks later on Christmas day….stopped back at my place to pick up her toothbrush and her *presents* !!! (that's how I knew for sure I was queer – I went through that and I still wanted more.) :)

    Just today my partner and I were driving back from the beach and we were stuck in traffic next to some ridiculous (and poorly behaved) bio/het boys in a jeep, and I actually said out loud: "Thank you GOD for making me a queer femme, because if I was in that jeep I would push them out. " :)

    There are multiple religious and spiritual traditions which talk about this – and more specifically how to know everything that needs to be known about yourself so that you can live the most meaningful life. There are both historical religious traditions and new thought practices that detail strategies for getting that fog to lift. It's fascinating stuff to think about – and clever of you to to tie it to identity. Natch.

  5. !Spark! says:

    Oh my, you are driving me crazy, because I can't remember where it was I first heard that term. BUT I do remember that it blew my mind.

    I talk on some mental health related boards, and I swear, I can't count how many times I've said something like, "uhm I can't believe I'm saying this… again… but uhm, it's not really like I didn't know this… but, I swear, I seem to be seeing this simplicity, for the first time, again…."

    Yep, I know those guys are just rolling their eyes, "Ooo wee! Spark is talking in circles, again!" But those insights are the sweetest, the stuff that you know but don't know and have to discover afresh.

    Something I was reading recently (omg what was it? idk!) spoke to the fact that we need to "circumambulate". And, I think, that is SO true.

    It is amazing the stuff that we keep at arms length, out of full conciousness.

    Why do we do it?

    Hmmm maybe because we need to rediscover these truths about ourselves and life, we need to go around them again and again, until we finally let it all in, complete, in whole, with total integrity?

  6. Six says:

    For me, the biggest unthought known was, obviously, being gay. If I'm understanding this correctly, it's like a big revelation that hits you at some point and slams your entire life into focus.

    My unthought known tried very hard for nearly a decade to make itself known, by making me fall for a good friend in high school, by making my verrry comfortable in the changeroom after gym class, and by spurring me to seek out porn at a reasonably young age. I guess, in this way, you could say not directly identifying or even misidentifying it as "just me being an attention-loving pervert" allowed me to have fun exploring my sexuality before I knew what that was. And I felt safe to do so because I just assumed that I was part of the heterosexual norm and therefore not subject to the confidence-shaking sense of othering that I later found when I came out. The fact that this shaded my sexual education towards being useful to pleasing men is another story.

    In terms of gender identity, it helped me shape a kind of tough, butch personality that compliments my femme appearance. I like putting people at ease using a traditional feminine exterior and then put them off kilter with the blunt, occasionally sex-positive things I say from what I identify as a butch interior. The cognitive dissonance is fun to watch, however harmful it's been to my dating life in the narrow pool that is my city.

  7. I have definitely realized before that I knew but did not think of something prior to waking up to the understanding of something…

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