Have you met someone for the first time and instantly felt uncomfortable? That’s your mind trying to tell you something.
When you react instinctively to an off-hand comment that your friend makes, that’s your mind trying to protect you. It’s reminding you that you have been hurt, and encourages you to be angry at them.
Your mind is always busy trying to filter information and bring to your attention stimuli that confirm your existing beliefs. It will also present old thoughts, memories and impulses that you might have indulged in the past.
This part of your mind, is called the subconscious, and it operates beneath the surface of our conscious awareness. Strictly defined in psychological terms, the subconscious is not part of your focal awareness.
In simpler terms, the subconscious acts as your guardian.
The differences between subconscious and unconscious
Sigmund Freud, the famed Austrian psychoanalyst, didn’t predict that the two words would cause confusion a 100 years later. He had mentioned the word subconscious once at the outset in the 1890s, and later used the word unconscious.
He had once described the mind as an iceberg, the conscious, preconscious and unconscious. The ‘tip of the iceberg’ was the consciousness, where a person was acutely aware of their feelings, thoughts and memories. Everything else was submerged under water. The preconscious was seen as some sort of mental waiting room; a storage of thoughts before being ‘summoned’ to the consciousness.
The unconscious was the layer that was filled with repressed thoughts, possibly traumatic, which is not known by the conscious mind. This consisted of socially unacceptable ideas, desires and emotions that were repressed, according to his 1915 published works titled The Unconscious, found in The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud. These unconscious thoughts can emerge in the form of ‘Freudian slips’, where repressed memories or those that you have avoided, are accidentally verbalised. Another representation of unconscious desires, according to Freud, are shown in our dreams. He described dreams as ‘disguised fulfilments of repressed wishes’.
The unconscious mind is often confused with the subconscious, or the words are used interchangeably. Freud had once used the term subconscious once in 1893 saying, “If someone talks of sub-consciousness, I cannot tell whether he means the term topographically – to indicate something lying in the mind beneath consciousness – or qualitatively – to indicate another consciousness, a subterranean one, as it were. He is probably not clear about any of it. The only trustworthy antithesis is between conscious and unconscious.”
Psychoanalysts do often not refer to the word subconscious; it’s a word found in lay or ‘new-age’ literature, according to a 2010 research article published in Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. The word ‘subconscious’ itself is rarely defined and often varies depending on context in human psychology. It is mostly seen in self-help literature as some kind of powerful agency that controls knowledge, and can be seen as beneficial.
‘The subconscious is a reservoir of our memories’
The subconscious can be seen as a realm, where habits develop based on past experiences, and lead to actions that decide the path of your life.
“When we talk about forming habits, we are referring to the process by which our behaviour becomes automatic, requiring little conscious effort,” explains Shannaiah Aubrey Mae Inocencio, an educator from the department of psychology at the Canadian University, Dubai. “These habits become ingrained in our daily routines through repetition and association. Each action we take creates pathways in our brain that encode the behaviour into our memory and learning centers,” she says. “This process of learning is also linked to parts of the brain that perceives how rewarding or consequential those actions are.” The actions associated with greater rewards tend to form stronger habits.
When we talk about forming habits, we are referring to the process by which our behaviour becomes automatic, requiring little conscious effort. These habits become ingrained in our daily routines through repetition and association. Each action we take creates pathways in our brain that encode the behaviour into our memory and learning centers
The skills and habits we acquire become imprinted in our subconscious, enabling us to execute certain activities effortlessly and instinctively. For instance, routine activities such as eating, reading, and even driving are often carried out without our conscious awareness. The subconscious is also a reservoir of our memories, summarises Mercedes Sheen, head of the psychology department at Heriott-Watt University, Dubai. “It efficiently stores a wealth of information accumulated through our lifetime,” she says.
Moreover, it governs our personalities. “Our personality traits, emotions, interests, and fears are linked to the workings of the subconscious mind,” adds Sheen. It shapes how we perceive things, what captures our attention, and what triggers our responses. In essence, our subconscious governs many of our behaviours and impulses, guiding us through life's daily complexities. It directs most of our thoughts, and so we tend to feel and act based on our emotions. This in turn, impacts our choices and decisions in life and sets the path that we need to follow in life.
Our personality traits, emotions, interests, and fears are linked to the workings of the subconscious mind. It efficiently stores a wealth of information accumulated through our lifetime
However, the challenge arises when certain behaviours become habits without us fully realising the potential physical, social, and psychological consequences they may have, says Inocencio. Once habits are crystallised, they can be difficult to change.
‘Driven by survival’
Owing to previous experiences and memories of trauma, our subconscious can make us feel emotions that are harmful for us. When we start feeling anger that things are ‘happening to us’, it’s our subconscious mind encouraging us to be the victim. It’s motivated by a desire to ‘keep us safe’ and doesn’t accept change easily.
“At its core, all our choices are driven by the primal instinct of survival,” explains Sarmistha Mitra, a Dubai-based wellness expert and coach, the founder of The Well-being Sanctuary of Balanced Life. Some of the survival programs embedded in our subconscious may no longer serve us well in the modern world, she adds. At times like these, it’s easier to blame others. As we keep listening to the messages from our subconscious, we look for external scapegoats, feeding this information to our subconscious, which continues this cycle of negativity. And soon, we do not wish to address the problem and don’t take accountability, leading to a state of dysfunctionality.
At its core, all our choices are driven by the primal instinct of survival. Some of the survival programs embedded in our subconscious may no longer serve us well in the modern world. The challenge lies in identifying these outdated programs, which often remain inaccessible to our conscious minds
“The challenge lies in identifying these outdated programs, which often remain inaccessible to our conscious minds,” adds Mitra. Otherwise, these obsolete patterns can lead to dysfunctional choices, hindering the attainment of harmonious relationships, successful careers, and even good physical health.
How can we control our subconscious?
Don’t look at the subconscious mind as an enemy to be conquered, but as a partner that needs to be understood, warns Mitra. It can be amended and changed.
“The process requires dedicated effort to explore the inner recesses of the mind, seeking the root cause of specific behaviours,” explains Mitra. “Subsequently, techniques like positive affirmations, meditation, deep self-reflection, and mindfulness come into play, gradually enabling individuals to reprogram their subconscious and embark on a transformative journey,” she says.
There are methods of priming thoughts and emotions without the person’s conscious awareness. It can be achieved through various means such as subliminal messaging, repetition, cognitive behavioural therapy or hypnosis, explains Sheen. “The human brain exhibits remarkable neuroplasticity. It can adapt and rewire itself in response to experiences, learning, and environmental changes,” she adds.
When they use relaxation techniques, people can tap into their subconscious and alter negative thought patterns, by replacing them with positive and constructive ones. However, understanding the power of subconscious manipulation is essential for making informed choices and safeguarding oneself from unwanted influences. Inocencio suggests creating goals that stick is to follow the S.M.A.R.T principle. This principle suggests that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. By defining clear goals using this principle, choosing the activities to achieve them becomes simpler and easier to carry out, she says.
Here is how you can reprogram your subconscious as explained by the experts:
• Be more accepting of changes. For starters, you need to believe that change is possible. It won’t come easy, and neither will your faith in yourself be transformed radically. Yet, you can start with the small changes. For instance, start sending emails and following up with people or clients at work, if that is something you fear. You worry about being ignored, but once you train your subconscious to believe that people will eventually respond and continue following up, you are breaking a pattern. In short, look at the toxic patterns that you need to break. Another instance could be, stop avoiding people at parties because you don’t think that you are worth talking to. Make an effort to talk to at least one person, and enjoy the conversation.
• Work on transforming your inner monologues. Instead of talking about yourself in negative terms, work on positive reaffirmations about yourself. Break the cycle of negativity. For instance, if you think that you’ll lose friends if you are successful, you have made a subconscious association between success and arrogance. You’ve assumed you will be abandoned, because people might perceive you differently. Give yourself a chance to be happy; tell yourself that there is nothing to feel guilty about. Work on telling yourself this every day, every time you feel good about an achievement. The guilt and worry will slowly recede as your subconscious will gradually view success differently, rather than associate it with fear.
• Keep reciting these affirmations to yourself, till you start believing them. Stop using the words ‘I can’t.’ As you start changing the self-talk, you will see your confidence building up.
• Write positive notes to yourself, congratulate yourself on each victory, make sure that you are surrounded by things that give you positivity. Transform your room if you have to, let it cater to your likes. If having photos of your friends reminds you of the love that you have received in life, keep it close to your bed.
• Ensure that you have a support system, who will give you positive reinforcement. Your subconscious mind absorbs beliefs and information from them. Negativity from your surroundings can have a powerful impact on your subconscious. See how people respond when you share news of your success. If they don’t respond properly or show signs of jealousy, they’re projecting their own anxieties and worries on you. Don’t allow people to take away from your own success. Remove the negative energy in your surroundings, unfollow, distance from people who don’t wish well for you. Transform your newsfeed into something positive for yourself. Look for books, music and videos that foster a feeling of safety and comfort.
• Question your resistance. When your subconscious holds you back from something that you enjoy, question yourself and ask why you are resisting it. Question why you are procrastinating, and how getting what you want will be beneficial for you.
• Express gratitude often. As you keep expressing gratitude for all that you have, you enter into the mindset of abundance. This helps your subconscious believe that you already have everything that you need. This rewires the brain into believing that a certain level of satisfaction has been achieved.
• Practise mindful meditation. When you meditate, you reflect more on yourself and reevaluate your goals.
• Look at what your dreams tell you. Write them down. Your subconscious mind’s desires show up in some dreams. See if it is significant, and if you think it is, see what you make of it. Where are these thoughts coming from? This gives you a chance to reflect on yourself, and what you might have suppressed.
You will know that this reprogramming of your subconscious is working, when you see that your self-confidence and self-awareness levels are increasing. Are you no longer berating and attacking yourself? Reprogramming your subconscious to think more positively, induces more positive changes in your life. You’ll see a change when you’re willing to take new chances, risks and aren’t restricted to your comfort zone. Moreover, you are excited about your goals and the conflicts within you feel reduced. These factors indicate a positive shift in your life.