Your conscious, subconscious, and unconscious minds – who is really in charge?
Our minds have three layers that gradually go deeper and deeper. These layers are the conscious, the subconscious, and the unconscious. We often think that the only one of the three that we can control is our conscious mind, but through practice and some hard work, you can access and harness the power that lies in your subconscious and unconscious minds.
Your conscious mind is the first layer – Sigmund Freud also called this level of your mind the Ego. It is the part of your mind that you can control and train. Reasoning, logic, concentration, analysis, and awareness all happen in your conscious mind. It also holds your emotions, memories, and thoughts that you experience at a specific time. Your conscious mind controls everything that you do with intention. It takes the information from your external world and filters it. Important information that you might have an immediate use for gets stored in your conscious mind. In contrast, less important information or information you do not need immediate access to is stored in your subconscious and unconscious minds.
Sigmund Freud called this level the preconscious. Your subconscious or preconscious mind stores information that is not in your immediate awareness, but that can be brought up if you concentrate or focus on remembering it. It holds the information that your conscious mind has filtered as being slightly 'less important' than what it needs to hold.
The unconscious mind.
Before we get into the unconscious mind, we need to clarify the difference between suppression and repression. Suppression is when focus on forgetting something, or to remove it from your awareness. It is when you avoid thinking about something. This information is often stored in your subconscious mind. Repression occurs when you push those thoughts, feelings, or desires down even more. At this point, you become somewhat removed from the thoughts, feelings, emotions, or desires that are causing you distress. It is a form of a defence mechanism, and it usually happens during wounding in childhood. These repressed thoughts and emotions influence your behaviour without you knowing it and are stored in your unconscious mind.
Your unconscious mind holds everything that you are not aware of. This often includes thoughts, emotions, or memories that you repress or forget because they are not perceived as valuable. It also holds everything that we find incredibly unacceptable or unpleasant. These are the things that we wish to hide from the world and ourselves. Here lays memories, emotions, ideas, and desires that are unacceptable, traumatic, and painful.
The unconscious mind works as a defence mechanism to protect you from things that are perceived as threatening or harmful. It essentially locks those things away so that it does not cause you distress. Your values, motivations, emotions, desires, beliefs, behaviour, and attitudes all lay in your unconscious mind, and you tend to act instinctively from here.
The problem is that this defence mechanism gets triggered every time you experience similar situations like those that have caused your original wound, or when you had to repress something. It causes you to respond to present-day situations as you did when you experienced that original wound.
Because these defence mechanisms likely established themselves during childhood, you would not have been equipped with the skills to deal with whatever was causing you the distress. When you experience similar situations as when your original wound was formed, you respond in the same way you have always done because it has worked to keep you safe in the past. Today, as an adult, you would have learned better coping mechanisms and skills to help you deal with these things. Old ways of dealing with troubling situations might no longer be helpful; on the contrary, they might be misguided or even cause more damage or pain than they heal.
As an adult, you have buried these original wounds so profoundly in your unconscious mind that you are hardly aware of them. You probably don't even recognise when you are triggered to revert to an old defence mechanism.
How the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious minds interact.
Your subconscious mind acts as the bridge between the conscious and subconscious mind. It has access to information. Both the information that you might need to recall quickly and everything that you have ever experienced and thought that is stored in your unconscious mind.
Here is the kicker: while it is true that your unconscious mind influences your behaviour – especially in situations that trigger your old defence mechanisms – you can steer it with your conscious mind.
Dr. Matt James explains how the unconscious mind can be harnessed to make changes in your life. Instead of seeing your unconscious mind as the enemy that drives your thoughts, emotions, and behaviour, you can work with it to make the desired changes.
Your unconscious mind wants to keep your physical body safe. In order to change harmful behaviour, you can start to focus on how that behaviour is harming your body.
Your unconscious mind runs all of your autonomous physical functions. That includes your breathing, heart rate, and immune system. Dr. James suggests that you ask your unconscious mind what you need for your body to be healthier, instead of repetitively trying to focus on perfect health. Sit quietly and pay attention and allow your unconscious mind to tell you what your body needs.
Your unconscious mind wants to serve, but it needs unambiguous instructions, and it takes these instructions literally. It also endeavours to keep the morals that have been instilled in it – without question. That means that it will keep you accountable for what it believes to be moral, even if it isn't necessarily true, accurate, or rational. For example, it might say to you that having a lot of money will make you a bad person. While your conscious mind might realise that money is a natural part of life and that you need it to survive and thrive, your unconscious mind might still hold the programming that if you have money, you are a terrible person.
Your unconscious mind communicates to you through symbols and emotions. These symbols could come to you in dreams or during meditation. You also experience communication from your unconscious mind when you feel extreme emotions – often without knowing why you feel them. If you pay attention and focus your conscious mind on exploring these emotions, you will move closer to identifying what is causing it and why. Once you have identified this, you can work on exploring the facets of the situation, where and when this programming was first embedded in your unconsciousness. By finding this original programming, you can work towards reprogramming your unconscious mind while using the skills and tools you have accumulated since the original programming happened.
Your unconscious mind stores memories – both good and bad. Bad memories and experiences that have been repressed lie dormant here until you either consciously explore them or have accumulated the skills and maturity to process them through your conscious mind. These memories could come up in dreams or during meditations, but they could also emerge naturally once your unconscious mind senses that you are ready to process them.
Because your unconscious mind communicates with images and emotions, it struggles to process negatives. For example, if you keep thinking that you do not want to smoke, all your unconscious mind picks up is smoking. Instead, you can direct your focus through your conscious mind to a positive behaviour or feeling, like drinking water.
How can you bring your unconscious mind into awareness?
Since your unconscious mind communicates with images, it could be sending you messages in your dreams. While many dream dictionaries could give some insight into what specific situations or objects in dreams mean, you also need to examine what they mean to you personally. A banana could hold a very different connotation for you than it does for me.
Practicing free association involves saying or writing down the first thing that comes to mind when you are presented with certain words or images, no matter how embarrassing, 'wrong', or irrelevant you might perceive it to be. By noting the first thing that comes to mind, before it is filtered or judged, you could start to see patterns forming that could be used for a more in-depth investigation into your unconscious mind.
Through meditation, you can learn to calm your mind and sit with yourself without attachment or judgment. It can show you your deeper thought processes as you gradually learn to sink deeper into your conscious, subconscious, and finally, your unconscious minds.
Your unconscious mind holds vast power. It is the main driving force behind your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. While it does hold repressed memories, thoughts, and emotions through facing them and healing them with skills that you have learned since your original programming and original wounds occurred, you can harness the power that lies within you to change your life!