Everything we do and everything that we are, our successes and failures, happiness and despair, all come from how we use our mind. While we can control most of our thoughts, it’s the part which we cannot directly control which has the biggest impact in our lives. It’s called the subconscious, and it’s so important that Carl Jung, one of the most famous psychologists in the world, calls it the basis of our destiny. While we cannot directly control it, we can, however, influence and improve it in order to improve our quality of life.
Why did I write this article? While most people in the Western world know about the subconscious, not a lot of people in the Philippines where I am from understand it. In fact, they think mental and psychological disorders like depression and anxiety are just people being overdramatic (“kaartehan”), and that patients just need to pray to get “cured”. It’s not. They’re as real as high blood pressure and diabetes, but they’re illnesses affecting the neurochemicals in the brain. Just like how prayers cannot instantly lower cholesterol levels or regrow chopped off limbs, they’re not direct cures for psychological issues like depression, anxiety, autism, and others like them.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s start the lesson!
What is the Subconscious Mind? – A Quick Explainer
First, What is the Conscious Mind?
In basic psychology, the human mind is usually subdivided into the conscious, and the subconscious. Before we talk about the subconscious, we should first talk about the conscious mind. To put it simply, the conscious mind is your current thoughts and awareness.
You reading this right now and trying to understand the lesson, that’s your conscious mind working. Whenever you need to make a decision and you’re thinking about the options and consequences of each choice, that’s your conscious mind working. When you’re trying to focus at work, that’s also your conscious mind working. Basically, if you need to think about it, then that’s your conscious mind working.
If you compare it to a smartphone, your conscious mind is the touchscreen, while your subconscious is all the chips and apps inside. If you compare it to a PC, the conscious mind is like the monitor, keyboard, and mouse while the subconscious is the CPU with all the programs installed.
Now that you have a basic understanding of the conscious mind, we can now move on to the basics of the subconscious mind which controls or encompasses just about everything else.
DISCLAIMER: The subconscious mind is an EXTREMELY broad topic so please forgive me for any errors and omissions as I try to oversimplify things to make them easier to understand.
What is the Subconscious Mind?
This is not a complete list, but these are just some of the things that are part of your subconscious or the things that your subconscious controls.
- Automatic body functions
- Sleep and dreaming
- Instincts, reactions, and innate preferences
- Mental disorders
- Fears, including traumas and phobias
- Intuition and pattern recognition
- Mastered skills
- Self-identity, thought patterns, limiting beliefs
Here are some extremely simplified definitions for each one.
- Automatic body functions – Your heartbeat, breathing, blood pressure, digestion, reflexes and other body functions are all controlled subconsciously by your brain. After all, you don’t have to consciously think about making your heart beat, or making your lungs inhale and exhale. They all happen automatically.
- Sleep and dreaming – The subconscious also controls your dreams and how your body functions and recovers while you sleep.
- Memories – You can recall memories with your conscious mind, but the memories themselves are stored in your subconscious.
- Instincts, reactions, and preferences – Some of our reactions or preferences are automatic and biological. Some examples: We humans generally like sweet, salty, and fatty foods as they were necessary for wilderness survival (and we still have the same bodies as our ancestors). We also like looking at attractive men or women as we might want them as potential mates. We also react with disgust when we see diseased skin or when we see or smell rotting food because they might infect us or make us sick.
- Mental disorders – Depression, anxiety, autism, dementia, mental retardation, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc. are real illnesses. They’re not “being dramatic” as some of the older Filipinos think, and prayers won’t make them go away. Again, like diabetes and heart disease, they are real illnesses that need treatment and medication. Most mental disorders are actual physical issues or neurochemical imbalances in the brain that need to be treated with therapy or medicine.
- Fear, traumas, phobias – Just about all living beings have a survival instinct (the natural urge to avoid things that can kill us), and that instinct subconsciously manifests as fear. We naturally fear things that can harm or kill us, like falling off great heights, poisonous snakes, spiders, swarms of insects, drowning, violent criminals, etc. You don’t consciously become afraid. It just happens automatically when there is something to fear.
- Intuition and pattern recognition – While your conscious mind can only process a small amount of information, your subconscious can process a lot more. For example, do you remember how you can sometimes tell if someone is lying or when your partner is cheating on you? You’d usually call it your “gut feeling” or intuition, but that’s your subconscious mind at work. While your conscious mind can usually only pay attention to the words being said, your subconscious mind processes things like their subtle eye twitches, how their body moves, the slight nervousness in their voice, your memory of how they usually act, and more. When your subconscious detects something weird or dangerous, it will let you “feel” that something is wrong and that there might be something more going on.
- Aside from that, your subconscious can also warn you of danger. For example, while your conscious mind is busy with the ATM, your subconscious mind can sense that the group of strangers in the corner of the parking lot is watching you, and something in their body language lets you sense that they’re up to no good (a.k.a. They plan to rob you). Listen to your gut feeling or intuition, ESPECIALLY when it’s warning you of danger. It can legitimately save your life.
- By the way, I really enjoy the topic of self-defense, and if you want to learn more you can try reading Left of Bang by Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley and Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life by Jason Hanson. There are some life-saving lessons there that you might want to check out.
- Reticular activating system – You know how you can hear your name called while in a noisy room, or how you can notice all the red cars on the road if you want to count red cars? There’s an important part of your brain called the reticular activating system (R.A.S.), and it filters the information that reaches your brain and awareness. Knowing about this is important because it’s the reason why when you consciously set goals or when you really want to get something, your R.A.S. will start letting your conscious mind notice the things that will let you get what you want, like job openings and recruitment agencies that you never paid attention to until you needed a new job.
- Mastered skills – When you learn something new, you have to consciously watch what you’re doing to not make mistakes or fail. Eventually, however, you master that skill and you’ll be able to perform it without having to think about it. An easy example is brushing your teeth, but you can master more complex skills like driving a car or performing a martial arts workout routine. Do them often enough to become part of your schedule and they turn into habits.
- Habits – By now, you probably don’t pay attention to your daily schedule. You wake up, drink coffee, eat breakfast, take a bath, go to work, so on and so forth automatically in whatever order you’re used to. At the beginning, you had to consciously think about each step, but as you got used to it, they all became automatic. Unfortunately, just like how regular habits are automatic, bad habits are too, and unless you bring those subconscious habits to light or you decide to learn better habits, you’ll never be able to improve.
- Thought patterns: Self-identity, limiting beliefs, cultural norms, etc. – Habits aren’t limited to physical actions, but mental ones as well. What do you think about during your free time? Are you confident in yourself? Are you able to bounce back from failures? Are you able to handle stress? What do you and your friends do for fun? How do you show your family that you care? What do you think about money? Do you regularly think about ways to increase your income? All of those things that you take for granted because they’re been “normal” are part of your subconscious.
Your Subconscious Rules Your Life
Those last few sections about your habits and thought patterns (mental habits) are some of the most important ones I want to discuss, and in my opinion it’s why Carl Jung said that unless you examine those subconscious thoughts and habits, they’ll rule your life and you’ll think everything that happened to you was just “destiny”.
For example, getting a lung disease diagnosis would surprise anyone… including lifelong smokers. A liver disease diagnosis would surprise people too, including alcoholics. People never really think about their bad habits until the results come out, and by then it’s too late. It’s “destiny”. On the other hand, if you worked to develop a habit of eating well, exercising, and overall just taking good care of your body, then you’d probably live a happier life without suffering from so many illnesses as you get older.
Other examples? If you have a habit of gambling and spending your entire paycheck, then you’ll wake up to a future full of money problems. If you have a habit of saving and investing, being updated on insurance, and you often read to learn more about those things, then you’ll likely have a happier retirement with far less money problems.
Your thought habits matter too. What do you think of yourself? Do you have confidence in yourself and your abilities? Do you settle for what you’ve been given, or are you ambitious enough to aim for something better? Do you give up at the slightest inconvenience, or do you bounce back from failures and keep trying until you succeed at what you want to do?
When was the last time you seriously thought about any of those? When have you last thought about improving where you lack? Again, those subconscious thought patterns which you usually don’t pay attention to will determine your level of success.
Think you are weak, think you lack what it takes, think you will lose, think you are second class – think this way and you are doomed to mediocrity.— David J. Schwartz
How to Shape Your Subconscious (and Your Destiny) for Success
Having read so many self-help, self-improvement, leadership, and other books, the most important lesson that I’ve learned from a lot of them is that no matter what our circumstances are, we all have the power to improve our lives by changing how we use our minds.
The unconscious actions that ruin our lives, our bad habits and vices, have all been learned. We got them from parenting mistakes, social norms, peer pressure, constant bad choices, etc. Thankfully, if we truly want to, we can unlearn the bad by learning better things.
The greatest revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.— William James
While we cannot directly control our subconscious, we CAN, however, influence and improve it using our conscious mind. We can learn new things, we can change our thoughts, and we can make good decisions repeatedly until they become good habits. In short, we can put good things into our subconscious.
We can consciously learn better skills and habits like eating well and exercising. We can read good books to learn good thoughts and ideas. We can learn about career building and business. We can learn time management and goal setting. We can learn to be better parents and better leaders. We can learn how to save money and invest in good assets. We can learn to be more confident in ourselves. Those are just some examples, but you get the idea. There are so many things we can consciously decide to do in order to make our lives better.
If we want to improve our lives, we need to examine the things that we’ve been doing unconsciously and then make the conscious decision to improve. As we make those good decisions again and again, they will eventually become the good habits and thought patterns that will bring us happiness and success.