Our subconscious mind manages the vast majority of what our brain does. It filters the immense volume of information coming in from our bodies. It acts as an autopilot by running countless routines. Within these routines, it makes countless second-by-second adjustments to maintain homeostasis. This frees up our consciousness to focus on the big picture.
This is all well and good when life is moving along smoothly. Often, however, we get stuck in bad habits. We feel helpless like a rudderless ship caught in a storm. Our feelings can become overwhelming. Our thoughts can become intrusive. And we feel trapped. We may already know that some of our behaviors are unhealthy, but we can’t see a way out.
Understanding how the mind works can be empowering. In this article, we will look at the differences between the subconscious mind and our consciousness. We will use three metaphors to demonstrate how they relate to one another. We will start to understand that our feelings do indeed have purpose even if they are overwhelming us.
It turns out that we have far more influence over how we feel and how our mind works than one might imagine. But that influence isn’t direct. It isn’t easy. Let’s dive in and see how this works.
In a separate article, we discuss how to build conscious self-awareness.
This Article Contains:
Basic duties of the conscious and subconscious minds
There are many ways to subdivide the mind. One of the most useful ways is to disassemble the mind into two basic components: thinking and feeling.
Feelings come from the subconscious. They are messages from our subconscious self to our consciousness. They are written in their own universal language. Anger, fear, happiness, disgust, resentment, etc. We feel good about something or we feel bad about it. We can’t help the way we feel. These feelings are generated by our subconscious self. They are only messages. They are pieces of information.
Thinking, on the other hand, is the work of our conscious mind. Thinking is everything the conscious mind does. There are many processes here: observation, perception, recalling something from memory, mental arithmetic, selecting data, assigning meaning, judging, making assumptions, and drawing conclusions.
The subconscious mind has the power of suggestion. It provides impulses to the conscious Self. It suggests things to remember. It suggests that we select certain pieces of data and not those others. It suggests meaning and judgements. It suggests assumptions and conclusions. Each of these suggestions is a type of intuition, a “gut feeling.” As we translate them into words, these suggestions become simple thoughts. We hear them as if they’re being spoken to us.
The conscious mind has the unique power of choice. The conscious mind gets to choose which suggestions to keep and which to discard. The conscious mind can also choose to remain passive, to not make any choice at all. In this case, we remain on autopilot. Out of the countless suggestions generated by our subconscious, we act out the ones that come with the greatest intensity. You deserve pizza tonight, not a salad.
The subconscious mind has two unique responsibilities. It sends a feeling message. You feel this way. And then it suggests what a person should do about it. You feel X, and therefore you should do Y. The conscious mind then gets to decide if we will act upon the suggestion. See Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow for more detailed information about this process.
Keep in mind, most of the time we are on autopilot. Most of the time, we are simply acting out the suggestions of our subconscious. That is the default. We are just doing. Only when we shine the spotlight of our consciousness on those choices, do we then think before we do.
The subconscious mind does another very kind thing for us. It allows us to forget. It gives us grace by forgetting. We don’t remember every mistake, every misstep or every injury. Over time, we only remember what we learned from those painful experiences, not the experiences themselves. We integrate these learned memories into our greater whole. We remember the experience but forget the painful details.
On a side note, unhealed trauma occurs as a failure to integrate painful memories. Because we can never make sense of them, they remain in their raw form. We can never forget the pain, and so we relive it again and again.
Three metaphors for understanding the mind
Let’s look at three separate metaphors for clarifying the roles of the subconscious mind and the conscious mind. With each metaphor, we will gain greater awareness of how these two interact. There are three lessons here that can allow us to unlock the magic of influencing our autopilot.
- The elephant and the rider
- The restaurant and the patron
- The storm and the sailboat
In each metaphor, there is the subconscious self: the elephant, the restaurant, and the storm. And then there is the conscious self: the rider, the patron, and the sailboat. We will see how the two interact and learn from those interactions. In each case, the subconscious dwarfs our consciousness in size and power. But the smaller being, our consciousness, has room to maneuver. It is through that influence that we move from helplessness to empowerment.
The elephant and the rider
I borrowed our first metaphor from Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, who has borrowed from many other insightful and ancient sources. This is our first analogy to describe how the process of thinking and feeling works.
Haidt asks us to imagine an elephant with a man on top, a rider. In this analogy, the elephant is our subconscious mind. It is our animal brain. It doesn’t do math or logic. Instead, it represents everything we feel. It also includes everything that the subconscious mind suggests that we do. You should find food. You should find shelter. That is disgusting. Go find a mate. She’s pretty. You get the idea.
The rider is our conscious mind. It is our thinking self. It can do math and logic. It can make choices. It can act on suggestions. It has veto power over the elephant’s suggestions.
Then Jonathan Haidt asks an important question:
Who is in charge? The rider or the elephant?
I have gotten into arguments with friends about this very question. Turns out there are two questions here. Who is in charge? And who should be in charge?
Essentially, we are asking what drives behavior? What aspect of our Self determines what we do and who we are? The subconscious mind or the conscious mind? Our feelings/intuition or our reason/logic?
To argue over these questions is to misunderstand the mind. One part of the mind does not dominate the other. One is not submissive.
And yet, there is a lot of power in being the default mode, the autopilot. When the rider is passive, the elephant has all the power.
The human experience is incredibly complex. We feel so much. There is so much to process. We can’t sit there and think about it all. So, the subconscious mind does most of the work for us in the background. This is intentional. The elephant is all of our internal presuppositions, genetic inclinations, subconscious motives, and layers upon layers of uninterrogated, raw experience. It also includes our latent moral intuitions–the foundations of our moral values–the building blocks for morality and judgement.
Only a small fraction of what the subconscious deals with is ever allowed to approach the level of consciousness. Even that small fraction is an incredible amount of information. And so, the conscious mind is constantly being flooded with impulses, feelings and suggestions. There are so many. We cannot possibly sift through them all. Autopilot becomes the norm. With so many choices available every second of every day, the subconscious generally takes over.
Haidt points out another incredible insight here. Because autopilot is the norm, the elephant not only is making thousands of small petty decisions, it also generally makes most if not all the few important decisions. Who to marry. How much to spend, how much to save. What religious affiliation you should belong to. What political messaging resonates with you.
In fact, generally speaking, the conscious Self only realizes he had a choice after the choice is already made. He comes to this realization once he’s felt the impact of the decision. Again, it’s the elephant giving the rider the feelings of the impact. And so, we see that intuition comes first, reasoning second.
Intuition comes first, reasoning second.Jonathan Haidt
This is a hard pill to swallow for someone new to this concept. We do have agency. But we wrestle with home much agency we truly have. Most of the agency we think we have really has been decided for us by our inner elephants.
There is a lot of data to back this up. I will defer to Haidt’s book for a detailed proof and review of that data, rather than pour it out for you here. It does make sense though, once you start to grapple with the concept. Open your eyes to choices that you make. Peel back the reasoning. Underneath the layers of logic, you will discover a feeling. An emotion. Some type of impulse. Beneath that is a basic human need. Realizing this, you can see that intuition, coming from your elephant, was really the driver of your decision. Not the logic and reason you expected. This holds true for decisions involving religion, politics, the abortion debate, race issues, how many children you want to have, who you fall in love with, how you feel in your marriage, etc. The elephant makes the decision in each case. The decision was intuitive, not logical.
Why have a rider in the first place then? It turns out, the rider exists mainly to justify the decisions of the elephant. Humans are social creatures. Often, the elephant does something that isn’t pretty or tactful. It needs a rider to justify those actions, after the fact.
The rider is still the conscious mind with all its rational functions and agency. And yet, the rider evolved to serve the elephant, to justify it decisions. According to Haidt, the rider became a type of lawyer or public relations consultant for the elephant. It is not a scientist that objectively sees the truth. It provides post hoc justifications and explanations for the moral convictions–the “intuitions”–of the elephant.
The rider evolved to serve the elephant.Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis
The rider has evolved this grand vision of itself as a rational actor who makes measured arguments and thinks carefully about political affiliations, moral convictions, religious beliefs, etc. However, Haidt demonstrates in study after study that this type of vision is delusional. Humans are the opposite. Empirical research supports the bottom line that humans are emotional actors who act first, via intuition. Only after acting can we then provide a rational justification for our behavior.
Humans are emotional beings. We act first, justify later.
In this dynamic, the elephant holds the majority of the power. Realizing and accepting this is a critical first step to solving conflict and healing injury. We cannot fix our social problems if we don’t understand them. We need to be aware that our disagreements and conflict didn’t come from differences in logical thinking. They came from differences in needs, emotions, and values. The first two are the exclusive providence of the elephant.
The third–values–is a place of negotiation between the elephant and the rider. Here is where the rider has an opportunity for input. Here is where the rider can step in and alter behavior.
How does this happen?
Let’s look at our next metaphor: the restaurant and the patron.
The restaurant and the patron
The subconscious mind creates our world of feelings and possibilities. Such feelings and possibilities are presented to our consciousness. The conscious mind may then choose from among the available possibilities.
Consider a patron at a restaurant. The subconscious mind is the restaurant. The mood, environment, and feel of the restaurant represents our feelings. How do we feel walking in the door to a new situation? The subconscious mind also arranges the menu choices. These are the suggestions that it offers to the patron sitting down to eat.
The patron represents our conscious mind. He has agency to choose. He doesn’t have to like the restaurant, its environment or its menu, but he’s stuck eating there. He can only choose from among the possibilities on the menu. He can decide if he will eat or not. That is what it has available. He was not offered something that is distasteful to the restaurant–to our subconscious.
Even among the menu choices, the restaurant has preferences. Some items are bolded and made to look appetizing and have a reasonable price tag. Other options are written in small print and are hard to find. And so, by default, the patron usually picks the option that the restaurant prefers him to pick. He acts on the restaurant’s suggestion. It takes work to not follow the suggestion and do something else. Even then, he can’t eat something that the restaurant doesn’t make.
Once again, we see that the restaurant, like our elephant, really is in charge. The patron can only choose from among the possibilities he is presented with.
Becoming aware of this reality is another key step. We already learned that the elephant and the restaurant are in charge. We see that they present us with options, including both preferred and non-preferred options. We’ve accepted that these choices aren’t logically based.
How do take back some influence? How much control do we really have?
Turns out, we have a great deal of control and influence. But we have to dive in deeper.
So, what choices do we have?
If the rider, the conscious Self, aka the patron at the restaurant, has agency, then what exactly does he have agency over? What choices does he have?
The patron must choose from a suggestion provided to it by the restaurant (aka elephant)–the subconscious mind. Understanding how this works is really the key to discerning what is controllable from what isn’t. The magic comes when we realize that we have control over things we never knew we did. When we exercise that control, we can influence things that we don’t have direct control over, like our feelings. We can give the conscious mind better influence over the subconscious, which is otherwise running the show. I use the term influence here, because although we have a great deal of influence over the subconscious, we don’t have direct agency over it. We can influence our feelings, not control them. The same goes for other people. We have a great deal of influence over other people in our lives even if we can’t exert direct control over them. In other words, some of the things available on the restaurant’s menu are written in fine print. We need only look a little harder to find them.
The subconscious Self, the restaurant, provides us with suggestions. It does this by first starting with basic human needs (food, water, shelter, safety, belonging). The subconscious Self feels those needs. It generates feeling messages and impulses that it dispatches up to our consciousness. You are hungry, for instance. With that feeling message comes a suggested action. Go eat Doritos. Most of the time, we are on autopilot, and that’s exactly what we do. But we do have a choice. We can choose not to eat, if we’re paying attention.
What people don’t realize is that hidden within this simple message (You are hungry. Go eat Doritos.) is a value choice. We can translate that message to mean: “You value not being hungry. You value sustenance. You value survival.” And so, the restaurant’s suggestion is really a value message. The restaurant is telling the patron what they (collectively) value.
The same holds true for all of our moral values, all of our convictions. Moral values, as Haidt points out in his research, emanate from the subconscious. Moral values are intuition–“gut instinct.” Moral values are set up and authored by the subconscious. Where do these moral values come from? They come from our desire to fulfill our basic survival needs. It is our basic needs for sustenance, shelter, and belonging that generate our moral values designed to help us be productive, be safe, and build communities. Human values, as Haidt argues, cross cultural and generational barriers. They evolved to help us survive and prosper.
The subconscious mind picks a mood for the restaurant. Then it offers a menu of choices to our conscious Self. Feel free to pick from among what’s available: You can eat. You can be safe. You can build your community.
The subconscious gives the conscious mind freedom to choose. Each choice represents an important value. We can decide not to eat the hamburger. We can decide, instead, to be patient.
These values, as it turns out, are all the same values we teach our children. We know them already. Patience. Hard work. Safety. Compassion. Manners.
And so, we start to now see the interaction of feelings and values. Feelings remain outside our control. They are the sole purview of the restaurant (or the elephant). Values, on the other hand, can be the responsibility of the patron (or the rider), once he takes ownership of them. He must first turn off autopilot and assume some control. But these are all value choices. Not choices of logic and reason. Logic and reason have nothing to do with it. The patron/rider only tricks himself to believe he is a rational actor. When in fact, the choice came from the elephant/restaurant from the world of needs, feelings and values.
It then becomes the interaction of feelings + values which determines how we behave, and the impact our behavior will have.
A sailboat in the wind
It’s ok if this is still somewhat confusing. Let’s look at one final analogy to try to piece it together.
Remember that feelings are energy. They get us up and moving. Values are tools that channel our energy.
The subconscious is constantly bombarding our conscious mind with a flood of feelings, impulses and suggestions. Those messages are like weather. We cannot control the weather. It does what it wants to do.
Imagine a sailboat out on a windy day. Our feelings are the wind. The sailboat is our values. The sailboat, with its sails, is a tool that can move in the wind. We happen to be a person on the boat. We can be a passenger and just ride along, letting the boat and wind take us where they will. We can be passive, riding along on autopilot.
Or we can choose to direct the sails and point the rudder. If we want, we can aim for a direction. It takes work to do this. It takes effort.
We see here that the subconscious Self provides us with the wind (emotional energy) which the conscious mind has no control over. The subconscious Self also provides us with the boat and the sails (our values), which we can use and direct in the direction that we choose.
Love and work are to people what water and sunshine are to plants.Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis
Hopefully this analogy seems basic and rudimentary. Too easy and simple.
But what happens when we are in an emotional crisis? What happens when we experience an overwhelming flood of emotions that threaten to drown us? What can we do then? What does this look like?
An example of taking back control: the sailboat in a storm
Let’s look at the example of Tara. Tara is 15. She isn’t very close with either of her parents who are divorced. She bounces between their houses, living at one for a few months before jumping back to the other. Her older brother recently enlisted in the Marines. They were close, and unfortunately she doesn’t expect to see him much anymore.
Tara’s father, William, brings her in to my office. Last night, he found her with a knife in her hand, contemplating cutting her wrists. She has cut herself once before. William is very concerned and doesn’t know what to do.
Through the course of our conversation, Tara describes feeling like she is alone on an island with nothing but empty ocean surrounding her. But when I dive into her feelings more, she describes a flood of negative feelings: I’m not deserving of happiness. I hate myself. I hate my parents. I hate my life. I’m worthless. Those feelings came to her like a storm last night. She had been fighting them for weeks now. She resisted the storm outright, battling the weather head-on, like a ship trying to paddle directly into the wind. Eventually, inevitably, she became exhausted. Her will to fight melted away. She became empty. She looked for a way out. She wanted to cut because she wanted to feel something again.
“What are you looking for?” I ask her.
“Relief,” she answered.
“What does relief look like?”
“I don’t know.”
Any good sailor knows that you cannot sail directly into the wind. It’s impossible. Paddle as hard as you like, eventually the wind will defeat you.
What if your destination is directly ahead? What if the wind is coming straight at you? How can you get there? What if all you want to do is feel better, feel happy again? Meanwhile the wind is saying all these awful things about you. The wind taunts you for trying to be happy. You’ll can’t be happy. You don’t deserve happiness.
You can’t charge straight forward. You will fail. But you can go sideways. You can go at an angle to the wind. You may not move fast. It may take a while to get where you want to go. But the wind, no matter how negative it is, will propel you if channeled correctly.
How do we help Tara get started? We need to give her a direction that she can reach. One where her wind will push her forward. A direction where she doesn’t have to paddle. All she has to do is hold the course.
Holding a firm course is hard work, certainly, but it won’t exhaust her the way trying to paddle against the wind will.
Tara’s dad is an engineer. He’s used to fixing things. He doesn’t know how to be a good listener or how to connect with empathy. Tara’s mom is the opposite. She is warm and loving. When her warmth and love run dry, she becomes hot and volatile. She gives in to her own emotions. A switch flips, and Tara’s mom becomes a different person. She enters survival mode and sees everyone else as a threat she must push away in severe terms. It is emotionally abusive to those around her.
Tara goes to stay with her mom when she craves human connection. Unfortunately, the connection often doesn’t last, as Tara’s mom frequently will run dry on energy. The she says childish, immature things that have the power to rock Tara’s world and send her running back to the cool safety of her father.
This happened recently when Tara and her mom got in a fight. Tara’s mom spouted out a ton of nasty things, including, “You take up too much space… You’re too loud and obnoxious… Make sure to put your makeup on… Why don’t you have more friends? You really should work on that. I don’t like you moping around here all the time. You bring me down. Don’t be so dramatic… Here, have a glass of wine, but don’t tell your father…”
After all of this, Tara found herself in a storm of her own feelings. A monsoon of negative thoughts pummel her in the face. She is looking for some calm, some brief respite. How do we help her?
If she fights the storm directly, it will exhaust and eventually defeat her. Examples of trying to fight the storm would include:
- Ignoring or attempting to suppress her feelings. Going about her day like nothing has happened.
- Doing activities that promote short-lived happiness without addressing the underlying issue (TV, video games, social media, drugs, alcohol, marijuana).
- Trying to force herself to be happy through insincere tasks – hanging out with friends and pretending to be in a good mood.
These tasks are all insincere. They involve her being dishonest with herself and trying to pretend her bad feelings don’t exist. These tasks will drain her energy really fast. Once her will to fight evaporates, she will succumb to negative cycling. The negative feelings will sweep her away. Or worse, she will discover a new habit, a crutch, that provides temporary relief at a great long-term expense. This is what happens when we use alcohol as a crutch for emotional problems.
What’s wrong with just giving in? What if Tara just goes with the winds? If she lets the storm blow her over and drag her further away from her goal, this is negative cycling. Examples of this include:
- Blaming her mother (or parents) for all her problems
- Blaming herself for all her problems
- Giving up and giving in to the feelings
These tasks will backfire. They will destroy her self-esteem. They will destroy what remains of her connection to her parents.
What can she do instead?
She needs to move forward. She has a goal, a purpose. Ideally, she would use her negative energy–the stormy winds–to her advantage. How is this possible?
She has to turn her rudder and reposition her sails. Turns out, she can still move forward. But she has to go at an angle to the wind. She needs a manageable direction. There are many places she can aim for and still use the negative energy to her advantage. Energy is energy. Energy helps us move. But it takes work to point the rudder in the right direction.
Her father (or another role model, teacher, close friend, family member) can learn to be a better listener. He can offer to be the source of connection that she craves. He only needs to abandon his Mr. Fix-it role. Instead of being a temporary refuge, he can become a permanent source of positive connection and modeling. He must put his focus on understanding Tara’s feelings and situation, rather than trying to solve her problems for her. This way, her father can be an effective bridge of connection. He needs to:
- Focus on understanding her feelings and situation instead of trying to solve her problems for her. Empathy and connection will cure her. “Solving” only degrades her self-esteem by sending the message that she isn’t capable. No advice-giving! No judgment.
- Avoid feeding the negative energy through blaming.
- Be a rock of stability. Keep his own emotions (anger, resentment) in check, except for the empathy that he shows towards his daughter. No oversharing (“Let me tell you how much your mother bothers me, too!”)
- Be an effective, curious listener. Avoid interrogating. Provide her a safe space to say what she wants to say at the pace she is comfortable speaking.
- Avoid nonsincere tasks. Don’t go pretend to have fun with Tara just to take her mind off things. Understand the difference between activities of rest/reflection and activities of distraction. Small activities of rest and reflection typically provide temporary relief and may include small pleasures not meant to distract or diminish a problem: a walk through a park, a board game, listening to music, a bowl of ice cream, being close to someone you care for who knows about your suffering and won’t violate your values. A person can still be genuine and get emotional (cry, have a panic attack, be angry) during such activities, if needed. Nonsincere, distracting activities are typically larger tasks intended to sweep problems under a rug: a rock concert, a seven-course gourmet meal, a beach vacation, hooking up with someone you don’t care for or someone willing to violate your values.
Tara can also learn how to effectively seek out and find help when she is in need. It is not just her father doing work here. Tara can learn to communicate with individuals like her father, who often rely upon the Mr. Fix-it role. She can learn to gently guide such individuals towards a more empathic stance of active listening.
Alternatively, there is another direction Tara can go to also get closer to her destination. Tara can work on setting appropriate boundaries around her mother. This is not an easy task and will take a lot of work. She could begin to explore the reasons why things her mom said were so hurtful. Tara can start to understand how things she did and said probably helped trigger her mom to be so hurtful. Finally, Tara can practice new strategies of what to say and how to approach her mom when her mom becomes so angry. Her father or another trusted friend can role-play past fights so that Tara can practice more constructive things to say. Tara can learn to own her nonverbal and verbal communication in these situations. This way, Tara will learn how to better protect herself, with person boundaries, from future abuse from any individual. These newfound abilities will serve her the rest of her life.
- Work on setting up safe, healthy boundaries for important relationships
- Establish safe spaces where she and her mom can go when they are feeling hurt to avoid fighting and defensiveness. “Mom, when I go to my bedroom, I need you to respect my privacy.” or “Mom, I’m feeling a little defensive right now. I’d like to pause this conversation and pick it up later when I’ve cooled off a bit.”
- Recognize when her mom is being verbally abusive and call out the behavior in a neutral tone of voice as “not ok.” If it is not terminated, then Tara must withdraw to a safe private space, saying respectfully that she will resume the conversation at a later time. Tara can then surgically employ negative emotions, like anger, in a nonthreatening manner, if and only if her mom proceeds to violate the boundaries of that safe private space. Tara doesn’t throw around her anger like a club. She needs to learn how to use anger, and other negative emotions, to her advantage. Doing so will effectively communicate to her mom that it’s now time to back off.
- Avoid feeding her mom’s emotional dysregulation with Tara’s own emotional dysregulation.
- Role play with friends and/or other family members more effective ways of communicating. Replay old conversations with her mom to see which things she said were and weren’t effective.
- If the abusive behavior doesn’t end and/or boundaries aren’t respected, then Tara must put the relationship on pause. She can live with her father until the issue is resolved.
Getting to Tara’s destination will require some flexibility of zig-zagging back and forth between extending new bridges (with family and friends) and building new personal boundaries to safeguard against her mom. She will need to do both, a little at a time. It may take months or years. She won’t be “happy” overnight. But her negative emotions will settle and be more balanced by growing positive emotions once her inner elephant sees visible signs of progress.
Identity-Values-Reflection is a therapeutic process where we understand these fundamental choices. We separate out what is controllable and what isn’t. IVR breaks down behavior into three possible sets of choices: Identity, Values, and Reflection. At each step, there is an environment and a choice.
As a next step, I recommend How to build self-awareness.