Power Tool: Conscious Vs. Unconscious Thoughts

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By: Jennifer Gastelum

Exercise and Fitness Coach, UNITED STATES

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, 239-251

Conscious Thoughts

Conscious defined by Oxford Dictionary online is having knowledge of something; being aware; deliberate; intentional and directly perceptible to and under the control of the person concerned. (Oxford Dictionary, 2012) Therefore conscious thoughts are ones that we are aware of and can be explained and discussed in a rational way.

Unconscious Thoughts

Unconscious is defined by Oxford Dictionary online as done or existing without realizing. (Oxford Dictionary, 2012) In contrast to conscious thoughts, unconscious thoughts are much more complex in nature and are difficult to define. A vast amount of research has been conducted over the years on unconscious thoughts and it should be noted that automatic thoughts (Aaron Beck), self talk (Albert Ellis) or internal dialogue are synonymous.

Unconscious thoughts are hidden from awareness or are often repressed from the conscious mind. They can be “…thoughts, mental images or pictures, memories or even physical sensations that go through our mind. Psychologists call them ‘automatic’ because they pass quickly through our minds and we are not fully aware of them. A good analogy is that they are like reflexes that occur quickly and spontaneously to an event.” (Gagnon, 2012). A person may not even be aware of the thoughts, just the associated emotion. Unconscious thoughts work independently and without the knowledge of the conscious mind and are developed through repeated experiences. This explains why we are often unaware of our behavior.

Unconscious thoughts can be both positive and negative. Our focus here is on negative unconscious thoughts as they appear to have damaging effect and block goal attainment.

Self Application

“If someone is throwing garbage into your house you will fight with that person, but if someone is throwing garbage into your mind you will not fight with him.” ~Osho

Ever have a goal and no matter what you do, you fail to reach it?  Even with meticulous planning and execution even the best laid plans can fail.  When this happens there is a disconnect between the conscious and unconscious thought processes.  Subconscious thoughts must be in line with conscious ones if you are going to be successful in achieving your goals.

The unconscious mind functions independently from the conscious mind and it never rests, it is constantly working.  Think about a time when you could not remember someone’s name and the name came to you several hours later while doing an entirely different activity.  This is your unconscious mind at work.

The subconscious mind is thought by many to be much more powerful than the conscious mind.  Freud believed “the things that are hidden from awareness…exert the greatest influence over our personalities and behavior” (Cherry, 2012)  According to Anando “neuroscientists have shown that the conscious mind provides 5% or less of our cognitive (conscious) activity during the day…and many people operate at just 1% consciousness…scientists show that most of our decisions, actions, emotions and behavior depend on the 95% of brain activity that is beyond our conscious awareness, which means that 95 – 99% of our life comes from the programming in our subconscious mind.” (Anando, 2012)  Thus explaining how individuals can sabotage their goals and not even be aware of such.

Unconscious behaviors bring one back to safe behavior that is familiar.  The subconscious resists change because it is uncomfortable and it is much easier to keep doing something that is familiar yet uncomfortable than to try something new.  Thus unconscious thoughts and behaviors are essentially self-protection and are difficult to change.

Unconscious thoughts and beliefs begin to develop during childhood.  They are accumulated from parents, caregivers, teachers and other important figures.  They develop from repeated experiences and often become automatic responses (habits).  These beliefs are often unchallenged and are accepted as truth.  The problem arises when the unconscious is filled with negativity.  When negative thoughts are embedded in the unconscious they are believable to the individual and any disproving information is ignored.  The next time when faced with a similar situation the unconscious mind will respond with these negative thoughts and subsequent emotions automatically.  This can lead to a distortion of reality as the unconscious thought and related behavior are never verified to their truthfulness.  If negative thoughts are programmed into the subconscious mind then they will end up creating negative situations in their life.

How to Counteract Negative Thoughts

Negative thoughts can be conquered in a number of ways.  Remember that ever individual is different and what works for one person may not work for another.

The first step is recognizing the negative self talk or unconscious thoughts.  Awareness is the first step in ridding oneself of negative self talk.  Anytime a negative emotion develops (feeling anxiety, anger, etc.) stop and figure out what you were thinking right before the feeling.  Some examples may be:

  • Anxiety followed by “I am stupid”
  • Sadness followed by “They didn’t ask me because they don’t like me”
  • Depression by “It has not worked in the past, why would it now”
  • Frustration followed by “I screwed up again”

Next challenge the thought.  Write down evidence you have that disproves the thoughts.   Here are some related to the above examples:

  • I am not stupid.  I graduated from college with honors
  • It is not that they do not like me.  I was on the phone when they left the building
  • Losing weight will be difficult and I will have to work harder than I have in the  past but I will be able to do it.  I have been successful at many other things and I will be successful with weight loss also.
  • OK I made a mistake but it is not the end of the world.  I will fix it and learn  from my mistake.  The only true problems with mistakes is if you keep making the same ones.  This experience will make me stronger in the long run.