Conscious mind/subconscious mind

What’s the difference?

In these pages (and all over the internet) there’s a lot of discussion about conscious mind and subconscious mind. What’s the difference? What actually is the subconscious mind?

Your subconscious mind looks after the things that you don’t consciously do – the things that you can’t necessarily describe. Consciously, you might have difficulty describing:

  • How to make your heart beat
  • How to make a sentence
  • How to make your voice softer
  • How to make the muscles in your legs walk
  • How to be afraid
  • How to be anxious
  • How to be happy
  • How to drive your car
  • How to trust something or someone

There is also much debate about which part of our mind is the most important, the most powerful, but it’s important to remember that conceptually dividing our “mind” into conscious and subconscious is really just that – a concept. It is a useful conceptualisation when it comes to making changes to patterns and behaviours, because it can help us to recognise thoughts and behaviours that we perform out of choice and those that we perform out of habit.

Have you ever made a declaration to yourself, such as “I’m going to get up 30 minutes earlier and go for a walk every morning, starting tomorrow”, only to have that behaviour fall by the wayside even though you really wanted to do it?

Do you experience a ‘hangover’ feeling from a past event, something you know in your heart you really should be “over”? Do you find that the memory of some event in your past keeps popping up and stops you from doing things you want to do?

Do you have seemingly irrational fears? Phobias?

These behaviours and thought patterns are driven by your subconscious mind. Here are a few similes to further help us grab hold of this idea:

Our subconscious mind is that part of our mind that stores everything we’ve ever seen, done, heard, experienced, learned. It’s the part of our mind that never really forgets. For someone who has panic attacks, it’s the part of them that signals “threat”, and engages the sympathetic nervous system in response to a certain situation, or even when that trigger isn’t present. For the smoker, it’s the part of their mind that enables them to light up a cigarette without even noticing; for someone who meditates or practices self-hypnosis regularly, it’s the part of them that can readily engage the parasympathetic nervous system, and enter into a relaxed and focused inner awareness; and for a practised musician, it’s found in the muscle memory that enables them to play a piece perfectly without sheet music.

Your conscious mind is the part of your mind that makes you run back to the house to check whether or not you unplugged the iron. Your subconscious mind is responsible for the iron already being safely unplugged once you get there – you did it automatically when you were finished ironing, because that’s what you always do.

We do well not to judge one or the other as “better” – both our conscious and our subconscious minds perform equally-important roles that keep us alive and functioning. And to make changes to our habits and patterns of behaviour, both will come into play.

It really does help to have a conscious framework in our thinking of how we want things to be, so that while that deeper (subconscious) change occurs we can shape how that looks when it manifests in our outer life. Equally helpful, though, is to remember that it is through our subconscious processes that we connect with what we might term our “higher intelligence”.

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