- Even though you can’t be conscious of what's in your subconscious, it nonetheless drives your behavior.
- Because we’ve never revised them, the disapproving or discouraging ideas we harbor about ourselves may limit our adult development.
- All therapies endeavor to find ways of freeing you from outdated belief programs.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” —Carl Jung
At least indirectly, this multi-meaning quotation suggests the goal of all therapies—not simply what they attempt to achieve, but why as well. The only caveat I’d add would be that today’s therapists tend to distinguish between what’s subconscious and what’s unconscious (e.g., see Seltzer, 2019).
Briefly, the term subconscious is employed to emphasize that with thoughtful deliberation, a person can advance into consciousness thoughts and feelings typically existing beneath it. Yet even though one hasn’t been cognizant of these underlying elements, they nonetheless drive their behavior—especially their decision-making, which may run counter to their better judgment.
Going deeper below conscious awareness, the unconscious refers to memories that, having been repressed, can’t be identified—let alone worked with.
Related to trauma experienced as nothing short of terrifying, what’s unconscious usually requires professional guidance and support if it’s to safely enter into consciousness. Otherwise, the client’s primal, survival-based defenses of dissociation and denial system will be reactivated.
Because this post is oriented toward self-help, it will focus on what a layperson can do by themselves to identify the subconscious elements in their out-of-date belief programming. For only after recognizing how these factors presently handicap them can they begin to reevaluate and alter them.
What’s Universal in Therapy
All therapies are designed to help clients change problematic behaviors. They operate either through a bottom-up approach, focusing on the client’s emotions and/or physiology (e.g., Gestalt Therapy, Somatic Experiencing, Sensorimotor Processing, Emotionally Focused Therapy, EMDR, and Internal Family Systems Therapy [IFS]) — or, alternatively, therapies take a top-down approach, centering on the client’s rational faculties (e.g., Positive Psychology, Behavior Therapy, and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy [CBT]).
But ultimately, the goal of both orientations is the same: to prompt clients to realize that the assumptions, biases, and beliefs compelling them to repeatedly act against their best interests undermine both their personal and interpersonal welfare.
Here’s an example:
When you’re in conflict with your partner, your sympathetic nervous system may automatically get mobilized, making you perceive them as a threat. Depending on your biology and biography, that interpretation will make you revert to a fight, flight, or freeze response.
You might do battle with them; emotionally or physically flee the situation by becoming evasive, stonewalling them, or bodily retreating from them; or, if the situation subliminally reminds you of something that originally overwhelmed your coping resources, you might go numb—not feeling anything at all.
Doubtless, none of these reactions is likely to help resolve the impasse in your relationship and restore its harmony. Unless you can access the more mature, rational functioning of your so-called “new brain” (or neocortex), which would entail empathizing with your partner’s feelings and their contrasting viewpoint, your conflict won’t be resolved. Regressing to your autonomous, survival-based “old brain” will only prolong the discord.
Beyond this interpersonal example, there are any number of personal examples in which therapists following different modalities similarly seek to get clients to explore the not-yet-recognized beliefs that give rise to their enduring maladaptive behaviors.
These beliefs could relate to their negative self-biases of not being good enough, or the stupidity of trusting others, or that they can’t succeed, they’re lazy, unattractive, incompetent, and a multitude of other aversive deductions they (prematurely) came to about themselves and the world.
More often than not, these pessimistic conclusions derived from unspoken messages they received, or thought they were receiving, from their caretakers. And these unchecked inferences led them to distortedly “crystallize” their self-image, unable to appreciate that later (even despite themselves), they’d grow their potential in ways earlier inconceivable to them.
Consequently, when we harbor such disapproving or discouraging ideas about our adequacy, never having revised them, our adult development gets stunted. Subconsciously, then, we continue to base many of our behaviors on juvenile, exaggerated, self-defeatist beliefs:
- If anger once served a positive purpose for us, we’ll hold onto it, despite various circumstances later demonstrating it’s almost always our enemy.
- If anxiety kept us from taking dangerous risks in the past, we’ll continue to avoid taking chances in the present, even though taking such risks would now be advisable and help us realize our objectives.
- If a rejection leaves us feeling horribly depressed, we may later strive to keep a “safe” distance from others to avoid repeating this noxious experience—even though such a defensive strategy will leave us socially isolated, thus culminating in more depression.
It should be apparent that all therapy needs to get us to consider how these various change-avoiding behaviors end up harming us. And that’s why they all try to find ways of detaching us from old belief patterns preventing us from living satisfying, happy, and fulfilling lives.
What most needs to be emphasized here is that the reason why so many of us don’t update our belief system as we age is that—going back to Jung’s quotation—then we could no longer blame our shortcomings, or short-sightedness, on “fate.”
And regrettably, most of us would prefer to attribute personal failures to external forces rather than take full responsibility for how we’ve constrained ourselves because of old insecurities that keep us from attempting anything outside our (too-narrow) comfort zone.
How to Change Programmed Beliefs to Advance Relationships and Well-Being
Once you develop enough courage to admit to yourself that it’s you—not the fluctuations of fate—who are primarily responsible for your frustrations, disappointments, and emotional suffering, you’re ready to work on changing the underlying subconscious beliefs that have compromised your healthy development.
Grasping that there’s really no one to blame for your failed expectations other than the distortions in your thinking—which you never consciously chose—you can rid yourself of the guilt and shame that, till now, has negatively affected your sense of self.
But what’s most encouraging in simply taking ownership of what, so far, you’ve made of your life is that you can at last assert that the ability to control it resides within you.
Recognizing your past mistakes or misdeeds as determined not by any lack of intelligence or moral fiber but mostly by defenses born of exaggerated fears and self-doubts, you can choose—actively—to face these fears rather than, as in the past, submit to them.
Standing up to this new reality will help you withstand the increased anxiety you’ll initially experience in violating your no-longer-applicable “laws” of safe behavior. And that’s what, going forward, will afford you the opportunity to change course, and so realize never-before-tested possibilities.
Once you begin this process, you’ll need to clarify what you want to achieve in line with your values and ideals. If previously your fears prevented you from taking action, this is the time to assure yourself that continuing your habit of avoidance virtually guarantees failure, so it’s definitely worth “going for it.”
Moreover, you’ll want to repeat to yourself that the more you stay focused on something, the greater your chances of success. Plus, even if you fail, you’ll learn something useful, making success more likely next time. For what chiefly enables success is committing to what matters most to you and not forsaking your goals because of delays and faulty decisions impossible to have predicted in advance.
You’ll also need to cultivate the flexibility and creativity that optimizes eventual success. So if one strategy doesn’t get the results you hoped for, just try another.
So as long as your plans are viable and, as necessary, you solicit the guidance and support of others, your perseverance should pay off royally—with a success you may never have dared believe could be yours.
© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.