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Subconscious vs. Unconscious: How to Tell the Difference

Human beings are innately programmed for survival, but they often get it wrong.

Pixabay Free Images
Source: Pixabay Free Images

It’s similar to suppression vs. repression. And this fairly subtle contrast is worth expanding upon.

When you suppress an impulse or desire you’re forcing it down, below the level of awareness. But when you push what feels too endangering to admit into consciousness even farther down, at some point it’s no longer recognizable. And that’s what repression is all about. It’s an involuntary reaction, inasmuch as it represents a psychological mechanism of defense, and all such self-protective workings are instinctual, operate autonomously, and (for better or worse) compel your behavior. Moreover, they typically take root when you’re still a child, with your mental capacity and judgment seriously limited.

Consider that human beings are innately programmed for survival—or, more accurately, anything that was perceived at a particular time as commensurate with survival. That is, quite on its own, your mind manages to remove from consciousness anything experienced as a mortal threat, whether physical, mental, or emotional.

But ultimately this biological blueprint carries unfortunate later-day ramifications. Back then, lacking the resources to effectively cope with, let alone overcome, a deeply felt hazard, you felt overwhelmed, maybe even paralyzed. Consequently, your “pre-programmed” psyche-protective apparatus (i.e., such Freudian psychological defenses as dissociation, denial, displacement, or projection) intervened to alleviate your intolerable distress. And it should be added that all your defenses reside in your unconscious mind, which is another way of saying they’re mentally repressed.

So, to better understand your unconscious, it’s fundamental that you grasp that this is the part of your being that represses extremely unpleasant memories, or hides them away from you. As one author puts it, it’s that aspect of mind which “includes socially unacceptable ideas, wishes and desires, traumatic memories and painful emotions that have been repressed.” Again, in that self-regarded moment of crisis you hadn’t yet developed the ability to effectively deal with what was felt as gravely threatening your welfare.

In a paradoxical sense, whatever defenses your inborn predispositions chose for you could be seen as “life-saving,” since they enabled you to absent yourself from whatever you experienced as unsustainable. And what you couldn’t deal with could relate to something painful, shameful, fearful, or deeply conflictual. Moreover, on a meta-level each of these feelings links to a turbulent reservoir of destabilizing anxiety.

Nonetheless, the ramifications of such repression—though, from a psychological perspective, absolutely essential at the time—can later carry exorbitant costs. For regrettably, your defenses don’t grow older as you do. They remain fixed in time and space. And possessing their own will and energy, in order to continue protecting you they’ll relate anything in the present reminiscent of an earlier disturbance as a prompt to make you react just as you did at, say, age 5.

Further, distortedly seeing themselves as pivotal to your survival, these defenses actually prevent you from ever working through what back then you couldn’t possibly integrate. And without permitting into consciousness the actual origins of these unsettling experiences, you’re unable to assure yourself that, as the more mature individual you grew into, you now possess the resources to make emotional peace with what earlier overwhelmed you. So the unconscious but powerful influence of these out-of-date defense mechanisms can, however inadvertently, handicap you indefinitely (i.e., by causing you anxiety, they block you from doing what you’re now completely capable of).

For instance, people suffering from panic attacks can (usually when aided by a therapist) finally allow a “forbidden” memory into consciousness. And when they make final peace with it, these extremely upsetting attacks no longer have any “felt" reason for being, and so are alleviated.

Differentiating between the unconscious and the subconscious is tricky. And in fact it’s been noted by several authors that in common parlance they’re employed interchangeably—and by many professional writers as well. As in distinguishing between that which is repressed vs. suppressed, it’s useful to think of conscious awareness as analogous to the tip of an iceberg: It’s above the water, so completely visible. The unconscious and subconscious, while taken together are far larger than what the eye can see, both exist below what’s readily noticeable. So the only meaningful way they can be set apart is through understanding their relative inaccessibility.

In short, with some introspection you can likely identify from where your thinking, impulse, or motivation is subconsciously derived. But with what’s unconscious to you—the bottom-most part of the iceberg—it will be much more difficult to ascertain the origins of present-day behavior that literally don’t make much sense to you. Potentially, you might discover its source through some form of self-therapy, dream analysis, free association, analyzing a slip of your tongue, or (by chance) witnessing someone else who experienced the same trauma you did (e.g., childhood molestation or rape). In general, though, it’s much more likely that you could successfully unveil its origins through the assistance of of a mental health professional.

Here are a couple of examples to consider:

Subconscious: You dimly recognize that you feel a certain jealousy toward your teenage son. Yet you don’t know why. In reflecting about it, however, you begin to realize that where this feeling stems from is that (subconsciously) you begrudge the fact that he has so many more opportunities and privileges than you did at his age.

Unconscious: You have an aversion toward asparagus. The very sight of it makes you nauseous. Still, you have absolutely no idea why. What, because it’s been repressed, isn’t available to your consciousness is that when you were 6, your father insisted you eat this (new to you) vegetable on your plate, although you protested, for its smell back then was repulsive to you. But because you weren’t permitted to leave the table until you consumed it, after a fidgety hour you tried to shove it down your throat. . . and promptly vomited. Even worse, you got screamed at for the mess you made and told you were “disgusting.”

The distinctions I’ve been making are clearly not academic. If you’re to better understand and accept yourself, as well as the concealed motivations governing maladaptive behaviors, it’s critical that you access the internal forces dictating them. There’s no way that you can reach your full potential until you gain entry into much of what exists below your awareness—that is, make both the unconscious and subconscious conscious—and, at last, come to positive terms with what, unknowingly, has been sabotaging you.

Once your hidden defenses are exposed, you can either moderate them or,at long last, surmount them altogether.

© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


Bargh, J. Before you know it: The unconscious reasons we do what we do (2017). New York: Atria. Retrieved from…

Cherry, K. (2019). Freud’s conceptualization of the unconscious, Sept. 14. Retrieved from

Cherry, K. (2019). Repression as a defense mechanism, Sept. 05. Retrieved from

Morsella, E. (2017). The unconscious mind in everyday life, June 05. Retrieved from…

Solms, M. (2017). What is “the unconscious,” and where is it located in the brain? A neuropsychoanalytic perspective. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1406 (1), 90-97. doi: 10.1111/nyas.13437. Epub 2017 Jul 31.

Subconscious vs. unconscious: What’s the difference? (n.a. & n.d.) Retrieved from

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