Most of us would vouch for ourselves:
"My behavior is controlled." "I am in control of myself".
You will be surprised to know that most often, we have very little control over our actions. We are driven to behave the way we do, and we are seldom in command.
Unbelievable, but it is true. When we think before we decide or act, we do so with our conscious mind. But life is full of decisions and actions at every step. Every moment, our mind is busy analyzing and making split-second decisions. What you are doing now is a result of your decision to do so. Do you know how you arrived at this decision? Not really - not all actions are results of our conscious decisions. Most often, they are controlled by the subconscious mind. We have very little control on the actions which are governed by our subconscious mind.
Understanding what is subconscious mind and how it impacts our behavior can help us better understand people and improve our relations with them.
One example often used to explain the subconscious mind is the process of car driving. Initially when you are learning to drive, you have full concentration on the gear, the clutch, etc. You are all concentration on the process of driving; you look at every pothole, every bump, and every obstacle. As you get trained on driving, the act goes into your subconscious mind and you tend to drive without making a conscious effort to drive. You automatically avoid the obstacles, you automatically change gears when required while you could be doing umpteen other things at the same time like talking to your companion sitting beside you, listening to the music and observing the countryside.
As you practice driving again and again, you make decisions automatically and you drive naturally. Driving decisions and actions go out of the conscious mind to the subconscious mind.
After you have reached the destination, if you ask yourself which potholes or bumps you crossed on the way, you may not remember as you did not even notice when you actually slowed down and possibly changed gear to cross the bump. You did all that without being conscious of it.
Another good way to understand the subconscious mind is to do the following simple exercise. Hold your palm up horizontally in front of your face. Now close your eyes and imagine that you have a lemon on your palm right before your eyes. I would urge that you actually do this before you read any further.
Did you experience your mouth watering? The conscious mind knows that there is no lemon and that it is only an imagination. The sub conscious mind is illogical and immediately believes what is in the conscious mind and as a result your mouth waters.
Similar to the example of driving a car on a topsy-turvy road avoiding potholes, we have been driving down our life's journey - a journey which we started as a kid. There were various obstacles and potholes in our life's journey, and we crossed them all – but with important learning all along the way.
Based on whether our actions had positive or negative impact on us, we also made important judgments on do's and don'ts, things we should do and what we should not. We made our own judgments on where the life's potholes lie, what they look like, and what you should do in life to avoid them. The problem is that we started making these judgments very early in our life when we were kids and did not have the capability to truly judge the situations. But based on our kid-brains, we did pass some important judgments about do's and don'ts in life. We accumulated some learning and created a knowledge-base or a rules-book. We passed judgments about ourselves, about people around us; about what type of people are good and what type of people are bad.
All of us made conclusions about people based on their looks. Just because that person with long nose and grey eyes we met was bad, our kid brain concluded that all men with long nose and grey eyes are bad. A rule was written in the rule-book. So through our kid-eyes, we have actually identified the potholes on the path of our life. These potholes are situations or conditions which our kid brain has directed us to either avoid, or to retract when we come across any of them. Or they are people with some particular physical traits, etc. which we as kids have concluded to be 'bad guys' to be avoided.
If some of these experiences get repeated, may be purely by chance, our illogical beliefs get the support that we subconsciously try to seek: "See, didn't I tell you so?", "See, I was right!", we tell ourselves. Our judgment and the rule get reinforced. Just as the act of car driving goes into our subconscious mind by frequent repetitions, a great deal of judgments and rules created by of our kid brain have actually gone into our subconscious mind by repeated re-enforcements before we could mature and analyze them with our mature conscious brain.
Some of these rules may be completely illogical, but they have got so firmly set in our subconscious that now when we see a person with the characteristics we defined in our subconscious rule book, we will automatically react in a particular way and won't even know that we reacted that way. So just as we drive the car while avoiding the potholes and slowing down for bumps without really noticing them with our conscious mind, we tread the life's path avoiding imaginary potholes, slowing down on bumps that we defined in our childhood without even realizing that we do so, without realizing why we do what we do. Just as while we drive a car our brain makes several hundred decisions every moment without our conscious mind knowing it, we make numerous decisions every moment in our life and we obviously don't make them with the conscious mind. These decisions are based on the knowledge-base and rule-book built in our subconscious mind. Like the physical reflex actions that we very well know about, these are what I call the Mental Reflex Actions. Our behavior therefore is not a voluntary behavior but largely governed by involuntary actions. And we call ourselves highly balanced people acting on conscious decisions.
When we are driving the vehicle of our life today, we actually drive topsy-turvy, because of the mental potholes which may not be there at all. We still try unconsciously to avoid those pot holes we defined in our childhood, but do not even know that we are driving the way we are. We are not even noticing the mental potholes. You may have experienced sometimes that you act in a way and then the very next moment, you ask yourself, "Hey, now why did I do what I did?" Most likely, you did so because of a mental pothole. You will be surprised to know that actually the situations have changed, conditions in your life have changed, your own abilities have changed, but you were simply reacting to a mental pothole the way your mind has got conditioned to react to it.
We do certain things out of conscious mind, whereas most of our actions are dependent on the subconscious mind. They are like reflex action in some ways, but different in many ways. In case of physical reflex action, there is some action or disturbance in or around you, and before you know or you realize it, your body reacts to the disturbance. But immediately after the reflex action, you know how your body has reacted. However in case of subconscious behavior or the Mental Reflex Action, most often, our conscious mind is not even aware that we have reacted to certain sub conscious stimuli.
It is said that the conscious mind is logical, analytical. Subconscious mind is illogical. And since most of our behavior is governed by the subconscious mind, you can imagine what will be the outcome.
There is a very important lesson to be learnt about our relationship with people based on the above discussion. This learning should help us judge people better and react to people more realistically. How often have you got upset by the reactions and behavior of someone known to you or dear to you?. You got upset because you felt that he or she did it intentionally to upset you, to offend you, or to settle scores with you.
Whenever this happens to you, try to understand that we are all slaves to certain things in our subconscious mind. Appreciate that the person who upset you may not be behaving intentionally, it may be an involuntary reaction and not an intentional calculated move to upset you. He/she may not be in control, just as you have been helpless under some situations and conditions. If you appreciate that all of us (including yourself) are puppets to circumstances and rarely in control, you will understand people better.
All of us have in our subconscious mind a list of items about which we think we are "not OK" These items are of two categories:
Most of our unnatural or abnormal behavior is due to the second category of "Not OK" items in us.
These are items of which we formed some judgments about ourselves ("I am not OK") in our childhood, and then they got reinforced into our subconscious mind. Or these could be associated with some embarrassing experiences when we had to be ashamed of our own self, creating a "Not OK" judgment about ourselves.
These are things which we would like to forget about and not think about – we almost try to push them under the carpet and not think of them. They may go out of our conscious mind, but remain in our subconscious mind. These are our subconscious pain points.
When you have a pain in the stomach, the doctor checks you by poking his fingers at various points asking you whether it pains. It may not pain when the doctor presses at different points, and suddenly when he presses at a particular point, "Oooi….", you scream in pain. Similarly, each one of us has pain points in our personality or character. These pain points are those aspects where we feel "I am not OK" (or in other words, our own inferiority complex). We go through several incidents and experiences in life smoothly, whereas there are some incidents which touch you on your subconscious pain points and you react painfully. You behavior is the most unpredictable and uncontrolled when you are hit on any of your subconscious pain points. Incidents in life or comments of people around you may continuously touch your conscience, but you may not react till it pricks on the subconscious pain point and then the reaction is again "Oooi..!!". Different people have different pain points. Hence you may have noticed that when the same derogatory comment is made to a group of people (or a group of students), some get terribly upset (some may even get driven to suicide) and the rest may not be affected at all.
When we experience these subconscious pain points, we are overcome with some strange senses and our reaction may not be very controlled. These could well be the same feelings and sensations that you first had when you had the unpleasant experience as a kid, and which you all along tried to push under the carpet and banish from your mind. In such situations, we become absolutely helpless in our actions. We are totally driven and not in control. Whenever we face that situation which touches our subconscious pain point, we always compulsively react with very little control. However hard we try and decide to act differently, when it comes to the real moment, we are helplessly overcome by that same sensation and feeling and we act predictably (against our wish) based on our subconscious mind.
All of us have "pain points". And hence all of us have our idiosyncrasies. Whenever these pain points are disturbed by some stimulus (which most often is a comment made by somebody about you), we react sharply. Since the subconscious pain points are different for different persons, different people may react to same stimuli differently. Whereas one is deeply hurt by a comment, someone else may not care a damn.
Hence again, this shows the driven-ness of our behavior – we are driven to some behavior and are absolutely helpless in these circumstances. However hard we may like not to behave that way, we do still act the way our subconscious mind drives us to.
If we understand this aspect of human behavior, we can avoid getting upset over others' behavior.
Whenever you get upset, you think some one else or something else has upset you. That is far from true. It is YOU who has upset you. Whenever you are annoyed or piqued ("Chidna" in Hindi language conveys the exact feeling), it is not on account of any external factor, but because of the deep "I am not OK" feeling within or your own inferiority complex.
We all need to learn to say, "After all, I am as unpredictable as you are."
The pain points in our subconscious mind are hidden in some remote corner of our mind under some self-imposed cover. We prefer to keep them under cover since most of these are recordings of unpleasant experiences which we would like to forget. The difficult part is to discover these unpleasant memories hidden in our subconscious mind. Once discovered, it may be easy to remove them. Following exercise can sometimes help to discover and eradicate some unpleasant recordings from our subconscious mind which unconsciously influence our behavior:
Whenever you experience an unpleasantness, like an incident which made you angry, embarrassed, or uneasy, just sit back in a relaxed mood any time later when you are your normal self. Close your eyes and recreate the same situation (in your mind's eyes) which made you angry, embarrassed or unpleasant. Imagine that situation in great details. Almost re-live the same moments and keep noticing the thoughts in your mind. Notice the sensations in your body, any sensation in the stomach or any part of the body as you re-live the old unpleasant experience of the day. Again and again keep asking yourself – "What are the thoughts in the mind now, what are the sensations in different parts of the body right now?" You will be able to uncover some of those illogical thoughts, some under-cover parts of your subconscious mind and also be able to discover what exactly made you angry and unpleasant.
This exercise would be incomplete unless we mention and follow an extremely important rule of this exercise. Remember that when you start noticing your thoughts, you may uncover some thoughts and experiences which may be extremely unpleasant. The process may also throw up some thoughts and memories which show you in bad light, which may embarrass you and which may be extremely painful. You may feel ashamed of yourself. This exercise will touch your subconscious pain points and throw up all those unpleasant things which you have banished from your mind and pushed under the carpet. It is extremely important that you do not react to these thoughts and feelings, just observe them and do nothing about them. It is very likely that you may unconsciously shoo away these thoughts, as you have been doing all your life. What is most important is to experience without any reaction these painful thoughts, sensations and feelings. Silently observe them and do not react.
This was an offline exercise where you recreated the situation after the incident. After practicing this as many times as you can, the next step would be to practice something similar real-time. Doing this exercise real-time would mean doing the same thing when you are in the thick of the act and not afterwards by recreating the situation. When you are about to enter an unpleasant situation, say you are about to get angry, just watch your thoughts and sensations. As before, simply watch your thought and do nothing. You are sure to discover something new about yourself. Something deep-seated in your subconscience may surface and surprise you.
I attribute large part of the irrationality to our subconscious mind. Our irrationality is due to what I call the mental reflex action, similar to the physical reflex action that we all know about. Physical reflex action is a result of a command to react before the message reaches our rational brain, before we are aware of the action. Mental reflex action results when the result is a split second 'mechanical' output of our subconscious rule book titled "What to do When…". The brain makes a quick reference to the rule book and like a computerized output pulls out and executes the resultant action. Since we make several split second decisions every moment, the subconscious rule book helps us to get instant decisions without the delay of conscious reasoning every time there is a stimulus.
Unfortunately, the rules in this book have been written in a biased manner, most of them in our childhood. There is a major difference between the physical reflex action and the mental reflex action. While, in case of physical reflex action, we become conscious of the reaction in a few moments after the reaction, we may never be even aware of the reactions of our mental reflex action. Hence the irrational rule book never gets revised or corrected.
What can we do about it? For now, you are very right when you say "Stay humble". I would add, "Empathize with people". If we realize that the other guy's actions are as irrational as mine, it may help us understand people better and empathize with them. If you think someone has wronged you, you always thought it was by design - and that is the beginning of a crack in your relationship. If you appreciate that his actions are often as involuntary as yours, you can save relations.
But why settle for less? I think we can do more about it than just accept the status quo. Where we stand today, we are not even aware of this subconscious rule book, leave alone knowing what is written in the rule book. But I always believe that we should think of the unthinkable, only then we can discover ways to achieve the unthinkable. We should look for means to retrieve this rule book, rethink, and rewrite the rules. My optimistic mind thinks that if not today, man will advance to a level where there will be a method to rewrite our subconscious (sometimes irrational) rule book.
I've included this topic in all my 3 management books and many articles--see www.UnManagement.com . Subconsciousness or tacit knowledge (as opposed to explicit knowledge) should be a key consideration when dealing with an organization's context or ecology and and especially when the goal is to increase the innovation dynamics of an enterprise. Best, Charlie