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Have you ever felt wronged? Maybe your boss gave you an unfair review, your best friend consistently shows up late to meet you for dinner or a random stranger cuts you off in traffic. It’s not uncommon to feel anger, hurt or annoyance in our daily lives — and many of us feel like we’re at the mercy of those emotions.
But what if you knew there was something you could do about those emotions that wash over you? There is, and it starts with understanding how our brains work.
All our brains have both a subconscious and conscious component. Our subconscious minds do an incredible job of helping us through life. It’s been estimated that our subconscious minds process information at a rate approximately 500 times faster than our conscious minds. When we instinctively stop at a red light or pull away from a hot stove instantly, that’s our subconscious mind at work.
Our subconscious mind basically does two things. First, it runs old programs we’ve taught it, automating much of our day. Second, it works to protect us and keep us safe. While this is tremendously helpful, the subconscious mind has its drawbacks. For us to be successful in life, it’s important we’re aware of these differences, so let’s break it down.
Subconscious vs. conscious
Our subconscious can mislead us to feel emotions that aren’t helpful for us. It doesn’t want us to be uncomfortable, suffer or hurt. Sometimes, when we feel anger over something that is happening “to” us, it’s really our subconscious mind encouraging us to play the victim. Since it’s easier and often feels better to blame others or external circumstances for our problems or struggles, the subconscious readily helps us do that. Before we’ve had time to consciously process and digest a situation, the subconscious will say things like: There goes Sally again, always raising her hand first to snag that project or opportunity. She’s obviously trying to overstep you. You better watch your back.
Sadly, the more often we listen to our subconscious tendency to find external scapegoats and explain uncomfortable emotions in ways that aren’t our fault, the more programmed our subconscious becomes to do exactly that, which perpetuates the cycle. The result? We become unwilling to look deeply at the real problem, and we miss the opportunity to take accountability and responsibility.
Second, because the subconscious mind wants to keep us safe, it doesn’t always embrace change. When we dream about our future or consider making improvements in our lives, the subconscious often tries to talk us out of those pursuits. It might say: “Are you sure you want to train for a marathon? That sounds really hard. Just going to the gym every day is probably more than enough exercise.” Or, “Going up for that promotion at work sounds awesome, but the other candidates are probably more qualified. Why bother to try?”
How to enlist your conscious mind
Because the subconscious mind doesn’t like being vulnerable, it’s easy to fall into traps of blame and inaction. These behaviors are costly and can sabotage our growth, relationships, hopes and dreams.
Highly successful people enlist their conscious minds regularly. Because the subconscious mind processes so much more quickly than our conscious minds, highly successful people use both parts of their brain. They regularly take the time to slow down, stop and consult with their conscious minds. They extend the space between stimulus and response regularly. They check in with themselves. If you make doing this a regular practice, your subconscious mind (while powerful) is far from invincible. It’s critical to make sure that it’s your conscious mind is running the show at your most critical junctures in life.
People who regularly pause before responding to a situation or making a key decision do a few key things during that process.
1. Ask yourself: Is this reaction I’m having or action I’m about to take really serving me?
If you’re someone who has long-term goals, it’s extremely helpful to keep those in mind. While your subconscious might persuade you to do something that feels good in the short term, your conscious mind is a voice of reason in remembering your long-term purpose. If you have a goal to lose weight or build a better relationship with someone — and you take the time to consciously think about your “why” — you’ll often come up with a different response than when your subconscious acts alone. Your conscious mind will often remind you that even though a decision might not feel good in the short term, it will help you win the long-term game. Armed with that awareness, it’s easier to make the right decision.
2. Ask yourself: What’s this really about?
Whenever you’re feeling upset or angry, stopping to ask yourself what’s really on your mind will help you uncover new information about yourself. You might be saying it’s one thing, but upon reflection (and with the help of your conscious mind), you might realize it’s something else altogether. Many of us can probably recall a time that we snapped at a loved one about something but realized later it had nothing to do with that. We notice we were in a bad mood about something else entirely. Be sure.
3. Remind yourself that you can do hard things
People often neglect to try new things and take action simply because it’s hard. You can do hard things. It’s as simple as that. The more you consciously remind your subconscious mind of this, the more you can retrain it to embrace hard work and challenge as part of your daily life.
4. Just take action
Because the subconscious loves acting in routine, predictable ways, its tendency is often to simply do or change nothing. Because it’s trying to guard us and our safety, it can also trick us into feeling fear. Fear inhibits action, but action can overcome fear. Consciously choose to identify one or two actions in every situation that will serve you.
When you take the time to slow down and consult with your conscious mind, you’ll make more intentional decisions. This will lead you to a better life. Try it.