Freud suggested long ago that our mind’s process information on different levels, which he labeled the Id, Ego, and Superego. These three concepts account for the struggle (Superego) between raw desires (Id), and acting on those desires (Ego). While this model has been largely discounted by modern psychology, the idea that we think on multiple, and often conflicting, levels has endured and is even supported by modern research in neuropsychology.
But what are these different levels of thinking? If we look to Freud again we find another theory that overlaps with his theory of Id, Ego, and Superego. This theory suggests that there are three levels of thought – the conscious (what we are aware of), the unconscious (what we are not aware of), and the preconscious (what we are not aware of presently, but may be aware of eventually).
To make things simple for the purposes of this post, I will include the preconscious level in the unconscious level during this discussion.
So what does all of this psychobabble mean (and why does it matter)?
Well, in a nutshell it means that we think on many different levels, and we are only aware of a fraction of our thoughts. To make things even more interesting, these different levels of thoughts are often in conflict with each other.
For instance, you may believe (on a conscious level) that you should act in a certain way, while on an unconscious (or preconscious) level desire to act in an entirely different way. These conflicting thoughts usually cause internal conflicts within us that may lead to feelings of uncertainty, anger, anxiety, or even depression.
Even in the best cases, having conflicting conscious and unconscious thoughts prevents us from performing at our best. The conflict holds us back because we can never fully commit ourselves to something that we unconsciously fighting against. There is also an argument to be made that our unconscious thoughts may be most closely aligned with our core values – but that is a topic for a different post!
How can we “listen” to our unconscious?
As I mentioned above, the unconscious is… well… unconscious. We are not generally aware of our unconscious thoughts and mental processes. So how can we “listen” to them? Or perhaps, the better question is “how can we become aware of them?”
Here are a few possibilities:
- Pay attention to behaviors. Our unconscious mind can play a part in the way we behave. While it is difficult for some to accept, there is a strong logic behind the idea that every action we take has a positive intent. When we do anything, we are seeking to fulfill some need by doing it, whether or not we are aware of the need we are attempting to fulfill. By paying attention to our behaviors – particularly those that we never really think about, but just do – we can gain some insight into the needs that we are attempting to fulfill, and the unconscious thoughts that are driving those needs.
- Pay attention to your feelings and emotions. Have you ever done something that felt wrong even as you were doing it? This may be your unconscious response to your doing something that is harmful to you in some way. The action may be a violation of your values, or may be damaging your body, or perhaps damaging a relationship you value. The intensity of the feeling or emotion may be a clue as to how serious of a violation to self the action may be. When something just doesn’t feel right it is time to stop and reflect.
- Learn the art of deep self-reflection. Many (most?) people operate on autopilot much of the time. It is very easy to live day after day doing what we do with little thought about why we are doing it, or if it is even the thing we should be doing. In the West we are conditioned to live this way in order to be “productive members of society.”
By default, the lifestyle we typically fall into is dictated by what society and culture expect of us. We are not taught critical thinking skills, or the value of self-awareness in our schools. This is a tragedy in my view. By learning to deeply reflect on our values, motivations, goals, and beliefs we are better equipped to live to our full potentials. The voice we learn to listen to in such reflective practices is our unconscious. While there are many self-reflective practices out there, my favorites are meditation, hypnosis, and journaling.
Learning to recognize what our unconscious mind is telling us is a gigantic leap in better understanding ourselves and achieving happiness. When we learn to recognize and act on the signals our unconscious mind sends us we open ourselves to choices about our behaviors and the meanings we assign to events that happen around us. We become closer to our core values, and more able to align our lifestyles and actions to them. In doing so we can avoid, or at least reduce, stress in our lives; improve our relationships; and lead more fulfilling lives.