Consider this POV: You want to make a change of some kind in your life. Perhaps you want to eat better, or you want to stop procrastinating…but no matter what you do, or how hard you try, you slip back into old habits and are not able to make your honourable efforts stick. Why is it when we are looking to make a change that is theoretically good for us, it’s actually very hard to implement? The answer lies somewhere beneath the surface…

Conscious vs unconscious thoughts

Sigmund Freud once described the mind as an iceberg. The tip above sea level is our conscious minds, and represents the thoughts we consciously are aware of and can rationally understand. But below sea level, the other two thirds of the iceberg are beneath the surface. This represents the thoughts and ideas we cannot access. And these thoughts are often irrational, stubborn and live in hiding. These thoughts were laid down very early on in life and actually, have a tremendous influence on how we navigate our lives, often governing key decision making.

So how does this affect us when we are seeking change?

Change is hard because inside us, we have different parts of us with differing opinions on how to live our lives and how to protect ourselves. Many of them live unconsciously under that sea level. These are often more vulnerable parts of ourselves that prefer things to stay the same, and control the more robust parts of us that feel braver about moving on. Trouble is, a whole bunch of these frightened parts of ourselves are unconscious. In other words, not accessible to rational thought. So what do you do if one part of you wants to move on and another wants to stay exactly where it is? Well, then we may have a bit of a fight on our hands.  

Let’s take a simple example to explore this phenomenon. Say for example you’ve identified a problem: you want to get off social media. You’ve noticed you’re on social media during every gap you have; between meetings, waiting at the school parking lot and before bed. At first it was fine. You’d come across some interesting and entertaining content. But lately you’ve noticed that you’re feeling quite drained after being on your Socials and you’re online more than you’re present with your kids. You’ve also noticed you’re buying a little too much surplus stuff every month off the back of the in-feed advertising and try as you might, you can’t pull yourself out of the loop. So you decide, it’s time to stop scrolling. But you can’t. Why is that?

 I’m not going to go into the dopamine withdrawal that your body is currently adjusting to. I am rather going to focus on the emotional quandary that stands between you and the

change you want. In this scenario, you can feel that the social media activity is taking you away from being present in your life.Your conscious mind blames social media, the algorithm and peer pressure. On one level this is true. But on another level, underneath that water level there is probably something else going on.  In a situation like this, it may be more useful to think about why you’re not able to be present in your life and what your social media habits are actually distracting you from. Do you have some unexplained anxiety and social media offers an immediate intervention,  actually rescuing you from your discomfort? In other words the social media activity is really a distraction, it’s a solution to a deeper problem. So actually, it is not the social media activity that’s exhausting you, rather, it’s avoiding all those elusive thoughts and feelings inside, that is actually leaving you quite drained. Maybe it’s that you’re finding parenting quite tiring, maybe you are needing to escape the intensity of your child’s behaviour by living in something superficial for a while. Whatever the thought, as long as you avoid thinking it, you won’t be able to change your behaviour. Why? Because as counterintuitive as it sounds, that bad habit is actually keeping something unconscious in check. It is protecting some part of you from some other idea which it deems ‘too risky’. Some part of you doesn’t want you to think about how you really feel, in case it’s too scary.

So let’s circle back to the original question – why isn’t it easy to change? Because one part of you wants to change. But another part of you absolutely hates that idea and solves the problem by mitigating risk and controlling your thoughts through activities. If you think about it, the mind is pretty clever. Problem is, this doesn’t necessarily work long term. 

The bottom line

Getting in touch with your unconscious thoughts can be tricky, but not impossible. It begins with being curious about why you are drawn to things, and where your mind goes when it wanders off. And if need be, you can get some help from a psychotherapist to trace the origins of these elusive ideas. By getting curious about these different parts of ourselves we are one step closer to making informed decisions about what we want for ourselves, we will be far more empowered to stick to them, and will find it possible to implement real change long term.

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