What makes us human? Neuroscientifically speaking, it’s the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for planning, learning, and perhaps even personality. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain we use to learn and reflect, and it’s where we do our conscious thinking.
Subconscious thought happens somewhere else entirely. Our subconscious mind is responsible for our more basic mammal traits, like survival and instinct. Three things that are enormously useful for survival but not all that good for rational thought and learning: fight, flight, and freezing.
One way to think of the difference is in terms of hard-wiring and soft-wiring. We’re hard-wired to survive and thrive, and we can’t really change that. Our subconscious mind feels, but it doesn’t think verbally. It reacts, it doesn’t reflect.
Our conscious mind is the soft-wired part. The conscious mind thinks in verbal terms and interprets and reflects on the emotional content of your subconscious mind. This is where sensory input is processed, and this is where – most importantly for the topic at hand – self-talk happens.
Your subconscious mind is always listening to what you’re saying to yourself. Of course it is! Its job is to keep you alive and healthy. If your inner monologue mostly contains assertions that you’re always making a bad first impression, terrible at writing, you can’t meet a deadline to save your life, there’s no reason why this time will be different from any other failed effort at change – well, OK then! Your subconscious mind is going to do its best to carry out your directive. Your limbic system will be triggered, and you’ll feel physically bad – panic attacks, exhaustion, anger, shame – until you stop and do something else. This leads, of course, to a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle of not completing difficult things, thereby “proving” that you can’t do them. It’s incredibly frustrating!
Our conscious minds are much better at acting in the interest of growth and self-development. It would be fantastic, wouldn’t it, if we could get our rational selves to step in and manage our behavior? Sounds great! But, how do we get the two parts of our thought process to sync up?
The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is in what we say inside our heads. Since verbal language is the exclusive province of the conscious mind, then some positive self-talk (“this is hard, but I’m capable of finishing the project – here, let me plan it out right now”) is going to send the message to your subconscious mind that you are capable of handling the situation, and your subconscious mind can feel safe about giving over control to your rational self.
Put it into practice: the next time you have a seemingly insurmountable task, take a moment to use your conscious mind to reflect on how you’re going to handle it. If you can engage your conscious mind to talk to yourself about your gremlins, then you have a chance of reframing the deeper issue and starting over with a positive outlook.
Relatedly, here’s a fascinating article explaining why your unconscious mind quiets down when you make a plan.