Optimism vs. Pessimism: How The Subconscious Controls Your Outlook

Your subconscious is the part of your mind that stores all of your memories. As you move through each day, you are bombarded with new data: sights, sounds, tastes, touches, etc.. Your conscious collects and holds on to all of that information until you go to sleep. While you sleep, your conscious transfers all of its data files to your subconscious in one mass transfer. Your subconscious then sets about the task of analyzing, organizing, and filing all of that new information.

Now suppose a huge moving van showed up at your house and workers unloaded fifty large boxes of random items and parked them on your front lawn. You’re told that someone who you’ve never heard of died and left you all of their stuff. It’s all quite legal, but now you’ve got a real mess on your hands. When you slice open the first box, you discover a surprising mix of items. Some are obviously worthless while others look quite valuable. So what now? You’ve got limited space in your house, so you don’t want to keep everything. Some of the items seem like they could come in handy every once in a while. There are other items that you’d like to use every day, and then there is the stuff that seems rather useless.

As your subconscious rifles through the daily download, it draws similar conclusions as you did when you started digging through your inheritance. Some of the information your conscious collects seems quite important to your subconscious and it wants to keep that data readily available. Other information seems quite unimportant, so it decides to bury those bits deep into its archives where they will be out of its way.

Try to remember what you were doing on this same date, exactly one year ago. Does anything come to mind? For many of us, that question returns a total blank. While your experiences from 12 months ago do actually exist in your subconscious’ memory archives, by now they’ve become so buried that your subconscious would have to go to a lot of effort to dig them out. It’s not about to waste resources on such a silly task just so you can answer a question in a random blog. Because your subconscious didn’t consider my question important, it refused to provide your conscious with the information that your conscious requested.

Now let me ask you this: What was the last relationship you had that ended badly?

Your subconscious supplied the answer to that question pretty fast, didn’t it? For some of you, the memory file that needed to be recalled in order to answer that question was much older than a year, and yet your subconscious retrieved it with lightning speed and probably pushed an image of that person’s face into your conscious.

So what’s going on here? If I ask you to recall this same day of the week 2 weeks ago and ask you what the best moment of that day was, you’ll probably get a blank. You probably won’t be able to recall a single thing you did on that day without consulting a calendar, and even then your recall will be very patchy. Yet if I ask you what your last bodily injury was, no matter how small, your subconscious will instantly supply you with a whole list of recent bruises, cuts, and burns. Obviously your subconscious has come up with some kind of system to determine which memories to bury and which to keep readily accessible. So just what are your subconscious’ priorities?

Performing Threat Assessments

The way your subconscious organizes your memories is directly related to what your subconscious’ personal priorities are. Keeping you safe, and getting your needs met are the top two goals of your subconscious. The tricky bit is that you are a being with multiple elements, and all of those elements have different needs. Your body, soul, and conscious all have different priorities, limitations, and problems that your subconscious feels it must find a way to manage if it’s going to keep your entire system running smoothly. And then of course your subconscious has its own needs that must be addressed. So things are complicated–very complicated. It’s a good thing your subconscious is such an intelligent, efficient, and capable thing.

Pleasing all of your elements at once is impossible to do, so your subconscious scraps that goal and steps into a parental role over your entire system. Your conscious is easily distressed and has very limited concentration skills, so it will have to be protected from tasks that are too complicated and from information that is too upsetting. Your body has a way of blundering into foolish situations, so it will need constant monitoring and instant alerts when danger is nearby. Your soul…well, your soul is just a troublemaker. It’s always going on about the morality of your behaviors like it’s some big deal whether what you did was right or wrong. And your soul is frequently trying to get the conscious and body involved in projects that don’t have any obvious benefit to the system. Who cares about what happens after death? What’s the point in pondering the greater meaning of life? What does God have to do with anything? What does it matter how much of a difference your life makes to other people? Your soul thinks these kinds of topics are very important, but your subconscious feels they are annoying distractions from the far more important issue of your safety.

If your system falls under attack, the whole thing could get knocked offline, and then where would you be? Obviously your safety should be your top priority–at least this is how your subconscious sees it. So when your subconscious analyzes your experiences in life, the first thing it does is perform a threat assessment. What can you learn about detecting future threats from that fight you just had with your husband? Well, for one thing, you noticed that his face turned bright red before he grabbed that vase and chucked it at you. Your subconscious posts a new note on its priority board: “A sudden flushing face indicates a possible physical attack.” It then files the memory of your fight with your husband in the front of its archives where it can be easily accessed for future reference.

Your girlfriend of six years is unusually sweet to you when you come home from work: giving you a present, making your favorite food for dinner. Then she announces she’s leaving you for your best friend. Oh, and she’s pregnant with his baby. Your subconscious takes this new information and performs a threat assessment: Sudden niceness precedes betrayal. Surprise presents are a cover for malicious intentions. Girlfriends and best friends are never loyal. Intimate relationships are set ups for brutal pain. Trusting humans is foolish.

For threat assessments to do any good, they must remain posted on your subconscious’ priority board. After all, if you forget that high heels are impossible to walk in safely, then you’ll buy another pair and twist your ankle again.

Now because your subconscious’ priority board has limited space, once it gets cluttered up with important notes regarding safety, it doesn’t have room for anything else. Depending on how stressful your life has been, and how well your subconscious has been able to deal with your past experiences, that priority board will either have space for cheerful reminders, or it will too crowded with dire warnings to post any peppy thoughts.

Just Look On the Bright Side: It’s Easy!

The internet is full of enthusiastic promoters of “mind over matter” philosophies which insist that the simple secret to a happy life is thought control. Just inundate your brain with a bunch of cheery thoughts, meditate on some uplifting mottos, and say goodbye to chronic depression.

The chronically depressed tend to find these theories depressing, because when they strain their brains to hang onto happy thoughts, it’s like their brains intentionally fight them by chasing those happy thoughts right out the window. And yet the truth is that optimism does have a profoundly positive effect on your entire system, so why wouldn’t your mind be more cooperative with your efforts to think cheerfully?

When your best efforts to think positive keep getting buried under a barrage of doom and gloom, there are two common causes: either you’re getting interference from third parties (such as demons), or your subconscious is intentionally sabotaging the efforts of your conscious and soul by refusing to keep anything they say in easily accessible archives. In real life, these two things often happen at the same time.

I won’t get into the the demon issue here, although it is a very important factor. Demons are well aware of how your mind, body, and soul work, and they are constantly taking advantage of preexisting issues to keep you feeling stressed and miserable. But demons aside, I want to help you understand psychological factors that make optimism feel impossible. Even without demons getting involved, your subconscious can and will sabotage efforts to think positively if it feels it is in your best interests to do so.

Guarding Priorities

Your subconscious would love to bask in the energizing bliss that results from having an optimistic view of the world. But if it currently believes that terrible things could happen to you if it lets its guard down, then it will really go to battle against your soul’s attempts to rearrange its priority board.

It is your soul that is attracted to the idea of positive thinking–especially when your soul is feeling fatigued by having to live with a stressed out subconscious. When your soul comes across advisors that insist the subconscious can be turned into a more pleasant companion by getting positivity rammed down its throat, the soul rolls up its sleeves and goes to work. When the soul starts blasting the subconscious with unwelcome pep talks, it’s essentially trying to hide the depressing contents of your subconscious’ priority board by covering the whole mess with a gigantic smiley face sticker.

Your subconscious reacts to this the way you would react if someone were to grab your phone and start deleting all of your most important contacts. Your subconscious gets angry. It shreds that obnoxious, garish smiley face that is obstructing its view of its priority board and it yells at your soul for being an idiot. After all, what kind of soldier leaves his post to go watch television when the entire base is counting on him to alert them when the enemy is trying to pull off a surprise attack? Your subconscious is shouldering the heavy responsibility of trying to keep your system safe in a very dangerous world while your soul wants to play ridiculous games. Your subconscious finds this very exasperating. So does your soul. Your soul is tired of your subconscious always muttering about worst case scenarios. Why can’t your subconscious just chill out and relax?

It is a difference in priorities and pressures that results in your subconscious and soul going to war over an issue that is supposed to bring peace. As your subconscious uses its control over your mental archives to deep six every cheery mantra your soul comes up with, your soul gets increasingly exasperated until it finally has to admit defeat. Your soul simply doesn’t have the access it needs to make happy thoughts stay at the front of your mind. Your subconscious does have the power to make happy thoughts stick, but it’s not going to arrange things that way until it feels it can do so responsibly. First, your subconscious must ensure that you are safe.

Emphasizing Compassion

Getting your soul and subconscious on the same team is the first challenge that has to be tackled before you’re going to have any hope of brightening your daily outlook. The soul is far too quick to judge the subconscious’ methods as bad. Instead of taking the time to listen to the subconscious’ point of view, the soul tries to barge in and forcefully alter mental processes that it doesn’t understand the true purpose of.

Contrary to what is popularly believed, no one is born a pessimist. What people call pessimism is the logical behavior of a subconscious that has learned that it must be constantly on its guard. When you grow up with an abusive father who lashes out at you in random moments, your subconscious scrambles to do its best to protect you. It commits to staying on constant alert, despite the fact that this puts a heavy drain on its resources, because it feels it is it’s duty to act as the guardian of your entire being. When your subconscious keeps feeling like its best efforts to protect you aren’t good enough–because dad keeps beating you up, or mom keeps crushing your feelings, or that school bully keeps pinning you into a corner–your subconscious ends up feeling all the more stressed. When your soul then comes down on your subconscious with a bunch of condescending lectures about what a rotten job it’s doing at helping you in life, is it any wonder your subconscious gets hacked off? Your subconscious feels like a soldier who is hunkered down in a foxhole with live ammo flying over his head, scrambling to think of ways that he can hold back the enemy. And then there’s your soul, saying, “What is your problem?! Why can’t you just relax for a change? Why do you always have to act like we’re living in a war zone?”

“WE ARE!! Can’t you see that?!” is what your subconscious shouts back in exasperation. Until your soul takes the time to appreciate your subconscious’ point of view, its advice isn’t going to be very welcome.

There are two things I want you to take away from this post. The first is that pessimism isn’t an inborn quality; it’s a perspective that your subconscious learns to develop in a strategic effort to try to keep you safe. A soldier who skips through a jungle whistling a merry tune will get picked off by the enemy in a matter of seconds. Stealthy creeping with all senses straining to detect the slightest sign of danger is the much smarter way to move through a battle zone. Pessimism is about expecting the worst and focusing on the negative. This is a smart way to go about things to a mind that has been negatively surprised too many times and to minds that feel they have solid evidence that they are currently surrounded by danger.

The second thing I want you to learn is that your situation isn’t hopeless. When your subconscious fights your efforts to focus on the bright side, don’t give up on the idea of helping yourself, just realize that you need to use a different tactic. Focusing on self-compassion is a much more useful strategy for pessimists, because pessimism is fueled by psychological stress, and stress is reduced when your soul adopts a more sympathetic attitude towards your mind.

A great mental imagery exercise to use here is to picture yourself sitting on a bench feeling very distressed and worried. Go over to your stressed out self, sit down on that bench, and try to comfort yourself. When you do an exercise like this, the stressed out you represents your subconscious and the comforting you is your soul. You don’t have to try to assign these roles to the characters: they will automatically happen. You see, your subconscious views its concerns as completely valid and it will not take a different view. Your soul is the one who gets exasperated with your mind and talks as if you’re “thinking wrong.” When you use the mental imagery exercise I described, your soul will be practicing having compassion for your subconscious’ problems. Depending on how annoyed your soul currently is with your subconscious, you can find it difficult to do this exercise without getting snappy or bossy with the upset you. If you try to do this exercise and feel a part of you looking at your upset self with disgust and disapproval, thinking things like, “What a wimp!” or “Suck it up already!”, that’s your soul talking. The more acrid your soul’s attitude is, the more relief your subconscious will feel as your soul begins to practice compassion.

To be effective, self-help strategies must be tailored to fit your current needs. Those who recommend positive thinking exercises are rarely aware of soul and subconscious dynamics. They are viewing the mind as a single unit that can be easily coaxed into changing the way it processes and prioritizes information. But in real life, things are far more complicated than this. Understanding how separate your soul and subconscious are is critical to learning how to reduce internal tension, because much of that tension is being caused by those two elements fighting with each other. Often efforts to help the subconscious must begin by focusing on the soul and getting it to take a more supportive attitude towards the subconscious. Methods that encourage these elements to work gently with each other–such as the mental imagery exercise I described–are going to work much better than methods that encourage force.

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