Memory Suppression: How The Subconscious Protects The Conscious

The subconscious part of your mind acts like a very protective mama bear over its conscious counterpart. There is a great difference in the abilities between these two components. Simply put, your subconscious is much tougher than your conscious. It can handle far more stress, it can work 24/7, it can perform a never ending stream of highly complex tasks, it is far more organized, and it has some very impressive defensive weapons at its disposal. Your conscious, on the other hand, is easily frazzled, easily overwhelmed, and easily fatigued. While your conscious can do some multitasking, it can’t come close to matching the subconscious’ prowess in that area. Your conscious needs frequent rest breaks to perform at at its best, which is why you really should take any breaks offered during your workshift instead of powering through. Your conscious needs to completely shutdown and reboot for a decent chunk of time at least once in every 24 hour period. Sleeping is essential to keeping your conscious in good shape, because it’s while you sleep that it gets to gather up all of its memory files and transfer the lot over to your subconscious.

In many ways your conscious is like a child who doesn’t have the resources to deal with the harsh realities of life, so he depends on his parents to protect him from information overload. Your subconscious is the protective guardian over your conscious. Your subconscious is constantly monitoring your conscious, looking for signs of fatigue, emotional distress, or confusion. Your subconscious has many tools at its disposal for handling crisis situations. For example, if you go without sleep for too long, forcing your conscious to become overtired and strained from information overload, your subconscious will forcibly shut down your conscious to give it a break. In other words, you’ll pass out. To be more accurate, you’ll knock yourself out using only the power of your mind.

The Power of the Subconscious

Your subconscious is quite a force to be reckoned with. It has great power over your body and conscious, and will use extreme measures to protect both when needed. For example, in situations where your body is being subjected to terrible pain, both your body and your conscious will quickly reach a state of all out panic. In these moments, the subconscious has the ability to turn off pain receptors in the area of the body that are under attack. It also has the ability to send your conscious into a numbed out, trance like state where it will feel temporarily protected from chaos. Zoning out, passing out, and numbing out–these are just some of the strategies your subconscious uses to protect you from harm.

A boy being beaten by his father might experience himself having a kind of “out of body” experience in which his body’s reports of pain suddenly feel oddly distant and his mind is able to muse about random, mundane thoughts. In moments like this, the subconscious is well aware of what is happening, but it suddenly floods the conscious with random, non-threatening thoughts in a way that the conscious finds completely distracting. You see, your conscious has a limited concentration span and can’t focus on too many things at once. When your subconscious wants to protect your conscious from stress, it can easily control what your conscious is focusing on by flooding it with certain thoughts or images. These distracting surges are presented in a way that is very intense and attention grabbing. It’s rather like someone suddenly turning on very loud music right next to you when you’re in the middle of a tense conversation. Because the music is so loud, it distracts you from the fight you were having and you get to take a break from that emotional stress.

The Information Barrier

Imagine that you set up a large plastic screen on one end of a swimming pool to divide it into two sections. One section ends up being about 1/3 the length of the pool, while the other section is twice as large. The smaller section represents your conscious. The larger section represents your subconscious. Now imagine that you toss a bunch of tennis balls into the two sections. Most of the tennis balls are green, but a few are black. Each tennis ball represents a memory. The balls floating in the smaller section of the pool represent the memories that your conscious has collected so far today. The balls floating in the larger section of your mind represent memories that your conscious collected sometime before today and then transferred to your subconscious. So now your conscious and subconscious both have sets of memories. Add five hundred more balls to the subconscious’ side to show that it has a lot more memories than your conscious does. Then, to see what happens when you sleep, scoop all of the balls out of the conscious’ section and toss them over the barrier into your subconscious. When you wake up in the morning, your conscious is cleared out and ready to collect new memories while your subconscious has a ton of balls floating in its area. In fact, there are so many balls on your subconscious’ side that many of them are pressing up against that plastic barrier. Do you see how the barrier is the only thing keeping those memory balls from crossing over into your conscious?

Now as your conscious gets ready to take on the day, it needs to recall a lot of information from previous days. Where did you leave your car keys? What was it you decided to do about that email from your old business associate? What was it you were going to add to the shopping list? Every time your conscious comes up with a question, your subconscious tosses the appropriate memory ball over the barrier so that the conscious can access the information it needs. Memories are now flying through the air and landing with a splash in your conscious.

Plop! You keys are on the kitchen counter. Plop! You were going to tell your old associate that you really aren’t interested in helping him with his latest venture. Plop! You were going to add pickles to the shopping list.

By the time you’ve finished dressing for the day, many memories have been transferred to your conscious mind. Some are from the previous day, some are from further back.

Taking the Lead

Your subconscious doesn’t always wait for prompts from your conscious. Often it takes the lead on managing your affairs. You’re engrossed in your favorite television show when you suddenly remember that it’s your mother’s birthday and you said you’d call her. It’s your subconscious that keeps track of birthdays and anniversaries. Your subconscious doesn’t care about morality, but it does care about your social standing with other humans because it wants to help you avoid conflicts with powerful people. Parents always feel like powerful figures to the subconscious due to their ability to supply important needs like emotional affirmation. Once your subconscious identifies one of your relationships as being important to your own well-being, it closely monitors that relationship and advises your conscious on how to handle it.

Now let’s get back to that large pool with all of those balls floating in it. The green balls are memories that your subconscious considers to be non-threatening. But the black balls are memories that it associates with danger. The information in the black memories is very distressing to your subconscious, and anything that stresses your subconscious would really stress your conscious. To protect your conscious from getting too distressed to perform its daily tasks well, your subconscious is very hesitant to toss those black balls over the barrier. It doesn’t want your conscious to access those memories unless it is absolutely necessary.

Now sometimes tossing over a black ball is the fastest way to get your conscious to obey the subconscious’ orders. For example, you’re walking down a street and you see a woman up ahead walking a large black dog. Twenty years ago you were viciously attacked by a dog like that. That memory is one of the black balls floating in your subconscious’ area. Normally it prevents your conscious from accessing the dog memory, because your conscious would find that memory very upsetting. But when your eyes see that dog up ahead, your subconscious (which is always monitoring your activities) quickly does a threat assessment and decides that that dog looks too much like the dog that attacked you. It gives your body a sharp command to stop and cross to the other side of the street. Going directly to your body like this is something your subconscious does quite often, but it confuses your conscious when your body suddenly starts acting on orders that it has been left out of the loop on. To keep your conscious informed about what’s happening, your subconscious snatches the dog memory ball, cuts off a piece of it, and throws just that piece over the barrier. Your conscious now recalls something about a black dog attacking you. It doesn’t remember all of the gory details of your injuries and your hospital stay afterwards because your subconscious is intentionally holding back those parts of the memory. Splicing memories like this is another very common trick that your subconscious uses to keep your conscious’ stress levels down.

You’re sitting at your desk, engrossed in a fascinating blog about psychology when your hand suddenly moves on its own pick up your water bottle and give your body some hydration. You never consciously think “I’m thirsty and I need a drink.” Your subconscious leaves your conscious engrossed in what it’s doing and deals with the hydration problem by giving your body a direct command.

You’re walking down a city street a night and you see a dark alley up ahead. You suddenly feel a check inside, and then you consciously form the thought “I shouldn’t walk past that dark opening. Someone could be hiding in those shadows. I’ll cross the street instead. It’s safer.” In this case, your subconscious gave a command to your conscious without including any memory files. But there are memory files in your subconscious which contain information about dark alleys being a potential source of danger. Your subconscious’ warning is based on the contents of those memories, but it doesn’t transfer those files across the information barrier because it feels that would be excessive. Your conscious doesn’t need to be reminded of that scary horror movie you watched as a kid where the mugger leapt out and attacked the innocent teenagers. Allowing those memory files to open in your conscious would cause unnecessary stress. Your subconscious prefers to keep your conscious’ access to memory files very limited.

Using Cover Stories to Manage Stress & Trick Enemies

You’re hanging out with your coworkers on a break, and the conversation drifts to the subject of sex. This is not good. You were sexually assaulted as a child which makes sex an extremely distressing topic to your subconscious. It immediately goes on red alert when it hears your coworker launching into a description of her boyfriend’s privates. Her crude descriptions are alarming similar to visual memory files that your subconscious has of your assault. Your subconscious is now feeling very upset.

Your conscious and body instantly sense that something is wrong with your subconscious. This causes both of them to feel alarmed. Your body starts exhibiting signs of distress: your palms start sweating, your stomach tenses, your pulse quickens. Meanwhile, your conscious asks your subconscious what’s wrong. It starts trying to do its own threat assessment of the current situation. Your coworker is still going on about her boyfriend’s physique. Your subconscious is getting increasingly agitated but it won’t explain why to your conscious. Instead, it’s keeping a tight clamp on the memories of your sexual assault, not allowing a single fragment to slip across the barrier. Then it commands your conscious to interrupt the conversation with a new topic.

“Hey, who made this coffee?” you suddenly ask. “It tastes better than usual.” Your coworkers all look in your direction, then they start commenting on the coffee as well. Your subconscious starts to relax. So does your body and conscious. But then another coworker turns the conversation back to sex.

“Hey, at least your boyfriend doesn’t get all rough with you like mine does. Last night he literally had me pinned to the mattress…”

Your subconscious has had enough of this crowd. It suddenly sounds an emergency alarm and your body and conscious react with panic. You get an overwhelming sense that you must get out of that room now. You almost knock your coffee cup over in your haste to set it down, then you flee to the nearest bathroom and look at yourself in the mirror. Your face is flushed, your eyes are glistening, and your stomach is threatening to return the lunch you ate. Your conscious mind is swirling with confusion. Why am I so upset? What is wrong? Why am I acting like this? Your conscious pleads with your subconscious for help. Your subconscious assesses how upset your conscious is. Will your conscious calm down faster with or without an explanation? It’s vital to get your conscious to calm down quickly because the work day has to be finished. Your subconscious now considers those two coworkers to be a threat to your safety because their conversation triggers too many matches with the contents of very dangerous memory files. To keep you safe, your subconscious doesn’t want those two women knowing how upset they are making you. It’s always dangerous to let the enemy know how much he’s upsetting you. Your subconscious now needs a strategy that will calm down your conscious.

Suddenly there’s a knock on the bathroom door. “Hey, girl, are you feeling alright?” It’s the voice of one of your coworkers who your subconscious now views as a threat to your safety. A convincing cover story is needed. A thought suddenly forms in your conscious: “I just have a mild case of food poisoning.” This thought originated from your subconscious and it’s a fat lie. But your conscious breathes a sigh of relief. Now it understands what’s going on.

“I’m fine! Just felt queasy all of a sudden! Must have been a bad sandwich!” you call back.

“Oh, you poor thing! There’s soda in the fridge–that might help.”

“Thanks!” you call back. You’re feeling much better now. Your stomach is settling. It was just the food, nothing more.

Your subconscious sets the memory of your assault aside. Crisis averted…for now.

Blocked Memories

The workplace situation I just described is what happens when the subconscious is completely blocking a very upsetting memory from being accessed by the conscious. This kind of thing often happens in cases of severe trauma, however this doesn’t mean you should readily accept this kind of diagnosis. Unfortunately, there are some very shady counselors and religious leaders who use a false diagnosis of “blocked memories” to cause clients to feel dependent on them. You need to be very wary of this sort of thing.

Telling someone that something horrifying happened to them that they just can’t remember is a guaranteed way to stress them out. Because you are much more vulnerable to being manipulated when you are stressed, shady counselors will intentionally try to worsen your condition before starting to “help” you. Getting educated about what blocked memories are is your best defense against shady counselors.

Keeping you safe is one of the subconscious’ top priorities and it is always a concern for your safety that motivates your subconscious to construct special barricades around dangerous memory files. A good way to think of severely traumatic memory files is like having a snarling wolf running around loose in your house. When the wolf sees you, it starts chasing you with every intention of attacking you. Suppose you can’t kill the wolf or drive it out of your house. How else can you protect yourself from it? Trapping it in a closet would be ideal. Once the wolf is safely locked in a closet, you can go about your business without being afraid that it will attack you. But you will still be able to hear it snarling and growling, and that will make it impossible for you to relax. In the same way, when your subconscious blocks memories, it still knows those memories exist, and it feels very distressed by their contents. Your subconscious can’t relax in the presence of blocked memories. Instead, it finds itself having to perform all of its duties in a higher state of stress, and over time, this can cause severe mental fatigue.

Now your subconscious isn’t stupid, and it knows that keeping memories totally blocked puts a major drain on its resources. So it wants to lift the blocks as soon as possible, but it doesn’t feel that will be safe to do until it has figured out an effective way of dealing with those files.

Suppose you worked out a plan for neutralizing that wolf. Maybe you get your hands on some special wolf calming drug that you can inject the thing with so it will stop acting so rabid. With this new tool available, you’ll try to scrape up the courage to open that closet and let the wolf out. If you can inject it with the drug, and turn it into a calm, quiet wolf, you will finally be able to relax again.

In the same way, once your subconscious feels it has new resources to finally deal with the contents of a blocked memory, it will unblock it so it can neutralize it. Neutralized memories are ones that no longer threaten your subconscious and they get stored in your main memory archives.

Memories get blocked when your subconscious forms its standard assessment of the memory’s contents and comes away with conclusions that it finds unbearable to live with. For example, you get raped by your brother when you’re a kid. What on earth are you to make of that? What does it mean? When your subconscious performs its analysis, it concludes you must be a piece of worthless trash, because why else would your brother treat you with such a lack of respect? No human can live comfortably with the idea that they are trash, so to protect itself and all of your other components from becoming too stressed, your subconscious shoves the assault memory out of its face.

Now I’m intentionally being simplistic with these examples. In real life, your subconscious often draws several terrifying conclusions from a single traumatic memory. In real life, not all minds resort to blocking. Some use this method faster than others. Some never use permanent internal blocks and instead use external aids like drugs and alcohol to assist in forming temporary blocks. In real life, minds often use several defense measures at the same time to manage traumatic memories. Each mind has its own way of going about things. There isn’t just one right way–every mind’s approach will prove to be quite logical and respectable if you take the time to understand what it’s motivations are.

When a memory is blocked, your subconscious will not allow your conscious mind to access it. If your conscious starts pushing for that information, your subconscious will often lie to your conscious in order to get your conscious to stop asking questions. Your subconscious deceives your conscious all the time by withholding information, telling partial truths, over simplifying situations, exaggerating situations, creating distractions, and simply telling your conscious “no.”

Responding to Blocks

So what’s the best way to deal with a blocked memory? First, you need to recognize it as an indication that your subconscious feels very distressed by the contents of that memory. Second, you need to acknowledge the fact that your subconscious understands what it can handle better than you do, therefore you should respect its boundaries.

As a trauma counselor, I am not a fan of trying to force blocked memories to emerge. There are different ways of going about this, some of which are not very nice. Some methods involve the therapist trying to bypass the conscious entirely (by shutting it down through something like hypnosis) and then gently or not so gently pressuring the subconscious to talk about what it doesn’t want to talk about. Normally your subconscious talks to other people using your conscious as its spokesperson. The idea of hypnosis is that if we can get the conscious out of the way, the subconscious will feel free to talk about more things because it won’t be worried about stressing out its delicate spokesperson. Some people feel that hypnosis is a very helpful way to quickly get to the bottom of things. While I can appreciate the attraction to that idea, I prefer to work with subconscious’ using the methods they normally prefer, which is by talking through their conscious counterparts. Subconscious’ are extremely intelligent and strategic and they know when you are trying to pull stunts on them and sneak around their defenses. I believe that earning a subconscious’ trust by being very respectful of its boundaries and transparent about your motivations towards it pays off much better rewards in the long run. Every therapist forms their own opinions about these things.

Now even if you use a method like hypnosis and get the subconscious to tell you about the memory its blocking, that memory will still be blocked from the conscious, and it will remain cordoned off in a special area of the memory archives until the subconscious finds a way to neutralize it. Memory blocks are protective measures which the subconscious uses to protect itself and your conscious from stress overload. You can’t really fix this kind of problem until the memory is neutralized, and the subconscious often needs help with figuring out how it can do that. Once the memory is no longer considered dangerous, the subconscious will unblock it and file it away in the normal archives. Dropping a block is a great relief to your system and frees up resources for the subconscious to use in other areas.

Partial Blocks

Because complete blocks are so resource draining, subconscious’ often use partial blocks instead. This is when you can remember that you were assaulted as a child, but you can’t remember the identity of your attacker. In partial block situations, only the most upsetting elements of a memory are blocked, while the rest of the memory can be accessed. But in these cases, the subconscious will often try to minimize how often the conscious is reminded of any aspect of the stressful memory just to protect the conscious from feeling distressed.

Other Suppression Techniques

The subconscious has other, subtler ways of shielding the conscious from stress. You have a fight with your spouse and your friend wants to know the details. You sense that you could recall a lot of unpleasant details if you put effort into it, but you don’t want to dredge all of that up so you just give your friend a deflecting comment and change the subject. In these cases, when your conscious turns to your subconscious with a memory file request, your subconscious warns it that it would be better off not reviewing those files. Your conscious heeds the warning and doesn’t persist because it doesn’t enjoy feeling stressed and it respects your subconscious’ advice.

Sometimes your soul gets involved and insists that your conscious reviews files against the advice of the subconscious. You go to a priest for counseling and he presses you for details about a memory of you doing something that you’re ashamed of. Your subconscious warns your conscious not to review that information because it will only make it feel upset. But your soul is trying to resolve its moral crisis, so it demands that your conscious do what it wants by reviewing the files. The files are not hidden behind a mental barricade, the subconscious is just stalling about transferring them. In this mild form of memory suppression the subconscious is once again trying to help your conscious protect itself from stress.

As you can see, your subconscious is very protective by nature and very strategic in how it manages your memories. The more you learn about the intricate inner workings of your own mind, the more you can see why there is no such thing as a dumb human. Every subconscious is remarkably intelligent, and at this very moment, your subconscious is performing a whole array of complex tasks that are all focused on the goal of safeguarding the well-being of your entire system.

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