Symbolic People: How Your Subconscious Assesses Strangers

Whenever you meet a new person in life, the subconscious part of your mind instantly scrutinizes that person for familiar traits. If he talks in a loud, blustering voice, your subconscious will immediately associate him with your father who spoke in the same obnoxious manner. Since your father was a jerk, and since your subconscious is very concerned about keeping you safe, your subconscious will immediately flag this new stranger as unsafe and you will feel wary around him.

But suppose the man has the same silvery hair and large ears that your grandfather had. Suppose he even wears the same cologne that your grandfather used to wear. Since your grandfather was a kind and safe person to you, your subconscious will immediately label the stranger as nice and you’ll feel drawn to him.

You see, when you meet people in life, you never see them as they actually are. At first, you only see them as symbols of people from your past. The coworker with long blonde hair reminds you of the beautiful girl you were jealous of in school, so you immediately feel that same jealousy towards your coworker. The housemate who makes lame jokes reminds you of the cousin who always embarrassed you growing up and you instantly feel a desire to avoid him. Before anyone actually interacts with you, your subconscious is analyzing and stereotyping them based on what kinds of similarities it finds between the strangers you are meeting today and people from your past. The more matches your mind finds, the more confident it will feel in its ability to accurately predict how the strangers will behave towards you and others. This is why you feel a sense of panic when you see the man who looks like the man that assaulted you two years ago. It’s obvious that the stranger is not your attacker–he doesn’t look that much like him. But he does have the same dark hair, the same long nose, and he looks around the same height. If these were traits that particularly stood out to you in your attacker, you will feel very tense and nervous around the stranger.

Your subconscious is constantly on the lookout for signs of danger, but because it relies on its memory archives to make its threat assessments, its conclusions about how much danger you are in change as you collect more life experiences. Perhaps the first “Dan” you ever met was a nasty bully. Because of him, you instantly disliked the second Dan who came into your life. You avoided the second Dan, not giving him the chance to either prove or disprove your negative assumptions about him. But the third Dan to cross your path was impossible to avoid. You didn’t like him at first, either, and once again your initial reaction to him was based on that first bully Dan. But because you couldn’t escape the third Dan, you ended up forced to interact with him, and through those interactions you discovered that he was actually quite nice. With this new data contradicting the first Dan files, your subconscious then reevaluates its theory that all Dans are dangerous. By the time you meet a fourth Dan, you are much more open minded. You are more willing to interact with him because your subconscious has learned that a Dan can be nice or nasty.

Once you understand that your mind uses the past to interpret the present and predict the future, you can see why gathering more life experience has the potential to turn you into a nicer person. The more people you meet, the more data you collect, and the more you are forced to revise your current stereotypes. This is one of the great advantages of growing up: the very process of living longer on the earth results in more experiences, which results in more data for your mind to analyze. Greater life experience is one of the reasons adults have the capacity to grasp concepts that children cannot. An adult’s mind is supposed to be better informed about how varied the world is, less judgmental, and more open to giving people a chance. Growing up is a fabulous thing.

So why doesn’t it always work out like this? Why does a 60 year old black man still harbor a belief that all whites are jerks despite his experience with nice whites? Why does a 30 year old woman keep chasing after abusive men instead of learning from her past relationships? In cases of trauma, the subconscious becomes so obsessed with certain unresolved issues that it begins to ignore much of the data in its memory archives. When this kind of mental filtering is going on, your subconscious goes into a new situation with rigid beliefs and expectations. It then aggressively looks for evidence that supports those preexisting beliefs and ignores all evidence that contradicts them.

The woman who was repeatedly violated by two men when she was young becomes traumatized. Trauma is caused by the formation of extremely stressful beliefs. One of the beliefs this woman forms is that all men are cruel monsters. Since half of the world’s population is male, this causes the woman to feel very unsafe in the world because everywhere she goes, monsters abound. Because the woman’s mind is traumatized, it aggressively looks for evidence that confirms its strong belief that all men are creeps. Over the course of a week, the woman is around 20 men who act courteous and friendly towards her, and only 2 men who are mildly rude. Because the woman’s mind is traumatized, it submerges the experiences of the nice men as irrelevant and highlights the experiences of the two rude men as extremely significant. If the woman was not traumatized, her mind would be more likely to assign all of her experiences equal significance, which would cause her to conclude that most men are nice. But trauma biases us towards the negative, and nice men will find it very frustrating to try to get our woman to like them. Trauma causes us to push functional people away from us by the way we treat them because we are refusing to flex our beliefs. No one likes being punished for something they didn’t do, and traumatized people often act punishing in their attempts to neutralize threats that aren’t really there.

Have you ever met a stranger and instantly found yourself having a very intense response to them? Whether the response is positive, negative, or sexual, its intensity is due to the stranger reminding your subconscious of someone from your past who greatly impacted you.

When a stranger reminds you of a negative figure from your past who you have unresolved issues with, the result can be an instant obsession that makes you want to pursue a relationship with the stranger at any cost. This is usually what’s happening in cases where people chase after abusive romantic partners who they became instantly infatuated with. The attraction is indeed real, but it isn’t the “love at first sight” or the “leading from God” that people often think it is. Instead, the intensity of the attraction is being caused by the subconscious’ desperate need to resolve things with a figure from the past.

While you consciously think to yourself that you’re attracted to the new neighbor because she’s so hot or because she’s “the one,” your subconscious sees a rare opportunity to try to resolve its turbulent feelings towards your indifferent mother. Mom would never give you the time of day and her lack of affirmation left you feeling emotionally starved. When you deal with your mother today, you’re always trying to get her to express some affection towards you, but she just won’t do it. Now this new neighbor’s standoffish behavior is ringing Mom bells in your mind. Your subconscious feels that if you could get the neighbor to be affectionate towards you, it would ease the pain you feel about Mom always icing you. So you pursue your new neighbor aggressively, and ignore all of her signals that she isn’t interested. The harder you try, the more hostile your neighbor becomes because you’re acting like a crazed stalker. And yet to your mind, this pattern of you pleading and a woman refusing just reinforces that this woman is Mom all over again. Because her behavior feels like such a close match to Mom, your mind feels it will be all the more comforting when you finally get this Mom substitute to like you. The goal of your subconscious mind is to get help with its Mom problems–the neighbor is just a symbol. But consciously you don’t recognize what you’re doing. Instead, you honestly think you have found “the one” and you are making up all kinds of justifications for why it’s appropriate for you to disrespect your neighbor’s boundaries.

Let’s summarize what we’ve learned in this post. Your subconscious relies on its past memories to analyze your safety today and to interpret and predict the behavior of people you meet. Very strong reactions (good, bad or sexual) to strangers you meet are based on past figures that the strangers remind you of. When you just meet someone, you know nothing about them, so you have no cause to feel very strongly about them for any reason. But we humans are extremely symbolic thinkers and we are constantly responding to who and what we remind each other of rather than who we actually are. By being more aware of how your mind works, you can take steps to help it form more reasonable assessments of the people you meet. After all, your mind was designed with an ability to constantly grow and change. Whenever it gets stuck in a negative place, it can learn to get unstuck, which is why there is always hope.

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