Principles of Self-Analysis: Respecting Your Subconscious’ Boundaries

As helpful a it can be to talk with a counselor, counseling is only effective when you start doing the work. What this means is that you are the most important counselor to yourself. When trying to get better acquainted with yourself, rifle through past memories, and analyze your own thought process, the methods you use, and the attitudes you express towards yourself greatly influence the kind of results you get from your self-analysis.

Because you are the most important counselor in your own healing process, bringing in another counselor to assist you isn’t always needed. In many situations, you can make fabulous progress all on your own if you understand some guiding principles. In my post Practical Steps for Correcting Traumatic Beliefs, I explain an action plan for those who want to try to tackle their own issues. I’ve been thrilled by the feedback I’ve received about that post. Many of you have bravely taken on the challenge of trying to seriously help yourselves, and the progress you’ve been making is clear in the kinds of questions you’ve asked. Asking questions along the way is excellent. It’s easy to hit walls in self-therapy and it’s often better to ask for help in those moments than to try to wing it.

Now in dealing with trauma, there are times when it becomes very important that you immediately stop trying to push your mind to discuss its fears with you and give it a chance to rest and recover. Just as you can seriously injure your body by continuing to walk on a badly sprained ankle, you can seriously injure your mind by pushing it too hard in therapy. Psychological trauma is a form of mental injury, and any time one of your elements is injured, rest, patience, and kindness are vital for healing.

Now suppose a mother finds out that her son died in a terrible car accident with graphic injuries. The fact that her son is dead is overwhelmingly stressful to the mother. To add on top of that an understanding the kinds of injuries he sustained and how terribly he suffered while dying feels like too much to her already devastated mind. When she is exposed to that extra information, the woman’s subconscious immediately puts those memories into a special vault in its memory archives which will prevent those memories from being accessed by the woman’s conscious or soul. This kind of memory suppression or memory blocking is a very common defense strategy that minds resort to in cases of severe trauma. When the subconscious initially does this, it says to itself: “I’m in the middle of a crisis and I have to prioritize. Right now I have to focus on basic survival. I’ll deal with these terrible memories later after things calm down a bit.”

Now the assumption and hope is that things will calm down significantly in the near future, allowing the subconscious to unlock its special vault, pull out those terribly upsetting memory files, and find a way to neutralize their toxic effect. But in cases of severe trauma, the subconscious often finds that things don’t calm down. Instead, life circumstances continue to feel very stressful, with new problems popping up one after another so that the subconscious doesn’t feel it has a minute to rest, let alone scrape up the extra resources needed to deal with suppressed memories. Before it knows it, decades have passed and that scary vault has never been emptied. In many cases of severe trauma, that vault actually gets more full as the subconscious is so frazzled by stress that it feels it has no choice but to keep hiding away more and more files.

And then one day you say to yourself: “I’m tired of feeling so stressed all the time, and I want to break out of some of my negative behavior patterns. It’s time to do some self-analysis and see if I can’t identify the root causes of my stress.”

Which part of you is talking here? This is not your subconscious. This is your soul.

Your soul does not have direct access to your memory archives. Like your conscious, your soul has to request memory files from your subconscious. Your subconscious then decides whether or not to fulfill those requests. When your subconscious refuses, you find yourself unable to remember what you’re trying to remember.

Now from the perspective of your subconscious, your soul’s attempts at self-analysis often feel like some pushy personality comes waltzing in demanding to know everything about what the subconscious is up to while it has already decided that the subconscious is making all kinds of dumb choices. Ever have a boss who had no clue what you did for the company, yet he loved to tell you the best way to go about your job? And because he really had no idea what he was talking about, a lot of his suggestions were useless and guaranteed to make messes. To your subconscious, your soul often comes across like that kind of boss: ignorant, irritating, and giving out a bunch of idiotic commands. After all, your soul really has no clue about all of the vital tasks your subconscious is juggling throughout the day. What does the soul know about helping your body determine the best way to locate specific types of nutrition or fend off invading germs? Nothing. What does your soul know about the fragile nature of your conscious? Nothing. Your soul doesn’t begin to understand what an enormous, complex task it is to manage a database that contains a record of every single life experience you’ve ever had. From where your soul is sitting, it simply sends in a request for a file, and that information magically appears. Must be nice. Your subconscious is the one doing all of the grunt work. Your subconscious is the one coming up with ingenious ways of organizing epic amounts of data so that the most trivial details about your life can be instantly accessed. What was your favorite toy when you were a little kid? The red stuffed dog that your aunt gave you. Your subconscious supplies the information instantly, yet it gets no applause, no accolades for its brilliance. Instead, your soul is so spoiled by the top notch service it’s been receiving your whole life that it develops a rather entitled attitude and starts acting like your subconscious owes it to hand over any memory files it wants to see. Well, no, your subconscious doesn’t feel that it owes anyone anything, thank you very much. And your subconscious isn’t about to unleash a suppressed memory file when it knows what a dangerous effect that could have on your whole system.

Oh, but your soul is trying to help, and so it must see those hidden files. Then it will be able to help the subconscious quickly work through whatever scary information is in them.

Yeah, right. If your soul wants to be so helpful, how about it starts minding its own business and leave the mental challenges to the mental element?

From the perspective of your subconscious, it is the element that is usually the most in danger of being harmed by unlocking suppressed memories. It’s all fine for you to tell Joe to head on into the room where the ticking bomb is and try to defuse it while you wait a safe distance away. But why should you have the power to put Joe in harm’s way? Since he’s the one putting his life on the line, shouldn’t he get to decide if and when he is ready to go in?

Now sometimes your subconscious will lock away memory files that are primarily a threat to your soul. Usually these kinds of files are focused on moral crises. When your subconscious does this, it is trying to protect your soul from devastation. Then your soul comes along, totally unaware of the danger it is being protected from, and starts hassling your subconscious to give up its secrets. See the problem?

So how does your subconscious react when it feels that your soul’s pushiness is putting your entire system at risk of being seriously injured? Your subconscious fights to protect you. Here is where you might find yourself suddenly having a very hard time getting motivated for another session of self-analysis. When you do manage to finally sit down and try, you find it very difficult to focus. The exciting progress you were making earlier has now slowed down to a frustrating crawl or stopped entirely. You find yourself feeling grumpy and agitated when you start trying to do more internal probing, then you feel relieved when you stop. Meanwhile, the negative behaviors that you’re hoping to correct through self-therapy are flaring up worse than ever. All of these things are indications that your subconscious is feeling very threatened by your memory probing and is trying to sabotage your soul’s efforts to continue. If your soul continues trying to push ahead despite this resistance, your subconscious will likely start to express its rage through nightmares with very scary imagery that you can’t make sense of. Here is where you really need to stop and give your mind a break.

The Power of Peer Pressure

It’s important to understand that your soul and subconscious have a very intense, complex relationship with each other. Though they often disagree, they also feel dependent on each other–so much so that in extreme situations, they are both willing to sabotage themselves in order to please their partner element. What this means is that your soul can coerce your subconscious into revealing suppressed memories before it is ready to do so. But the damage that results from this kind of pressing can be catastrophic.

Suppose that you are convinced that your friend Pedro is ready to ski down a very steep mountain slope. Pedro is convinced that he is not ready for such a challenge. But you make such an epic fuss over it that he finally gives in and puts his life at risk just to please you. Seconds after he shoots off, he loses control, slams into a tree and dies. It turns out Pedro’s assessment of what he was ready to handle was more accurate than yours.

When your subconscious starts aggressively fighting against your efforts to self-analyze, its resistance tells you that it does not feel ready to deal with the memories you’re trying to unpack. It’s not doing this because it wants to stay crippled. Keeping memories suppressed requires a lot of mental resources–resources that your subconscious would much rather spend elsewhere. So it wants to heal, just as Pedro wanted to be able to ski down steep slopes. But timing matters in these affairs. Pedro knew that his skills simply weren’t developed enough to take on really steep slopes. Saying, “I’m not ready yet” is not the same as saying “I’ll never be ready.”

The goal of self-therapy is to help your mind gain the resources it needs to tackle its biggest fears. You do this by letting your mind lead the order of issues that you tackle. Maybe your subconscious isn’t ready to deal with Problem A, but it feels like it does have the resources to tackle Problem B. If you follow its lead and help it with Problem B first, you’ll help it free up resources that were being spent on Problem B which can then be used to tackle Problem A. This kind of “leveling up” is an important concept in any kind of therapy, but it becomes critical when your subconscious starts showing signs of panic.

Understanding Memory Suppression

Now unfortunately there are a lot of shady counselors out there who use the concept of memory suppression to terrorize people with lies about things they’ve gone through in life. A very common ploy here is to tell people that they were sexually assaulted as young children even though they can’t remember any such experience. Because trauma is fueled by beliefs, getting someone to believe something awful happened to them even when it didn’t can result in the same level of mental injury as actually having that experience. To avoid leaping to wrong and terrifying conclusions about what blanks in your memory might mean, you need to get a better understanding of how suppression works.

First, let’s tackle the big fear of “What is lurking behind the locked door in my mind?” If your mind is obviously withholding memories from you, does that mean you’ve gone through some horrible life experience that you have no recollection of? Not necessarily. While suppressed memories sometimes feel like “new” memories–meaning they are focused on life experiences that you honestly don’t remember going through–it’s far more common for suppressed memories to be linked to experiences that you can recall. I know that sounds confusing, so let’s use some examples.

When she was a child, Jane was given a pony. The first time she tried to ride it, the pony bucked her off and she was seriously injured. That was very traumatizing to her. Then her father shot the pony in front of her. That was even more traumatizing. In response, Jane’s mind blocks out all of her pony memories. There aren’t that many, because Jane never got another pony, nor did she ever ride horses again. As an adult, Jane has no conscious awareness that she has ever interacted with a pony. So when the pony memories are unearthed for Jane, they feel like new, shocking memories. She feels like she suddenly gained a whole new chapter in the story of her life–a chapter that she didn’t even know was missing.

Jane’s scenario is one of total memory suppression, meaning that all memories associated with the upsetting subject (having a pony) have been blocked. But contrary to what you’ll find being portrayed in movies and books, this kind of total suppression is not the common scenario. In cases of memory suppression, it’s far more common to have partial suppression, which is the case with Emilio.

When he was a child, Emilio was sexually assaulted. Certain imagery from that experience has haunted him his whole life. Though he tries not to dwell on it, Emilio is consciously aware that he was assaulted as a boy, but his memories of that incident are fragmented and incomplete. He remembers hands reaching towards him. He remembers being in a dark room. He remembers physical sensations of pain. But he can’t recall who assaulted him. His attacker’s face doesn’t show up in any of the memory files that surface whenever the subject comes up. Because what fragments he can recall are so upsetting, Emilio figures he’s better off not probing for more information.

Emilio’s situation is far more common than Jane’s. This is because partial blocking requires less resources than total blocking, so more minds can afford to do it. Notice how in Emilio’s case, he is already aware of the traumatic event: he was assaulted as a boy. What his mind has done is spliced the memory of that experience so that it can block only the most upsetting aspects of it. Memory splicing happens all the time because it’s the only way to efficiently handle such a large volume of information. For example, when you’re trying to recall your home address, your subconscious splices just the address out of the memory file of when you first learned your address. You first learned your address when you were sitting in the management office of an apartment complex, signing your rental agreement on the desk of some nice lady named Lucy. Lucy had a pencil cup on her desk with cats painted on it. Lucy and you talked about many things that day, including your shared love of scrapbooking. I could go on and on, but you get the idea: this memory file is loaded with a bunch of information that simply doesn’t matter five years later when you’re trying to fill out a job resume and all you really need is your actual address. For five years, every time you’ve tried to recall your address, your subconscious has spliced that information from the large “Talking to Lucy and signing a new rental agreement” memory file. Thanks to splicing, you haven’t had to relive your exchange with Lucy every time you’ve needed to tell someone your home address.

Memory splicing is a brilliant tool that your subconscious uses every day as it fulfills requests for information from your soul and conscious. When it comes to memory suppression, it’s far more practical to splice a traumatic memory file and only suppress the worst bits than it is to try to block out the entire thing.

Now suppressed fragments should be treated with the same level of respect as whole memories that have been blocked. Anytime your subconscious blocks something, it’s telling you that it considers that information to be very dangerous to itself and/or your soul. The fact that Emilio knows that he’s been assaulted doesn’t mean he’s ready to handle the identity of his attacker. The fact that his subconscious mind is blocking that particular detail indicates that that information is likely going to be extremely upsetting to Emilio. Often in cases of suppressed attacker identities, remembering who actually attacked you will greatly upset your subconscious and your soul.

Suppose the truth is that Emilio’s father is the one who assaulted him. This is a horrific violation of Emilio’s personal moral code. Emilio’s soul believes it is an unforgivable sin for a father to assault his own child. Emilio also thinks its despicable for adults to molest children under any circumstances. The fact that Emilio’s soul has such strong moral views makes facing what his father did to him feel dangerously overwhelming. Then there is his subconscious, which has its own beliefs about father figures. As a child, Emilio depended on his father to provide for many of his needs. At the same time, his subconscious was very concerned about keeping him safe. It’s horrifically stressful when the same person you depend on for your basic needs is also someone who is attacking you physically. Being trapped in such a “no win” situation is overwhelming to your subconscious, so Emilio’s mind protected itself and its soul partner by blocking his father’s face from appearing in his assault memories.

When you understand these principles, you can see why you shouldn’t assume that a blocked memory means you must have gone through some horrible experience that you are totally unaware of. It’s far more likely that you are already aware of the past life experiences that traumatized you, but you are unable to recall certain details of those experiences because they feel too threatening. In cases of partial blocking, working with the parts of the memory that you can recall will help you gain resources to deal with the parts that are being suppressed. In cases of total blocking, working on stressful memories that you can recall will help you free up resources. But anytime blocking is being used, you should not try to force your mind into revealing what it’s not ready to reveal. When your mind starts fighting you, you need to back off and respect its judgment. Your mind knows itself better than your soul does, and therefore its assessments of what it can handle are far more accurate.

To learn more about memory suppression, see Memory Suppression: How The Subconscious Protects The Conscious.

This post was written in response to a request.

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