Why Change Can Be So Hard – A tale of two minds


Have you ever found yourself struggling to make some of the life changes you would like to? Have you ever found yourself taking one or two steps outside your comfort zone only to find yourself eventually returning to your old patterns or habits? Do you ever wonder why it’s so hard to break free from those habits even when you absolutely know they’re not helping your cause?

If you’ve ever found yourself in these situations, you have experienced the contrast between the conscious and subconscious mind. As Dan Siegel, professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine explains, there are two aspects to our mind – our conscious explicit mind (that which we are consciously aware of) and our subconscious implicit mind (that which is outside our conscious awareness). Many people assume that the mind is designed to help us live the life we consciously desire. However, relative to our conscious mind, our subconscious implicit mind often has a very different idea about what’s in our best interest.

Frequently when we are trying to make changes, it’s our subconscious implicit mind that generates feelings of fear, doubt and guilt. Having a basic understanding of why it does so puts you in a very different position to push through that anxiety and continue to take action in your life. A coach is not only a powerful ally to help you become aware of and understand why your subconscious mind might be doing what it’s doing, but can also help steady you as you continue to take action despite the anxiety.

Our explicit and implicit minds

Evolution provided us with these two very different minds or memory systems in order to help us gather information and successfully navigate the world. Our explicit and implicit minds operate very differently and have different motives. To really make significant changes in our lives, we need to understand how our subconscious implicit mind works and why it is often at the root of sabotaging the changes we are trying to make.

Our explicit mind or memory is rational or “smart” – it uses logic and reason to interpret and organize information. Despite being smart, our conscious mind is extremely small and much slower relative to our subconscious mind because it requires conscious attention – we are fully aware when we are calling up a conscious memory. Our explicit conscious memory doesn’t fully come on board until around age 2-4, when language begins to develop, which is why we don’t have conscious memories from the first year of our lives.

The other more dominant part of mind is our subconscious mind or implicit memory. This memory system, which is present from the time of our birth (and likely even before that), has played a very important part in our survival as a species – especially in the wild. Because it does not require our conscious attention (it just continuously soaks up information from our surroundings like a sponge), the subconscious mind is much faster than our conscious mind and has a much greater capacity for information. However, it’s important to note that because our subconscious mind does not require our conscious attention when an implicit memory is triggered, we’re often not even aware that we are remembering something or falling into an old pattern — the subconscious mind is doing this all on its own. This phenomenon is how our implicit memory ends up influencing our lives all the time without us even realizing it. Becoming consciously aware of what patterns you may be repeating is key. It’s conscious awareness that ultimately enables us to break from any dysfunctional patterns.

The subconscious mind organizes information based on neural associations and common themes. If you’ve ever taken a psychology class you may recall Pavlov’s experiments with dogs in which he paired a bell with food. The dogs learned to salivate to the sound of the bell because it was associated with food that naturally caused salvation. That’s how our implicit memory works. Now in certain situations that strategy may work very well– the sound of a growl may be associated with an angry animal and need for escape that is quite logical. However, consider the example of a certain song playing on the radio when someone’s girlfriend or boyfriend broke up with them. As far as our implicit mind is concerned, that particular song on the radio becomes “dangerous” because of its associations with the painful emotions of the breakup. Our subconscious mind, although well-intentioned, could easily send us astray. It can easily perceive danger when, in fact, there is no rational basis to be afraid.

Why can change be so hard?

One of the reasons so many people find change and moving out of their comfort zones difficult is that they don’t understand how the primary motives of our explicit conscious and implicit subconscious minds differ.

Consciously, most people say they want to be happy in life, find meaningful relationships and work they enjoy. Most people naively assume that their subconscious mind also focuses on these goals. However, our subconscious mind tends to think little, if at all, about our happiness. Instead, its primary mission is our safety, survival and procreation of the species. It is a more primitive part of our mind and while it’s been very successful at helping us survive as a species, it is simply not yet well designed for our happiness.

When in doubt, and left to its own devices, your implicit subconscious mind is going to choose your safety and survival over your happiness any day. It is important to understand our subconscious mind’s priorities, because if it deems that something could potentially be dangerous –- like going for a promotion, for example – it will do all it possibly can (often subconsciously) to get you to avoid or sabotage that possibility. If your subconscious mind believes growing in your career is potentially threatening, it would much rather you be in a less rewarding but “safe” job for the rest of your life, while your explicit conscious mind may have made a very different choice.

Another key factor to understand about the implicit subconscious mind is that as it continuously collects information like a sponge from all our interactions with the world, it simply gathers it all without filtering or evaluating the information in any way. Picture your subconscious mind as a computer. A computer simply does what it has been programmed to do – it doesn’t have the capacity to evaluate how it is being programmed and ask, ‘Hey, are you sure about those last commands?’ The subconscious mind behaves similarly.

The implicit subconscious mind then uses the information it collects to form the basis of our core beliefs or the neural pathways/programming in our subconscious mind. Your subconscious mind has an amazing ability to create a reality that fits its programming, even if that programming doesn’t serve you well. Remember the subconscious mind is like a computer, it doesn’t judge whether the programming is actually helping our cause or not, it just does everything in its extreme power to create a reality that is consistent with its programming.

Does your reality match your programming?
The ironic thing about the subconscious mind, which is one of the main reasons that change can be so hard, is that it is “happiest” when your reality fits your programming even if that programming makes you miserable. For example, if you have the belief that “romantic relationships don’t work out for you,” your subconscious mind may lead you to partners who are not compatible or sabotage a healthy relationship simply to create a reality that confirms that belief – even if you consciously may be seeking a successful romantic relationship.

On the other hand, the implicit subconscious mind experiences a feeling of angst (also know as cognitive dissonance) when your reality does not mirror its programming, even if consciously you are happier. In the example above, the longer a romantic relationship continues and appears to be successful, the greater the feelings of angst your subconscious mind may experience – a successful romantic relationship would simply not make sense to its programming. Therefore, it would try to do everything it could to “correct” your reality, all too often by having you sabotage or end the relationship prematurely. Once your reality is “corrected” the subconscious mind will experience relief, while consciously you may be heartbroken.

Typically, the angst the subconscious mind experiences takes the form of feelings of fear, doubt, guilt or insecurity. If you try to break free from any dysfunctional programming you may have inherited while growing up, the subconscious mind may give you a little leeway but if it perceives that you are really going to fully break your established habits and patterns it will likely increase feelings and thoughts of fear, doubt, guilt and insecurity until you succumb and “fall back in line.” In our example above, someone may start thinking, “He seemed preoccupied on our last date, I wonder if he’s losing interest” or “She’s going to think of me differently after not getting that promotion at work.” With those seeds of doubt planted, you may likely get emotionally protective, withdraw from the relationship and start misinterpreting the other person’s behavior until the relationship becomes too strained to endure in the long run. If the relationship does indeed end, the subconscious mind feels relief and the feelings of fear, doubt or guilt subside.

This pattern sustained by the implicit subconscious mind is one of the primary reasons change can be so difficult and why a coach can make all the difference in helping you break free from old habits and patterns. As you start to examine these theories and consciously decide to approach your life differently, you will almost inevitably come up against feelings of fear, doubt or guilt generated by your subconscious mind. All too often, as these intensify, people fall back in line and comply with the subconscious mind’s programming. To truly break free from any dysfunctional programming, you must learn to persevere and continue to take action. The support and belief a coach instills can be crucial in helping you get there.


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