Have you ever given your all and come up short? Whether you were trying to take on a difficult work task or attempting to become a better person, if you’re anything like me, you’ve experienced this many, many times. I remember growing up, my older brother, Roger, was better than me at pretty much everything. He was a better athlete, better looking, made much better grades, and never seemed to get into trouble (my nickname was Dennis the Menace). I grew up thinking I was spiritually doomed because I could never live up to the ideals I was supposed to. In my whole life, I’d guess that I’ve probably never gone more than five or six weeks without falling victim to some kind of sin, and most of the time, it’s much less than that!
But let’s assume for a moment that there’s a better reason for this than “some people are just better.” That’s a comforting thought, isn’t it? And what’s more, there’s really something to it! Modern science is beginning to understand just how powerful the unconscious mind is in relation to the conscious mind, and today we’re going to review the specific mechanisms by which the unconscious mind rules so many of our conscious actions and talk about how we can reclaim control.
If you want to see the power of the unconscious mind in action, take a look at the self-help industry. Almost every one of these books and programs follows the same basic structure: decide what you want and apply your willpower to the issue until you get it. It’s simple and straightforward and is probably the method most of us would naturally come up with anyway.
It also has a 97 percent failure rate.
The vast majority of us cannot make significant, meaningful changes in our lives through conscious willpower alone, precisely because our unconscious mind is not in agreement with that change. This doesn’t make us (I say us because I’m in this group too) weak or foolish or lazy. But it does mean we need to address the real issue, which is the unconscious.
Let’s strip things down to the bare bones. Say you have two people caught in a traffic jam. One of them is fuming at the wheel, cursing his bad luck, swearing at the person in front of him, and laying on his horn. The other, in another vehicle, is totally fine! He’s got his music turned up, singing along to a favorite song—he’s in the same situation as the first man but is actually enjoying himself rather than feeling somehow cheated. Of course, they may be two very different men, but they don’t need to be. Ask yourself right now whether you haven’t been both of these men at various points in your life—if not about traffic, then about something else.
There are two factors I know that makes all the difference: expectations and trauma memories.
Let’s look at expectations first. In a groundbreaking study done on Harvard university campus, Dr. Bruce Lipton had this to say: “expectations are a happiness killer.” Put simply, the language of the unconscious is always images. Once you have an image in your head of what your future will be, it creates an expectation, and when that expectation is broken, it creates stress. Even if the expectation isn’t really important at all, once it’s created, our unconscious mind sees it as a need. That first man going into road rage isn’t angry because he really needs to be somewhere in the next five minutes. He’s in road rage because what’s happening doesn’t match the picture in his head. That’s really it.
The solution here is simple but difficult. You have to, as ancient manuscripts say, “take every thought captive.” Thoughts are images; you can’t have one without the other. So it’s important to cultivate them carefully, even in small matters. Remember that for your unconscious mind, something you consider trivial can determine how your whole day goes.
Then there are trauma memories. The important thing to understand here is that your unconscious mind is paranoid. Its primary job is to keep you alive, and a single underreaction could be the one that gets you killed. Which is why the unconscious mind vastly prefers to overreact to any perceived danger—but that perception is often badly skewed.
I’ll give you an example I’ve been using for years. I once had a client who had struggled with self-worth issues for years. It was her biggest problem and touched every part of her life. Eventually, we tracked down the memory at the heart of this issue, and do you know what it was? Once, when she was a child, her mother refused to give her a popsicle.
See, even though this was obviously no big deal, it had seemed like a big deal at the time, through the eyes of a child. Even as an adult, those feelings were still there, unchanged. We healed that memory, and the last I heard from her, she’s doing much better. But I’ve since realized that these “popsicle memories” are actually very common. Just one example of traumatic memories driving our behavior.
Here’s one you can try at home right now, called the key-and-string test. I didn’t invent this; I got it from somewhere—I don’t quite remember where. Essentially, you take a key (or other small object) on the end of a string and hold it over a piece of paper with a circle split into four numbered quadrants. Rule number one is to hold the string so that the key stays in the center of that circle without drifting into any of the quadrants. Hold the string between the pads of your thumb and index finger, with your elbow resting firmly on the table.
Now here’s the second part: you have to imagine moving the key back and forth between two opposite segments, picturing it in your head as clearly as possible. Then visualize moving it between the other two quadrants, then around in a clockwise circle. If you’re really visualizing it, you’ll notice that despite your best efforts, the key will begin to drift back and forth in the direction you are visualizing. Over the years, I’ve done this many times, with probably 300 or so people, and all of them have experienced the exact same result—except one, but we’ll talk about that later.
Some people tried to force it at first, but you could tell they were trying to overcorrect, and in those cases, the person generally wasn’t actually visualizing the movement as they should be. What this experiment shows is the power of unconscious belief. When you visualize something, it creates an unconscious belief, which is more powerful than your conscious intention to keep the key in the center. This is why it’s so important to take your thoughts captive because the thoughts you keep will be the ones you believe in and the ones that drive your actions even more than your conscious intention.
…at least most of the time. Try this experiment for yourself if you can, and be sure to come back next week, because there’s exactly one person I know who’s ever done this test right and still managed to keep the key centered: my son. Next week, we’ll talk about how he did it.
Have a blessed, wonderful day!