A Common-Sense Guide to the Unconscious Mind

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Freud’s ideas about the unconscious mind can seem esoteric and daunting. However, a basic understanding of how the unconscious mind works can pay real dividends in everyday living.

Who are “You”?

Personal identity is a concept that seems obvious at first blush. When we think of ourselves, and who we are, we have this feeling that our consciousness is held an inch or so behind our eyes. We may associate ourselves with a name, or a family, or an ethnicity, and we may hold certain memories and values as central to who we are. Perhaps we also associate identity with particular strengths or weaknesses (“I’m good at math, but I can’t cook to save my life”), or personality traits (“I’m an optimist”). All these things can be considered part of what we are, yet taken together, they are only a small part of our humanity.

Below the Water Line

Freud used an image to speak about the conscious and the unconscious mind: that of an iceberg. A real iceberg floats in the ocean like an ice cube floats in a drink. From the deck of a ship, we see ice protruding above the surface. But the sea hides over 90% of the iceberg, that rides below the surface. In the same sense, everything we conventionally consider identity is “above” the waterline: our conscious mind. Everything else is largely hidden.

What is the “everything else” below the surface? Some of it is very pedantic. The parts of our brain that do the housekeeping functions of our bodies, that manage our heart-rate, our metabolism and our digestion. We hardly notice them, if at all, and the conscious mind has no need and no ability to influence these activities. One important take-away, however, is that in this realm the unconscious mind is almost always right.

Messages from the Deep

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More psychologically relevant, the unconscious mind makes itself known to the conscious mind through bodily sensations, emotions, and impulses. Just as much of our unconscious mind handles low-level functions essential to our survival, sensations, emotions and impulses usually tie back to some basic needs of the organism — what some evolutionary biologists drolly refer to as “the four F’s”: fighting (for dominance or protection), fleeing (from threats), feeding (for nourishment) and reproduction (for perpetuating the species).

One critical difference between messages from the unconscious and from conscious thought is that impulses from the unconscious are nearly always fixed in the present moment. If you want cake, then you probably want it now, not in an hour.

Another essential distinction is that urges, emotions, and bodily sensations don’t come with reasons why they should be happening now. Often the conscious mind scampers around to look for reasons why ‘I’ should want this, feel that, or be compelled to do a third thing, but that rational justification is tacked on after the fact, like a sports commentator’s description of a sporting event.

Not Your Fault

I personally find great peace of mind letting go of the need to find rational reasons for impulses and emotions, and I try to confer that ease to my clients. So many people I see either overtly or tacitly accept the idea that there are ‘good feelings’ and ‘bad feelings’ or ‘good thoughts’ and ‘bad thoughts’, and that good people have the ability to edit their stream of consciousness to omit negative feelings and impulses. Former President Jimmy Carter said it clearly “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” (There’s that fourth “F” again.) Unfortunately, trying to stomp down on ‘negative’ impulses usually grants them additional strength and durability. I’ll say more on that in a moment.

The unconscious mind does what it does because it’s programmed to do so by evolution, in the same way that your heart speeds up when you run or you get a fever when you get the flu. A person can no more be responsible for their unconscious’ impulses and emotions (no matter how disturbing or socially unacceptable) than they can for their eye color.


So if unconscious impulses and feelings are outside of our conscious control, does that mean we can do whatever we want, and say “my unconscious made me do it?” Certainly not! I believe there’s a cooperative, collaborative relationship between the conscious and the unconscious mind, but that can only happen when the conscious mind truly understands what an unconscious mind is for and how to manage one.

At the most basic level, the conscious mind stands as a gatekeeper between the unconscious mind and behavior. The unconscious is usually busy coming up with impulses and feelings that rise to conscious awareness as urges. The conscious mind serves as an editor, preventing some impulses from becoming actions and allowing others. The key is to manage the behavior, not necessarily the thinking. Most people have had aggressive urges which they resist converting into action.

Your Attention, Please!

I’ve promised to keep it simple, but here I must get just a bit technical. So far I’ve said that the impulses and emotions generated by the unconscious are value-free. However that doesn’t mean that all thoughts are equally helpful. The conscious mind has the power of selective attention: we can choose to focus on certain elements of our world (such as reading the words on this page), when there are many other things that could also draw our attention.

Similarly, we can attend to our inner life as well. Whatever urges or impulses we give attention to tend to get stronger, and it hardly matters whether we look on the impulse with favor or not. Dwelling on how good chocolate cake would taste, despite being on a diet, has nearly the same effect as saying “don’t think about chocolate cake.” The effect is largely the same: more thinking about chocolate cake.

The mindfulness tradition has some very specific instructions for dealing with intrusive, disturbing impulses and emotions: acknowledge, but do not ‘feed’ the disturbing thought. Let attention slip off what is unwanted, and in time something else will take its place.

Values and Plans

It would be easy to see the unconscious mind as a bothersome nag, always bedeviling us with unwanted desires and impulses. Yet there are people who, through surgical intervention, have lost the connection with the anatomy that conveys these impulses and desires. One might expect them to be paragons of self-discipline and achievement, but in fact they cannot make decisions at all. When presented with options, they can choose the best alternative, but what seems to be missing is the ability to generate options in the first place: exactly what the unconscious mind does.

From these patients’ example, I want to suggest that the irrational, often inappropriate or disturbing impulses that rise unbidden from the unconscious, are every bit as essential for living as the rational, calculating nature of our conscious minds. Where the unconscious is always present-moment focused, the conscious thinks about past and future. Where the unconscious addresses only the needs of the individual, the conscious mind has the ability to think of others and balance the needs of all. More conventionally, we call the respect for things outside ourselves and for the nature of time “values” and “plans,” respectively.

Indeed, a big part of my definition of mental health is a conscious mind that has compassionate awareness of the nature of the unconscious, and ability to work with the impulses, emotions and sensations the unconscious presents.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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