In therapy, I spend a lot of time helping clients uncover their unconscious beliefs so they can question the validity of these beliefs, gain self-awareness, and work towards replacing them with less disturbing viewpoints. When the mind plays tricks by convincing us to perceive reality much differently than it actually is, disputing our thoughts and changing them is a powerful tool to help us fight back. Although, sometimes it’s difficult to decipher fact from fiction from the way we view a particular situation when feeling really intensely about it. Our perceptions (whether accurate or not) not only taint how we feel but also influence how we react, and because of this, they have a very profound role in our lives.
Although reshaping how we think plays a huge role in changing our emotions and reactions, modifying our behavior in spite of a trigger also has a powerful effect on our moods. When we disrupt the cycle of an emotion by changing our behavior, we defy the underlying subconscious beliefs attached to it. Even people with good self-awareness struggle from time to time knowing what they’re thinking to make them feel one emotion over the next. This difficulty often happens when the unconscious belief is so deeply embedded within us and we don’t have the insight to access it.
For example, think of the first time you learned how to tie your shoes. You most likely had an adult tell you the instructions on how to do it. After hearing these directions, and telling them to yourself over and over again, you eventually learned how to tie your shoes on your own. With enough time and practice, you no longer needed to tell yourself the shoe tying directions because they became automatic. These instructions got imprinted into your subconscious. When our brains go on autopilot it helps make things go a lot faster and smoother when we need them to.
Emotions work in a very similar manner. During our life experiences in combination with growing up in the families and cultures we were raised in, we started creating a narrative about ourselves, others, and the world. After indoctrinating these narratives within us for long enough, the beliefs got placed into our subconscious. There was no need for the brain to bring these beliefs back to our awareness day in and day out just like there was no need for us to continue telling ourselves the directions on how to tie our shoes after a certain period of time. As adults, we can now just do the shoe tying without thinking about it, and in many cases just “do” anxiety (depression etc) without being aware of what we’re believing at the time of the trigger.
Once we have an emotional disturbance based on our subconscious belief system, we start behaving as if the subconscious beliefs are true. For example, if I believe I “cannot stand” rejection because it’s “awful,” and if I am rejected, it therefore renders me a “no good human being,” I will most likely feel anxious about it and avoid the potential threat of rejection. I probably wouldn’t go on dates, or take risks being around people who might reject me. If I were to continue avoiding potential situations where I might get rejected it would reinforce the unconscious beliefs (“I cannot stand rejection,” “it’s awful,” and it renders me a “no good human being”). By avoiding imagined threats of rejection, I’d deprive myself of conflicting experiences to disprove these unhelpful beliefs. Therefore the cycle of anxiety (depression etc) would continue, and the unconscious beliefs would become stronger and more inflexible.
To work against these unhelpful subconscious beliefs that we might not always be aware of, it’s good to make sure our reaction to the emotion goes against the typical behavior associated with it. Listed below are three examples of emotions and our common reactions to them:
- Anxiety ————————————> Avoidance
- Depression ——————————> Withdrawal
- Anger ————————————> Attack (verbally/physically/passive aggressively)
Listed below are these three emotions and their opposite actions:
- Anxiety ———————————> Confrontation
- Depression —————————> Engagement
- Anger ———————————> Avoidance
The next time you’re feeling a very strong negative emotion, do the opposite action of the emotion to start your first step toward fighting back against its unhealthy cycle. It’s okay if you’re unaware of what unconscious belief you’re holding onto at the time of the trigger. You can leave that for a mental health professional to help you figure it out. However, in the meantime this “opposite action” technique is something you can work towards in the present moment, even if you’re not already seeing a therapist. By changing your thinking by doing, you’re one step closer to becoming a less disturbed and stronger version of yourself.