If you recently listened to my interview on Randy Eriksen’s Podcast TA-1 then you heard me talk about how the conscious and subconscious minds work, or in many cases, don’t work, together. Being able to grind out the hard stuff is mostly a matter of mindset whether it is a physical activity or other challenging scenario. Understanding how the mind works, and how your conscious thoughts effect what’s happening deeper inside you, is a key to overcoming difficult situations.
First, some key distinctions between the conscious and the subconscious. The conscious mind, the stuff we are aware of, is the part of our mind that controls voluntary actions. Raising your hand, peddling your bike, punching your friend. It’s also where your short-term memory lives. It’s the rational and logical part of the brain. The subconscious is the part of the mind that controls just about everything else. For example, physiological functions like breathing and keeping the heart beating. It also creates your emotions and beliefs and as a result it’s the keeper of your long-term memory. You will see how the differences are important.
In his article, the Subconscious and Synchronicity, John Kehoe uses a great analogy. He says, “subconscious is soil, and it accepts any seed you want to plant in it, your consciousness does this. The seeds are your habitual beliefs. Your consciousness is the gardener.” Kind of makes you wonder what kind of attention you have been given your garden doesn’t it?
The relationship between the two minds is more than just self-talk, but it certainly starts there. If you constantly telling yourself that you “suck,” or even more innocuously, that you are “tired,” your subconscious will believe it and provide the according emotions, physical responses, and worse, as I explained above, store it as a belief. If you say you are “tired” guess what, you will be.
Why is this important? Because the flip side is also true! If you consistently tell yourself you “feel great” the subconscious will begin storing that belief and like it did when you were telling yourself you were tired, it will send you the emotions and physical responses needed to “feel great.” This is the beauty of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). Because the subconscious mind follows the orders of the conscious mind without question, (think the soil accepts all seeds), what we purposefully tell it, it acts upon. Whether it’s the truth or a lie! Otherwise known as “fake it till you make it.”
Even more interesting, the subconscious works in images rather than words and therefore is unable to process negatives, like “won’t” “don’t” “not” etc. This is huge in the employment of NLP because using language like “I’m not tired” only sends the image of being tired to the subconscious. So even when you believe you are sending the right message to yourself, you may be inadvertently sabotaging your efforts. Pay close attention to your language and plant the seeds of what you want, not what you don’t want. Instead of “I’m not tired,” try “I am strong,” or “I am energized.”
In a 2013 article, Dr. Matthew James says, “the unconscious lives to serve, needs very clear directions, and takes your instructions very literally.” We all know someone who takes things way too literally and understand that we have be super aware when we are talking to them. It’s the same in our mind.
I think the best example of how this plays out in endurance sports is our way too liberal use of the word “suffer.” We wear it like a badge of honor and often brag about how we can’t wait to go suffer. We use it, or think we are using it, as a motivational tool. “Yeah this is going to be awesome, a total sufferfest!” And then we wonder why we actually feel like we are suffering during these events! We consistently, without fail, plant the seed of suffering in our subconscious and it responds in the most literal sense. Your subconscious says, “oh you want to suffer? Ok. SUFFER.” There’s a whole host of other reasons why I think that we in the endurance sports world need to move away from the word suffer but I’ll wait and give that topic its own post.
Remember how I said that the subconscious believes whatever you tell it, whether it’s a truth or a lie? Well here’s the great part. It’s not me that says so, its SCIENCE.
In his book, Kidding Ourselves, Joseph Hallinan says:
“Research across a variety of fields points to a common finding: that the ability to kid ourselves is not only innate, its often positive. Self –deception may actually be an evolutionary gift that allows us to adapt and persevere even when— and perhaps especially when — the odds are against us.”
Did you read that closely? He said lying to ourselves helps us persevere. Now granted, I don’t read this as cart blanche to stick your head in the sand and pretend things aren’t as they are. Telling yourself you “don’t have to pay the mortgage ” doesn’t make your note go away. But, lets say you are unhealthy and overweight and want to lose 20 pounds. Telling yourself that you “are healthy” won’t physically make the pounds disappear, but what it will do is allow your subconscious to stop believing your overweight and start to creating a more positive headspace. If your subconscious thinks you are thin and healthy, it will be that much easier for your conscious self to do things like exercise and eat right.
In the end, what is important is that, words matter. How we talk to ourselves plays a much bigger role than what mot of us realize. So, the next time you aren’t feeling so hot during training or a race, think about what your subconscious needs to believe and then get to planting the right seeds.