Differences between subconscious and unconscious

Our non-conscious mind is made up of different levels. Among them we find the subconscious and the unconscious. Let’s see how they differ.

Last update: February 18, 2022

“Subconscious” and “unconscious” are two terms that are often used interchangeably, even by some mental health professionals. And it is that contrasting both entities is a complicated task, given the subtle differences that define them.

In this way, to understand their differences, we must first take into account that there is a part of our mind that we perceive consciously and another that we do not.

In this sense, the conscious part contains all the ideas and experiences that we can perceive and remember; Meanwhile in the non-conscious part contains those mental contents that we do not remember right now.

Now, from now on we will focus on describing that non-conscious part of the mind; because it is there where the two entities that we have commented on are found. Let’s dive into it.

Levels of the unconscious mind

To understand the differences between subconscious and unconscious it is helpful to think of the mind as analogous to a iceberg. In this sense, the point that protrudes from the water and is visible is the conscious part. Instead, what is submerged and imperceptible would be the non-conscious part.

As represented in the image of the icebergthe conscious part is only a small fraction of the vastness of mental contents that are found in the totality of our mind.

However, we can say that Within the unconscious mind there are different levels of depth. Therefore, there will be content that can become conscious without much difficulty —such as remembering what we had for dinner three days ago— and others that will be deeply buried —such as some repressed traumatic experience during childhood.

As we can see, some memories are more accessible than others, and this will be determined by the level of depth in which they are found. That said, the most useful way to understand the differences between the subconscious and the unconscious is through their relative inaccessibility. Let’s see how.

In the unconscious level of the mind often lie the traumatic experiences of childhood.


Differences between subconscious and unconscious

In general, the word “subconscious” is used to refer to the most superficial non-conscious part of the mind; while the term “unconscious” is used to refer to that deepest and most inaccessible non-conscious area.

At this point, it is valid for us to ask ourselves: How far is the border between what we consider “superficial non-conscious ideas” and “deeper non-conscious ideas”? That is, what makes one idea shallower and another deeper?

To answer this question we can start by analyzing our current existence and, from it, try to see what ideas and what memories can be deeper.

However, there is a more convenient way to explain this distinction, and that is through the mechanisms underlying each instance; suppression and repression.

suppression vs repression

We will start by clarifying that suppression is typical of the subconscious, while repression is of the unconscious. In this sense, when we suppress something (an impulse, a desire, an idea, etc.), we are forcing it to go below the level of consciousness.

Instead, when we repress, our mind is pushing something it deems too dangerous to hide deep within our awareness, to the point where it is unrecognizable.

In the latter case, we speak of an involuntary and instinctive reaction, since repression represents a psychological defense mechanism, whose purpose is to guarantee the protection and survival of the person.

Likewise, repression has a special role in childhood, when our mental capacity and our judgment are quite limited. In this way, the mind, unable to deal with complex and traumatic experiences, sends to the bottom of the well (the unconscious) those mental contents with which it cannot deal.

In consecuense, in the unconscious are those memories that are very unpleasantpainful emotions and socially unacceptable desires.

However, as paradoxical as it sounds, this survival mechanism ends up costing us dearly. The reason? The unconscious contents begin to echo in our behavior – especially in adult life – in the form of anxiety or some other disorder.

Instead, suppression can be carried out for different reasons, other than unpleasant experiences and survival. For example, we can suppress a memory by simple mental economy.



Examples of subconscious and unconscious content

To better understand what the differences between subconscious and unconscious are about, below we leave two situations that reflect the role of both mental instances.

  • Subconscious: when we faintly recognize that we feel some jealousy of our younger brother. However, we don’t know exactly why. In this case, upon reflection, we realize that this feeling arises because we think that he had more opportunities and privileges.
  • Unconscious: a phobia of horses; just seeing them makes us panic uncontrollably. Despite this, we have not the slightest idea why. This is because we have repressed and made unavailable to our consciousness the fact that in childhood we were forced to ride one, even though we didn’t want to. Our father even yelled at us and even called us “cowards.”

In the latter case, we see how an unpleasant and traumatic experience for a child ended in the back of the mind. Accessing this childhood memory will surely take several sessions of self-analysis or psychotherapy.

In psychotherapy, disorders derived from experiences that remain in the unconscious of the mind are usually addressed.

Final thoughts

To conclude, we must bear in mind that the differences between the subconscious and the unconscious do not exist so sharply in reality. That is to say, in reality there are no clearly differentiated levels, since everything forms a continuum.

So, the terms used only simplify understanding of an entity as complex as the human mind.

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