“Ironic” by Alanis Morissette is one of my favorite songs. The line that stands out to me is “It’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife.” That’s what it felt like when I searched for ways to address my fears. I found 10,000 spoons when I needed a knife.
The problem was I didn’t know what a knife was and all I found were spoons and they were completely ineffective for helping me to overcome my fears. Yes, I knew that fears were “false evidence appearing real” but my body reacted with a fear response and there was nothing I could do about it.
Until I learned about the subconscious and how it affects our perceptions of reality.
The subconscious is different than our conscious mind. Think of the subconscious as our survival system. Its job is to sort through experiences and file them as safe or unsafe focusing on those that are unsafe.
Our conscious mind is our objective or thinking mind. It learns through knowledge and information. We are able to have aha moments and change our conscious mind’s perception through knowledge, information, conversations and discussions and we can train ourselves to think differently through conscious thought.
The conscious mind, however, is often at odds with the subconscious without us really knowing that’s going on. Take public speaking for example. This is something I struggled with for years. It became particularly challenging when I was in law school and public speaking was a prerequisite for success. While my conscious mind knew it was irrational, the stress response I experienced when confronted with a circumstance which required public speaking was unbearable.
I knew from a rational perspective that the stress response that got triggered was based on false evidence appearing real. Gathering more information about public speaking, talking about it, trying to use strategies to calm my stress response, and trying to think differently were all ineffective.
It wasn’t until I became the Chairman of the Board of Director of a national charity did I come up with a solution. The charity was really important to me because it’s mission was to improve the lives of people afflicted with the disorder my daughter was diagnosed with. I somehow managed to stay out of the limelight until our first national convention where we brought together doctors, researchers and families. There were 1,000 people attending and I was to deliver the keynote speech.
The thought of it terrified me and yet I was determined to pull it off. A few months prior to the event, I learned of a medication called a beta blocker that turned down the fight or flight response. I was able to obtain a prescription for a few tablets from my doctor who recommended I try it out before the event to make sure I didn’t have an adverse reaction when I really needed it.
I woke up the morning I was going to speak in full blown stress response. I had written out my speech and I tried to go over it but I was in such a state that I couldn’t see the words on the piece of paper in front of me. I took the medication and within a short period of time, the adrenaline and cortisol had stopped surging through my body. After I delivered the speech, several people came up to me and told me what a great public speaker I was. Little did they know.
I used the medication for the next big event, a gala to commemorate the organization’s 20 years of existence. Once again, I delivered a moving speech and received compliments from several people at the event.
I never needed to use the medication again. Sure, I felt anxious before a speaking engagement but it wasn’t overwhelming. I didn’t understand at the time how those two experiences changed everything for me until I learned about how our subconscious protects us and how it learns.
Now, I know that the subconscious mind learns through experiences while the conscious mind learns through knowledge and information. Obviously, my subconscious had experienced that public speaking was unsafe and was carrying the trauma from that experience. It doesn’t matter whether I actually had the experience, read or observed someone having the experience, or whether the trauma was passed down in DNA – the subconscious treats them all the same. In addition, the subconscious doesn’t file the information with context and tends to generalize the trauma to any circumstance that looks similar to the one that caused the initial trauma.
What I didn’t know at the time is that I had to teach my subconscious by having a different experience and I was able to do that with the medication. On two separate occasions, I had the experience that public speaking was safe and my original experience was replaced by these new experiences.
What I also didn’t know at the time is that there were other ways I could teach my subconscious another experience. One day, I listened to an interview by Bruce Lipton, the author of the groundbreaking book, The Biology of Belief. In that interview, he explained the difference in learning mechanisms for the conscious and the subconscious mind. It was the first time I actually understood that the subconscious learns through experiences and that the only way it can see things a different way was to teach it a new experience. He described several ways to teach the subconscious a new experience: energy psychology, having a new experience, or hypnosis.
As I listened to that interview, it became crystal clear why we couldn’t talk or think our way out of our fears. I started to cry. For the first time, I felt like I had found a knife.