Emotional maturity, Part 1: Subconscious feelings

You can’t read your own mind.

Most of what goes on in your head is subconscious. That means that you aren’t aware of it. In other words, you can’t read your own mind.

For me, this is clearest when I’m doing mathematical research. Math at this level is the intellectual equivalent of power-lifting. When an athlete pushes their body to its limits, they get a lot of insight into how the body works. The same seems to be true of the mind.

When I’m in the zone, the deepest and most powerful insights start out as a kind of nonverbal intuition. I can feel blood rushing to some part of my brain, and there aren’t any words, but there’s a hot, humming silence and vague images bleeding in and out. My subconscious is hard at work. After some time, the subconscious locks onto something that seems to work, and then suddenly the words come. Sometimes even a complete solution just pops into view, as if from nowhere. And I know that the solution is right, even though the pattern of logic that makes it all work hasn’t finished bubbling up into my conscious mind yet.

What does this mean for emotional maturity?

The first step is to just realize that you’ll never be fully aware of everything you’re thinking and feeling. There will always be layers of feeling that you have to peel away if you want to see and understand them.

Of course, this has to be the first step, because if you don’t consider the possibility that something is there, why would you go looking for it? And it matters, because even though you can never see all of your feelings, they are always there. They act on you, regardless of whether you took the time to understand them.

Sometimes one of your feelings is invisible because another feeling is louder. You might imagine your head is a room with eight to twelve people in it, but they’re talking at different volumes. You can only hear the loudest one. If you calm down and examine yourself, the loudest feelings can have their say and recede to the background, and you’ll start to hear the quieter feelings. Mindfulness meditation is useful for this.

Often you have two feelings pulling in opposite directions. For instance, I want to tell him that I’m mad, but I also don’t want to cause trouble. Most of the time we can only hear and therefore act on the louder feeling. But I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Boldness gives you the energy to move forward, but timidness also gives you the chance to pick your way carefully and avoid hurting people. It’s better to let the feelings “converse” with each other and reach some sort of compromise, their two opposite pulls keeping you in a place of equilibrium. (For instance, navigating a heated argument by being gentle but firm.)

The next time you’re in a tense situation, take some time afterwards to figure out what you’re feeling. There’s an obvious emotion on the surface, but go beyond that and look for more feelings that are hiding underneath. You may be surprised by what’s down there.

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