Is your unconscious sabbotaging you?

Think of a time when you needed to complete a task but procrastinated instead. The time when you knew full well you’d delayed something until the last minute and still did not want to do it. The experience of procrastination was probably very overwhelming, frustrating, and exhausting. You also might have found yourself asking: “Why do I keep slacking off when it matters the most?” and “ Why do I keep doing this to myself?”.

I get it, I’ve been there.

It’s time to understand the psychology behind the urges to stall our work and put a stop to self-sabotage! We gotta shake ourselves up and look into why the heck we love to delay our self-growth. 

Let’s Start!

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First of all, feeling occasionally overwhelmed when studying is perfectly normal. Our brains need to process and solidify a lot of information. It is how we handle these situations of feeling overwhelmed that makes the difference. 

In this article, I want to get at a deeper level of understanding of some thoughts we have that tend to hold us back from succeeding. 

Some of our thoughts are conscious and others are unconscious. Conscious thoughts are thoughts that we actively engage in and are aware of. For example, when buying a new phone we usually look at different phone brands, what their specifications are, and compare various models to logically decide which one is the best one. In doing so, we consciously look at different alternatives and actively engage in the decision-making. 

Most of our thoughts, however, around 90%, are unconscious (Davis, 2020). These thoughts lurk in the background of our minds without us realizing they are there. They can also be positive or negative. Before we can go into it further, it will be good to have some basic understanding of our conscious and unconscious spaces.

Levels of Consciousness:

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Sigmund Freud described the interactions between conscious and unconscious via an iceberg metaphor. It can get complicated but for the purposes of this discussion, a simplified model can be viewed in Fig. 1.1. We don’t need to memorize the names to understand the three levels of how our consciousness works.

Freud suggested that our consciousness has three levels:

Ego (conscious level) – contains thoughts and perceptions. 

Id (preconscious level) – contains our deepest fears, desires, and urges that we are mostly unaware of. 

Superego (conscious and unconscious) – contains our morals and ideals, and is concerned with making sure that whatever we do aligns with what society thinks is “appropriate”.

Fig. 1.1

This means that we can have thoughts on multiple levels of our consciousness. We can be aware of some thoughts that are on the surface of our consciousness (for example, I am tired) while being totally oblivious to other thoughts appearing deep down (for example, I am not meeting the standards of studying well. I suck at studying). 

True or untrue, when unexamined, these deep-down thoughts are the ones that often sabotage us from achieving our best selves. No wonder! How do you change something that you can’t even see?! 

The good news is that we can reach and change those thoughts after some learning, training, and practice! 

Automatic Thoughts:

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Automatic thoughts are those deep-down thoughts that pop up out of nowhere in the background of our minds. They tend to be very quick, evaluative, and don’t usually come in a full sentence form. So, most often we are more aware of the emotion caused by the thought than of the thought itself (Murdock, 2016). It is important to remember that automatic thoughts are a normal occurrence in our daily lives (Beck, 2011). 

These thoughts can come in different forms, like words, sounds, or images, and usually, appear in our preconscious where they’re hard to track. Nevertheless, these thoughts can be easily understood when we ask for the meaning of those thoughts. 

Let’s Consider This Scenario:

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Aki just entered the first year of university. She reads a chapter of one of her textbooks and realizes she did not understand much. She finds herself feeling upset and irritated, which makes her want to give up, procrastinate, and ignore her homework altogether. On the surface, if someone asks Aki why she feels that way, she may answer with: “because the textbook is stupid and I don’t understand anything”. 

Now, there are things in our preconscious that we can access with some work. If Aki asks herself some more questions, like “What went through my mind at the moment when I realized that I didn’t understand what I just read?” or “Why is this bothering me?”, she would find that some automatic thoughts were going through her head simultaneously including “This is too hard to understand”; “I will never be smart enough to get it”; “I must be dumb”, etc.  These thoughts flashed through Aki’s unconscious without registering in her awareness but still leaving her feeling very upset. 

No wonder she doesn’t want to attempt reading the chapter again! Every time she does, Aki has to meet her own subconscious thoughts that she is not good enough to handle the studying. The desire for procrastination and avoidance of self-blame makes perfect sense in this situation.

In many cases, we don’t even realize that we had an automatic thought. A helpful cue for us to find it can be us feeling off. 

If we are feeling off, frustrated, agitated,  irritated, or any other negative feeling, which we cannot pinpoint where it came from- this is most likely a clue that something is going on in the deep waters and need to be examined.

Warning! Be on The Lookout for Untrue or Maladaptive Thoughts!

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It is important to remember that automatic thoughts can often be untrue and/or maladaptive. 

In Aki’s case, now that she is aware of her deep-down automatic thoughts, she would need to address their untrue and maladaptive patterns. For instance, the thought of “I will never be smart enough to understand” is untrue. Anyone can understand anything if they put in enough work and effort.

One of the things Aki might want to do to not let her automatic thoughts pull her down and distract her from work is changing the thought when she catches it. So, instead of thinking: “I didn’t understand it and I never will” , she can change her thinking into “I didn’t understand what I just read. What if I try feeling excited about it. It is a lot but I understood some of it. Once I put in more work and understand it, I’ll be able to do so much with these concepts!”

In summary, getting over procrastination can be hard. A lot of times we find our unconscious trying to keep us back from moving forward. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to our hidden thoughts and deal with them to feel free and be the best us. Luckily, it can be done with learning and practice!

Similar principles apply when automatic thoughts come in image or sound forms. In those situations, we need to ask ourselves: “What does this image represent to me?” 

Types of Maladaptive Automatic Thoughts That Sabbotage Us

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Don’t let your unconscious stall your progress! In the next article, we will talk about different types of untrue and maladaptive automatic thoughts. We will see that the more we learn about these malicious deep-down thoughts, the easier it is to practice noticing and changing them so that they don’t get in the way of our progress. 


Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. New York, NY: Guilford Press

Davis, B., (2020). What percentage of our thoughts are unconscious? Retrieved from:

Murdock N.L. (2016). Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Case Approach, 4th Edition

Hi, I’m Alona! I’m open, compassionate, and love adventures. Welcome to StudyTips, a place where I share knowledge from years of experience, studying, and hard work.

It is possible to do well in school and have fulfilling balanced lives. I learnt it the hard way but hope you won’t have to. Studying more is not always better, the trick is to know how to do it well.

Here you can find tips, concepts, and techniques based on various psychology principles that I wish I knew in my first years of university.


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