The Differences Between the Subconscious and Unconscious

Our non-conscious mind is composed of different levels. Among them we find the subconscious and the unconscious. Let's see how they differ.
The Differences Between the Subconscious and Unconscious
Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati

Written and verified by the philosopher Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati.

Last update: 06 March, 2023

Subconscious and unconscious are two terms that are often used interchangeably, even by some mental health professionals. It’s a complicated task to contrast both entities, given the subtle differences that define them.

Thus, to understand their differences, we must first keep in mind that there’s a part of our mind that we perceive consciously and another that we don’t.

In this sense, the conscious part contains all the ideas and experiences that we can perceive and remember, while, in the non-conscious part, the mental content that we don’t remember right now is stored.

We’ll now focus on describing the non-conscious part of the mind, for it’s there where the two entities we have discussed are found. Let us go deeper into it.

Levels of the non-conscious mind

To understand the differences between the subconscious and unconscious it’s useful to think of the mind as analogous to an iceberg. In this sense, the tip that sticks out of the water and is visible is the conscious part. In contrast, what is submerged and imperceptible would be the non-conscious part.

As represented by the image of the iceberg, the conscious part is only a small fraction of the vastness of mental content found in our mind.

However, we can say that, within the non-conscious mind, there are different levels of depth. Therefore, there’s content that can become conscious without much difficulty – such as remembering what we had for dinner three days ago – and other information that’s been well hidden, 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 how deep they are stored. That said, the most useful way to understand the differences between the subconscious and unconscious is through their relative inaccessibility. Let’s see how.

Unconscious mind.
At the unconscious level of the mind often lie the traumatic experiences of childhood.

Differences between the subconscious and unconscious

Generally, the word “subconscious” is used to refer to the more superficial non-conscious part of the mind, while the term “unconscious” is used to refer to a deeper and more inaccessible non-conscious zone.

At this point, it’s perfectly valid for us to ask ourselves: where is the line between “more superficial non-conscious ideas” and “deeper non-conscious ideas”? That is, what makes one idea more superficial and another more profound?

To answer this question we can begin by analyzing our current existence and then try to see which ideas and memories can be more profound.

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

Suppression vs. repression

Let us begin by clarifying that suppression is linked to the subconscious, while repression is linked to 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.

On the other hand, when we repress, our mind is pushing something that it considers too dangerous to hide in the depths of our consciousness, to the point that it isn’t recognizable.

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

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

Consequently, in the unconscious, we find very unpleasant memories, painful emotions, and socially unacceptable desires.

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

In contrast, suppression can take place for different reasons, unrelated to unpleasant experiences and survival. For example, we can suppress a memory for simple mental economy.

Examples of subconscious and unconscious contents

To better understand the differences between the subconscious and unconscious, here are two situations that reflect the role of both mental instances.

  • Subconscious: When we recognize that we are slightly jealous 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 he had more opportunities and privileges.
  • Unconscious: A phobia of horses – just the sight of them causes you uncontrollable panic. Despite this, you don’t have the slightest idea why. This is because you have repressed information, and your conscious side has hidden the fact that in your childhood you were forced to ride one, even though you didn’t want to. Our father even yelled at you and called you a cowards.

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

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

Final reflections

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

Therefore, the terms used only simplify the understanding of such a complex entity as the human mind.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Prince M, Taylor W, Warren H, Pressey H. The subconscious. In W. S. Taylor. Readings in abnormal psychology and mental hygiene. EEUU: D Appleton & Company; 1927. pp. 474–491

  • Farahian M. Subconscious Vs. Unconscious Learning: A Short Review of the Terms. American Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences  [Internet] 2015 [consultado 12 dic 2021]; 2(3): 98-100. Disponible en:

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.