Do you ever find yourself wishing certain thoughts would just go away? Mine really like to show up at 2am and swarm around my head like flies on a hot sticky day. So how do we get rid of these pesky thoughts? The answer may surprise you.
Maybe you’ve encountered the well-meaning, but unproductive advice to “just stop thinking about it”? Perhaps you’ve even told yourself that.
Let’s try a little thought suppression experiment. For the next 30 seconds, whatever you do, do not think about chocolate chips cookies. Ready…set…go.
Be honest. How many of you were thinking, “Don’t think about chocolate chip cookies. Don’t think about chocolate chip cookies.” Guess what? If you were thinking, “Don’t think about chocolate chips cookies,” you were thinking about chocolate chip cookies. Perhaps you were more successful than that? Maybe you were not? Nevertheless, the chances are you spent a great deal of effort trying not to think about a chocolate chip cookie. How long do you think you could keep that up? I would be willing to bet before reading this that you had not thought about a chocolate chip cookie all day. Now you may not be able to stop thinking about chocolate chips cookies. Sorry about that.
Here is another well-meaning but somewhat less obvious unproductive statement, “Just think more positively about it.” Let’s say, I tell you that the cookie does not actually have chocolate chips but peanut butter chips instead. Watch what happens in your mind as you try to change the chocolate chip cookie to a peanut butter cookie. Perhaps your mind starts arguing, “I liked chocolate chips better than peanut butter,” or instead of one cookie, you now see two. Either way, you are probably still thinking about a chocolate chip cookie. While these are silly examples, in the real world this strategy will often result in fixating on painful thoughts. We often “think positively” as a way to suppress or get rid of the difficult thought, rather than providing a wider context where both difficult and positive thoughts can coexist–A place where both the chocolate chip and peanut butter cookie can live together.
Another issue we encounter when trying to think positively about a critical comment, health scare, unpaid bill, or any other difficult situation, is that our brains are wired to detect and fix problems. Our brain’s motto is “above all else, survive.” Happiness is often secondary. That means if you have 10 thoughts about a situation and only one of them is negative, your brain is likely to spotlight on the one negative thought. This like trying to bail water out of boat with a large hole in the bottom it. You aren’t going to be able to generate enough positive thoughts to keep yourself afloat in the long-run.
This doesn’t mean thinking positively is useless. However, it does mean that when thinking positively do so with the intention of making space for all thoughts to live, the positive and difficult ones. Rather than getting rid of the thoughts you do not like.
Step back from the mirage. We practice by seeing thoughts for what they are — just passing mental phenomena, rather than completely believing the story the thought is telling us. We can take a broader perspective by spending time in an observer role, rather than lost in thought. The observer sits back and watches thoughts as they pass, like clouds floating by in the sky. This ability to step into the observer role, gives us space from our thoughts and reduces the power they have over us. Mindfulness meditation practices are an excellent training ground for stepping into this observer role.
Start asking the right question. Some thoughts are easy to dismiss (e.g. “What if the world ends before I get to see the final season of Game of Thrones?”) and others are more sticky (e.g. “I am failing. What’s wrong with me?”). Often times, we tie ourselves into a pretzel trying to prove or disprove these sticky thoughts. The problem is that for most of these thoughts there is no way to definitively prove whether they are true or false. And while we are struggling to wrestle the thought into submission with our evidence, we are suffering and not living our life. So perhaps stop asking, “Is this thought really true?” which is probably unprovable anyway. Instead ask, “Is this thought useful?” Is this thought actually helping me live the life I want or getting in my way? This question puts you in a position to use your thoughts rather than letting your thoughts use you. If the thought is useful, then it is a tool to help you. If it is not, then you get to see it for what it is.
Take control of the wheel. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) a commonly used metaphor is Passengers on the Bus. The bus is your life. The passengers are your thoughts. As you drive the bus in the direction of the life you want, some passengers are quiet or encouraging, while others are loud, disruptive and say scary things. Here’s the catch: once one of those passengers gets on the bus, they don’t get off. You cannot just kick off one of your unruly passengers. As you drive the bus, the unruly passengers try to make a deal with you. If you go in the direction they want you to go, they will quiet down. If you take them up on their deal then your ride is bit more peaceful, but you are no longer controlling the direction of the bus. If you decide that you are willing to have them on the bus — just as they are — and go in the direction you want to go, then your ride might be louder but you will be in control of the direction your bus takes. Anyone who has been in a car with crying children knows this — after a while the child’s crying fit loses steam. So too it may be with your unruly passengers. Eventually, they will grow tired when they see that they cannot stop you from going in the direction you want and quiet down. Admittedly, this is not easy. Who wants to sit with these thoughts? So, please give yourself a healthy dose of self-compassion as you go through this process.
Let your own experience guide you in this. Notice if your efforts to get rid of pesky thoughts prolongs and intensifies them. And if this is the case for you, try letting go of this strategy and make space for the thoughts and see them for what they really are. For more help with untangling from difficult thoughts, please see my meditations on Evenflow app or schedule an appointment with me at my private practice in Sherman Oaks, CA.