Human beings love to control their environment and our brains enable us to do so. We like routines, we like to plan, we like to reach for goals and shape our surroundings. We value certain things and direct ourselves to accomplish or have them.
We think all the time. Even when we’re asleep our unconscious keeps us thinking and dreaming at various stages of the night. But sometimes our thoughts keep us awake. Sometimes our thoughts interrupt our productivity. Sometimes our thoughts make us feel miserable.
Consequently, it’s natural to want to keep the “good” thoughts that keep us alert, organized, concentrating, and generally happy or in a good mood. And, of course, we want to get rid of the thoughts that interfere with our routines, enjoyable activities, work productivity, and enjoyable relationships.
Sounds so obvious and easy, but as we all know, it’s not.
For an experiment, think of a thought that is distressing. Now stop it! Ah! Not so easy after all. I said, “Stop it!!” The more you try, the more it pops up. Look at a clock just for one minute and keep that thought out of your mind. What? Did it sneak back in? You couldn’t control it? Where’s that fantastic brain I was talking about? What’s it up to?
For the one minute—remember only one minute—did you try to substitute another thought, staring out the window, count to ten, run around, get something to eat, get on the phone, open your PC? In other words, try to distract yourself? That minute seemed forever, didn’t it? Like waiting for your coffee to brew or watching a pot boil with water so you can make pasta. Time seems to slow down incredibly.
The paradox of control
When it comes to coping with thoughts that affect emotions, in particular the ones that are upsetting, why does the control mechanism need to go to the body shop?
Let’s look at a common emotion: anxiety. The thoughts behind anxiety are called worry. The irony or horrible paradox is that the more you try to control, that is, get rid of the anxiety, stop the worrying thoughts, the worse the anxiety gets. What a conundrum since most of us feel anxiety and the subsequent worry frequently.
If you find the milk went bad, get rid of it. Easy. If the music is too loud, turn it down or turn it off. Get rid of it. Easy.
But when it comes to thoughts that engender unwanted emotions the “getting rid of it” solution fails terribly. And I know you try it, over and over and over again. The result? You end up with more of that undesirable feeling. More if those unwanted thoughts. How unfair is that?
In fact, if you are anxious and then get anxious about being anxious. Guess what? You already know what I’m going to say by now. The anxiety increases. You develop anxiety about the initial anxiety because you cannot control it. Remember the thoughts in anxiety are the worries. They keep badgering us.
Sometimes we pretend that by worrying, we’re accomplishing something. We tell ourselves we’re creative folks, so just keep it up the worrying and you’ll come to that solution or option you failed to see in the first place. This might work once in a while, but it’s hardly failsafe.
More likely, you’ve rationalized and fooled yourself into believing just worry a little longer and maybe a little longer still and the answer will come to you as to how to get rid of the anxiety or solve the worry.
But if you follow that path and work really hard at it, you’ll get very frustrated and quite confused. The world seems to turn upside down. That d…. worry persists!
Most people finally discover, if they are honest with themselves, that the more they want to avoid thinking about something, the more often they think about it.
Related: How to Stop Thinking About Something
If about now you are saying, “I think she’s on to me. Why DO I worry endlessly?” If that worry-thinking is persistent and it starts interfering with your day, you lose things, get absent-minded, flit from thing to thing, don’t finish what you started because your thoughts interfere, it’s clear you are really tense.
Please do not blame yourself. Do not think you’re a failure. Your brain is giving you the wrong information. Put too many lights and space heaters on plus your blow dryer and you blow a fuse. Nobody said you have to be an electrician. You just have the wrong information.
When that is happening to some of us it’s begun to look like an obsession, that is, uncontrollable thoughts. When you positively convince yourself that you mustn’t have those thoughts, these are the thoughts that become obsessions. They are out of your control.
This has nothing to do with self-discipline or the adage, “where there’s a will there’s a way.” False! Your brain is cueing you incorrectly. If someone gets mad at you for your persistent worrying which they find annoying because you want repeated reassurance that you’re not in danger or no one you love is threatened, they seriously do not understand what is happening. In fact, their anger at you increases anxiety and escalates the situation.
Thoughts are not dangerous: confusing thoughts with events
This is a very important principle. A thought is happening in the present. It may be about something in the past or future, but that event is not happening now. The popular practice of Mindfulness is on to that. That theory and practice through endless repetition help you stay in the moment. It helps you realize that your thought is in the present only and so you are encouraged by the meditation leader to let it pass by and return to the present. Let it float away like a balloon. Obsessional people have a lot of difficulty with this, though I highly recommend it. (I need to write another article!)
To explain further, people very often confuse the thought with an event in the past or the present. They make the thought equivalent to the event. They confuse the thought with the event itself. If you think about flying and are afraid of planes, you are not actually on the plane at that moment when you have the thought but it sure feels like that.
If you aren’t great at interviewing and you really know you have the qualifications but worry about the in-person interview or even one on ZOOM you have begun to experience the event. Your mind has taken you away from the thought: “I have an interview at 9 AM” and you are teleported to the interview room itself.
The anxiety you imagine in the room fills your rattled chest and you may even tremble, forgetting your THOUGHT is in the present. You are NOT in the interview yet. What a relief, to recognize that.
Why? Because it gives you back the time you thought you lost, and you can practice learning how to interview. You can anticipate questions and prepare answers slowly in a relaxed way because you give yourself lots of time to do this. You can reread your curriculum vitae and remember all you’ve done that qualifies you for the job. Now you remember what you’ll want to make sure is included in the interview. This is called preparation. You can’t prepare if you think you’re already in the office of the imagined threatening interviewer.
Solution? Separate the thought from the event.
Controlling thoughts in the outside world and the inside world also known as your mind
We learn from experience that it is adaptive to deal with many situations in the outside world by controlling the variables that we can anticipate. We stick to the speed limit, we stop at STOP signs, we pack our kids backpacks with finished homework, we shop for the ingredients for a recipe. We’re in control of thoughts as we fill the backpack, shop for the groceries, and drive your kid to school at 25 mph in the school zone.
We make lists of what should go in the backpack, take the grocery list with us, make notes to bring into a meeting we are leading. We get rid of what we don’t need. We don’t put soap on the list to make a smoothie. We don’t put in last year’s homework in the backpack. We don’t take out jeans if it’s a professional meeting the next day. We get rid of what we don’t need. Makes perfect sense.
But when it comes to the inside experiences, the ones in our minds, the same principle, get rid of what you don’t need or want, fails. Like I stressed above, if you tell yourself, get rid of the worry about the interview but still associate the thought with the event like you are already in the office, you won’t be able to get rid of the worry and actually do the preparation. The worry will grow exponentially, and you’ll never be calm enough to prepare.
Try this on for size: You feel anxious. You have a thought. The anxious thought is called the worry. You can’t get rid of it. We’ve tried that.
So, do the opposite. Accept it. What? Accept my worry? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?
NO. I’m not out of my mind. I’m on the side of my mind. I accept the thought. I can’t get rid of it, so I’m stuck with it. I think of it. I clarify that it’s a thought, not the event. I’m in the present. I accept the thought some more. I may write it down. I may write it twenty times. Something surprising is happening. It’s getting monotonous. I’m getting bored with it. My breathing has slowed down. It just looks like letters formed into words. I get it. It’s a thought. That’s all it is. It can’t hurt me, threaten someone I love, bring into the room someone who will slap me.
The thought is the wrinkle that makes my socks uncomfortable in my shoes. Unless I stop wearing socks and accept blisters or go barefoot and am embarrassed in public places, or get frostbite in the winter, I just accept the wrinkle.
Socks wrinkle. If they have holes in them or are thread bare, yes, throw them out, get rid of them, buy a new pair. But if each new pair still wrinkles, accept it. Don’t stop the car to take off the sock and straighten it out, you’ll be late for your appointment. Please don’t adjust it while you’re driving, you’ll forget to look out the front window. Accept the wrinkle. Accept the discomfort. Accept the thought. You cannot control every wrinkle.
Accepting wrinkles are like accepting some uncertainty. People who pressure themselves to control their thoughts have trouble tolerating uncertainty even though it’s part of life. We can’t totally control it.
Accepting the small wrinkle does not create more problems. In fact, you’ll discover, you stop noticing it. Like a bird chirping that interrupts your reading, after a while, you don’t even hear it. You can get rid of your bird feeder, but what if you like birds? Anyway, you can’t control all the birds in the world by taking away your particular bird feeder. Accept the chirping. After a while it will drift into the background and you enjoy your book.
The Urge to Hurry
The strong desire to control we already decided is human. It’s instinctual and automatic. After all, we spend our lives learning how to control external situations. If there’s a bear at your tent, please do what the forest ranger recommends. He might say, wait. Be still. Accept this particular kind of bear and it will walk away. The urge to hurry and run to get rid of it, will NOT work. So, recognize your desire—your desire to control the situation. It is a primary human response. That is, recognize your desire to control your thoughts, but don’t act precipitously. Listen to the forest ranger. He said to wait and accept your worry.
Don’t hurry to control your unwanted thought. Accept it. Let it bore the heck out of you. Trying to control the thought is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The upshot of this example is accepting the thought. Wait it out. You cannot control it by trying to get rid of it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised you can wait much longer with the thought than you ever imagined.
Why? Because it’s just a thought in the present. The thought is NOT dangerous, it’s not the event, nothing is happening. Go ahead. Repeat it in your head over and over. Nothing changes.
Amazingly enough. Anxiety decreases. The thought that comes with anxiety that we call worry diminishes. Nothing to hurry about. No need to rush.
Wait it Out
What you do need to do is wait it out. That is called tolerating anxiety. Our operating system of trying to control thoughts is a hard drive that needs to be fixed.
What is needed? WILLINGNESS. The willingness to give up the old operating system of controlling inner thoughts and accepting them instead and letting them linger, be a pest, be annoying, until they are boring and monotonous.
- In effect, you are interrupting your desire to control your thoughts
- You are becoming more accepting of your thoughts
- You are becoming more focused on the present moment of the thought
- You are willing to accept the thoughts
- You label the thoughts as worries, not events
- You are compassionate with yourself by being nonjudgmental of your thoughts
- You only look at your thoughts, that is, you remind yourself these are only thoughts
Changing Your Relationship to Your Thoughts: Becoming an Observer
When you willing to look at even emotionally charged thoughts and accept them, you are changing your relationship to the thoughts. To do so, here are several suggestions.
- Tolerate you will feel some uncertainty, maybe more than you are accustomed to.
- You will relinquish your overestimation of the probability of catastrophic results.
- You will catch yourself saying, “What if…?”
- You will SEEK OUT worry triggers rather than avoid them
- You will discover worry themes.
- You will identify body sensations that come with some charged thoughts.
- You will notice and label worry thoughts.
- You will look at or observe your thoughts rather than seeing your surroundings through your thoughts which is akin to imagining thoughts are the events.
- You will interrupt your long-standing impulse to control your thoughts by trying to get rid of them and make space for your acceptance of them.
- By observing thoughts, you discover YOU are not your thoughts. You are bigger than your inner experience of your thoughts. It’s like you look away from a video and see it’s just a video, not you who has been temporarily involved in its action.
- You give up thinking of your thoughts as monsters to control and find by looking at the monsters, they disappear—they aren’t even under your bed.
- You become open to the feelings your thoughts engender and wait them out without reacting.
You have surely discovered that this article is not about controlling all thoughts but the impulse to control UNWANTED thoughts. The thoughts we call worry that give us anxiety.
We’ve discovered that fighting anxiety, increases it. Observing thoughts or worries that induce anxiety, decreases it. Why? Because we learn through a great deal of intentional and purposeful repetition that we can actually tolerate more anxiety, more worry-thoughts than we ever expected.
We have changed our relationship to unwanted thoughts and the feelings they engender by observing them from a distance instead of being lost in a deep well with them as we fear.
Accepting worry-thoughts that engender anxiety actually becomes relieving. Then we are free to accomplish what we value. Our unwanted thoughts no longer control us and restrict what we do and when we do it.
The world opens up!