Have you ever had a song that you couldn’t get out of your head? Maybe you like the song, maybe you don’t. But the words and tune keep spilling across the dance floor your mind.
Or maybe it’s just a thought, no music. Thoughts like . . . “Maybe I’ll go to the Rec Center. No, my stomach is growling and I need some Panda Express . . . my phone is too quiet. Why haven’t they texted me back? . . . I wonder what so and so is doing right now?”
All day long such thoughts come and go like cars passing on the freeway.
The problem is sometimes a car gets stuck in a roundabout, and the same thought keeps repeating over and over. Thoughts like, “If you eat that cookie, you’re worthless” . . . or “Don’t speak up, they will think you are stupid.” The sort of thoughts that get us into hot water if we buy into them too much.
But where do these thoughts come from? Who is the thinker that came up with them? Is that really you thinking those thoughts? Or is it something you picked up from others? Which channel is your internal radio tuned to? Is it tuned to the you are beautiful channel? Or you are lousy, no good channel?
I like to think of our thoughts as tools. They can help us plan a trip, figure out how to get from here to there and where the best camping spots will be along the way. They can help us deconstruct an argument and see the truth behind what others say. Attached to our values, they can inspire and motivate us to do things that are difficult but ultimately good for us and for the world.
It would be nice if thoughts always worked to our benefit. However, sometimes thoughts can be like weapons, and the most insidious weapons are those we use against ourselves.
One insight from a branch of psychology called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is that the problem lies not with the fact that we have certain thoughts. We can have all kinds of thoughts, even one’s we’d prefer not to have — but they will remain harmless unless we invest too much belief in them. For instance, I can have the thought nobody here wants to talk to me and just allow that thought to come and go while chatting with others around me and letting myself have a good time.
According to ACT we get into trouble when we hold certain thoughts too tightly. We fuse with them, and we take them to define our reality. At its most extreme, this can lead delusional thinking, embracing a belief system that is objectively untrue and yet impervious to the facts. (Many of our psychological problems represent a less dramatic form of this same process.)
The flipside of holding our thoughts too lightly might be holding them too loosely. In this case, we may not be able to sustain a thought long enough to form a coherent sentence. Or we may feel pulled in so many directions by our thoughts that it’s hard to know what to believe and what to do.
You might be getting the sense by now that to give our thoughts some kind of order we need something else, something that is not exactly our thoughts but nonetheless related to them. We might call this third thing values. We can give our thoughts order by embedding them in lived values.
Where do values come from? you might ask. To address that question fully would take us too far afield. But let me just name few possibilities: our values often come from important relationships, lessons learned from our experiences, readings in philosophy, spiritual teachings and social engagement.
But having values alone does not necessarily solve the problem of racing thoughts or becoming too attached to unhelpful thoughts. For instance, someone can have really good values yet still be hampered by negative thoughts about their body, their worth as a person or their ability to succeed and create a fulfilling life.
If you struggle with being fused with thoughts that aren’t helping you, then one way to loosen this attachment is through practices that take you out of your thinking mind into a deeper connection into the non-thinking part of yourself. Your being, as it were. A variety of practices are designed for this purpose. Yoga, meditation, and silent prayer are a just a few. Not all practices may be equally effective. The goal is not merely to take a break from painful or destructive thoughts but to fundamentally change how we relate to them.
The anthropologist and writer, Carlos Castaneda, called the experience and realization that comes from meditative practices, Stopping the World.
If we can stop the world in our heads for just a few moments, then we can start to see the daylight around our fears, our momentary obsessions, and our negative self-talk and realize that all of them are half illusion. And we can start to feel less encumbered by our mental traffic. Then, guided by our values, we can direct our efforts and go where we want to go.
Or stay right here and enjoy the view.
Mark Evans, Ph.D.
Senior Staff Psychologist
Photo: Blow Your Mind by Camilo Ruedo Lopez (CC BY-ND 2.0)