Is your mind stuck running on an inner hamster wheel that you can’t get off of? Perhaps you wake up at night obsessing: “am I in the right job? is this really my calling?” Or you question your relationship: “what if she’s not right for me? what if I’m settling?” Perhaps you focus on bad things happening: “what if my loved one gets hurt in some way (e.g., abused, kidnapped, sick, killed)?” Your mind goes round and round with these intrusive thoughts leaving you stressed out and exhausted.
What are intrusive thoughts?
We all have hundreds of thoughts that dart through our minds every day. What makes a thought intrusive is that it tends to be 1) repetitive, 2) emotionally gripping, and 3) it prevents us from being present for our lives.* The content of the thought is less important than how it impacts us. Often intrusive thoughts have a hidden agenda toward perfection. We believe if we get the right job, marry the right partner, achieve perfect health — i.e., do everything right — then we’ll be exempt from the suffering of being human. Intrusive thoughts are a demand for certainty. We want to know we’re doing the right thing so everything will turn out okay.
One way to know a thought is intrusive is that it doesn’t resolve. I’ve spent hours talking with clients, taking their intrusive thoughts at face value. We’ll talk about their relationships, analyzing the pros and cons of staying and leaving. We’ll explore their past and how they may be repeating learned patterns from childhood. We’ll discuss how fear holds them back from making a change. Yet, no matter how much we discuss the issue, no matter what steps are taken, the thought doesn’t stop arising and the ambivalence and fear remains.
What’s happening here?
Intrusive thoughts, as it turns out, aren’t the main issue. We catch on to the fact we’ve been on a wild goose chase. By taking the thoughts at face value we’ve been distracted.
Intrusive thoughts function like other addictions in that they pull us away from underlying pain and protect us from being fully present in our lives. Just as we can be addicted to alcohol, gambling, Netflix or food, we can be addicted to thinking. As painful and demanding as unrelenting intrusive thoughts can be — our minds are convinced the mental pain is more bearable than emotional pain. Intrusive thoughts are really a defense mechanism from feeling our feelings. We start to recognize the underlying pain exists regardless of whether we change our external circumstances.
Running from the pain of uncertainty
Part of being human means that life is constantly changing. While we know this fact intellectually, emotionally most of us have a difficult time accepting the uncertainty of our lives. We don’t like change, which is another way of saying we have a hard time accepting death in all its forms. We don’t know how to grieve the losses that permeate an ordinary day let alone the bigger emotional deaths that occur when we transition to new stages in life.
Most of us simply haven’t been taught how to be with our vulnerability and the truth of impermanence. We try to control the uncontrollable, hoping for safety and security. We haven’t been taught how to live life fully, which means to let life penetrate us and to feel all of our feelings. There is a not-knowing and groundless quality to life. When we can’t feel all of our feelings we become scared of the changing nature of life.
What is one to do?
The following is a brief outline of how to get off the mental hamster wheel and to start feeling your feelings. To get comfortable with uncertainty.**
1) Label the thought as an intrusive thought.
If you don’t label the thought for what it is, you’ll believe the thought is true and you’ll be at the mercy of your mental machinations. Avoid trying to figure out “why am I focused on this thought? why this particular hamster wheel right now?” This line of thinking keeps you stuck in your mind and only serves to pull you away from your feelings.
Labeling the thought as intrusive and unwanted helps you defuse from its power. Once you name it and see it for what it is — a distraction from being present to what is — you create a bit of internal wiggle room or space to feel what’s been hidden.
2) Set the frame.
Give yourself time and space to get in touch with your feelings. While our minds move at lightning pace, our feelings are slower to reveal themselves and they often speak in the language of the body. Our task is to adopt a friendly and curious stance within ourselves to welcome our feelings. Take some abdominal breaths and see if you can settle your body toward quietness. Try to find a physical place in your body that feels good or safe, grounding yourself to the present moment. Give yourself time.
If you can’t settle your body and you’re too agitated to proceed, take a break and try again later. Being aware that you’re agitated is useful information.
3) Be curious. Study what arises.
It’s hard to describe how to feel your feelings, even though it’s a directive many of us have heard before. The following are some pointers:
Scan your body for the presence of feelings. Are you aware of feeling happy? sad? anxious? angry?
Be aware that we’re so used to running from our feelings that we'll want to turn away as soon as something uncomfortable arises. See if you can use your breath to settle your body, allow whatever arises, and be patient with yourself.
Ask yourself, “what feeling is in the foreground of my awareness?” and place your attention there. Be gentle and don’t search too hard.
Once you’re in touch with a feeling, notice: where do I feel it in my body? Does the feeling have a message for me?
You’re not searching for a mental answer. This is tricky, as your mind will want to latch onto an answer or create an answer. Rather, you’re inviting the feeling to reveal more of itself as it arises in your body. You might feel a strong sensation in your body. You might notice a color, a texture, an image, or a memory. Try to stay curious and unassuming. Can you listen to yourself? Let whatever wants to arise come up.
Accept whatever messages arise.
Breath into intense feelings and remind yourself that being human — with all of its vulnerability — isn’t something you can get over or fix. The best we can do is be with ourselves with loving kindness and compassion.
If a mental story involving the feeling develops, see if you can drop it and come back to the present moment by following your breath. The goal is to scan your feelings and experience them without getting into analyzing them.
4) Harvest what you learn.
Sit quietly with yourself and let go of focusing on your feelings. It can be helpful to write down the feelings that came up and any insights you gained. The goal is to be curious and nonjudgmental.
If you find yourself triggered by an emotion, take a breath and remind yourself that “all feelings are valid, all feelings come and go.” Take a long, conscious exhale and ground yourself to the present moment.
With practice, it gets easier to listen to ourselves and feel our feelings. We discover the difference between an intellectual idea and an inner knowing that arises from the wisdom of our bodies. As we greet ourselves with curiosity and kindness, we learn that we can feel pain and loss and tolerate the uncertainty of life. Through feeling our vulnerability we open up to a deeper sense of aliveness, joy, and freedom.
* This definition of intrusive thoughts comes from Sheryl Paul, a psychotherapist, whose writings can be found at www.conscious-transitions.com
** Comfortable with Uncertainty (2003) by Pema Chodron is a gem of a book that offers a Buddhist perspective on this theme