I’ve been doing an experiment lately. I’ve been writing down all of the unwanted intrusive thoughts that I notice I’m having. I’m doing this because I so often tell clients that we cannot control the thoughts that pop into our heads and that we are always choosing to ignore some and to pay attention to others. Here is just a small sampling of thoughts I’ve written down in the last two weeks:
Perhaps you are shocked when you read this. Perhaps not. I suppose it depends on the kind of intrusive thoughts you are aware of having. Without being intentional about noticing them, I am sure I would have forgotten most of them by now. And the thing is, most of us have all manner of wild thoughts and then we go through an unconscious decision-making process about which thoughts we will take seriously and which ones we will dismiss as a brain blip. And here’s the rub. That unconscious decision-making process is what can get us in trouble when it tells us we ought to take very seriously a thought that is not helpful.
For example, if I’d taken the thought about never seeing my kids alive again seriously, it would have wrecked my anniversary weekend getaway. I would have been preoccupied with grief and probably very worried about how my kids were. I might have cancelled the trip or checked on them obsessively throughout the weekend. The fact that I had that thought was not a signal to become hyper vigilant. Rather, it was a random firing of my brain that probably comes to most parents from time to time.
How about some of the sillier thoughts? If I took the thought about the Broadway musical or Jillian Michaels seriously, I might have an interesting ethical debate with myself, but I would be seriously wasting my time! I will never face either offer!
We get duped when we consider every thought that pops into our head to be a signal, a warning from God, or an omen. A lot of what comes into our heads is simply noise that can completely distract us from the things we care about. Intrusive thoughts can certainly pull us out of the present moment and lead to swirling mental harangues that pull our moods into the toilet. Discrimination is required for us to decide which thoughts are helpful to us.
I’ll continue sharing my experiments with you as I venture into applying the principles I talk about so often on this site. I hope that you’ll share your own stories of dealing with intrusive thoughts!
How often do we ruin a perfectly good week because our minds are in the next one? I’ve caught myself several times lately in a hurried mindset. I know what’s behind it. Beginning in 5 days, over a 16-day period, I am leading a 3-day training, speaking at a conference, going on a group spiritual retreat, attending a daylong training, and going with my family on a spring break trip to the beach. This mad rush has been coming for a long time. It seems that every organization I’m involved with and every training cycle that I’m a part of picks early April as the perfect time to hold their events/conferences…..right before/during spring break! And so, I’m facing a crunch.
Here’s what I do. The near constant subtext of my thoughts is in next week. I’m going over my plan, making sure I’m prepared for everything, checking to make sure that I’ve scheduled all the clients I need to see before and after, wondering how tired I will feel in between this and that, and generally I’M LIVING NEXT WEEK’S LIFE BUT IT IS STILL THIS WEEK! Here’s the evidence I collected that let me know I needed to challenge my mindset:
I wonder if Jesus ever got caught up in swirls like this? Do you think that while walking from the temple to Simon’s home that he sometimes muttered, “geez, if only we didn’t have to spend all this time eating we could really do some good here.” Maybe. But for the most part it seems that Jesus was imminently interruptible and open to changes in his plan. He gives us an example of being present. That’s what I realized I was lacking. I started intentionally talking to myself when I noticed my hurried and ‘next week’ thoughts. I talked to myself like this:
I have become convinced that the better we are at talking to ourselves, the healthier we will be. I felt my attitude shift and I’m grateful. The next weeks will likely be intense and I wouldn’t want my entire life to be scheduled like this. But each piece was carefully chosen and planned for and I will be just fine. Part of it is a vacation, for crying out loud! Another is a retreat! Much of my anticipation has a quality of exaggeration. How do you talk to yourself so that you can stay in this week?
I heard an intriguing Ted Talk recently by Kelly McGonigle entitled, “Making Stress Your Friend”. McGonigle is a psychologist who spent the better part of her career trying to get her clients to reduce their stress level. She did this until she came across some shocking research that made her change her whole treatment approach. Here are some salient points from her talk:
What are the implications? If we believe ourselves to be weak, frail, and unable to cope with the stresses in our lives, then we will be weaker, more frail, and less able to thrive in times of stress. We may even die. If we understand the great mystery of God’s design of our bodies as able to sustain us in times of stress, then we can thrive even when stress is high. Our bodies are designed to take us through times of stress.
I often hear clients say that they cannot handle things, usually their strong emotions. I know there was a time I believed that myself. But you know what? I did handle it. A not so subtle lie has entered into our psyches: Strong or negative emotions will do me in. A more accurate statement would be: My beliefs about strong or negative emotions will do me in. We are created to contain a vast, profound, deep, and very intense array of emotions. Our growth in this life is not to tap down the strength of our emotions, but rather, to understand our capacity to experience our emotions as expandable and adaptive.
What we believe really does matter.
Listen to the compelling Ted talk here.
The conversations begin around November 20th. “I’m bracing myself for the holidays.” “That will have to wait until after the holidays”, “I dread the busyness”, “If I can make it through the holidays”, “I dread making that meal”. …. I get the picture that for many people, their holiday wish is that the holidays would be over. But wishing the holidays away won’t make January come any faster and it fills our minds with dread and bodies with tension. Grayson calls this the wishing ritual. We engage in it every time we wish for something that is not our current reality.
What are we doing? Wishing for a different life makes it nearly impossible to enjoy the one we have. “When we compare reality with fantasy, we destroy and demean the moment.” How many times have you stressed and struggled through a Holiday season like you were being tortured only to look back on it fondly a few years later? These are the times and days that we are given and we are often missing them by wishing they would end! When you think about it, how absurd!
How do we honor rather than demean our present reality?
I’m like everybody else…..when I consider what the next 6 weeks will require of me, I am tempted to think it is all too much. But taken day by day and task by task, with the values that are important to me in mind, it all feels different. I can turn my attention from the negative story about this time and towards the wonder, joy, and blessings of my life. Each celebration can be for me either the end of a grueling race or it can be a spiritual and emotional blessing. I’m going to try and honor my present reality this Advent. Won’t you join me?
The book I quoted is Jonathan Grayson’s Freedom from OCD.
I spoke at a conference this weekend. The college students in attendance were Christians and seekers dealing with all the things you’d expect; relationship worries, grades/jobs worries, sex worries……lots of worries and anxieties overall. One topic of discussion that I’m still kicking around is how we are often duped into thinking that by worrying or being consumed with something that we are doing something productive or even spiritually important.
What I learned from students this weekend is that they can buy into certain mindsets that are a particular draw for Christians, and I wonder if the same holds true for people from other religious traditions. The mindsets go something like this:
Some of us actually function as if our worry alerts God to what we want or need. We remain in utterly unhelpful cycles of worry because are worried about the spiritual implications should we stop! If we are honest, each of us in our own way is tempted to think that our worry has some value. The outcome of this thinking in relationship with God is a sad and subtle attempt to manipulate God with our own suffering. What if God knows us so well and so intimately that our wants and needs are clearer to him than to us? What if God will hold our wants and needs with great tenderness and care whether we worry or not? If God were compelled by our worry, then wouldn’t we be commanded to worry in the Bible?
Worry is a mental process that is largely unhelpful to we humans. After we have assessed what we can do about any given situation, worry becomes an anxiety-provoking and distracting practice. It takes us out of our actual lives and into a future-looking possible outcome that scares us to death. Bringing that fear into our relationship with God looks very different than worrying. While worrying spins us inside our own thoughts, prayer regarding our fears involves a relational process of requesting, confessing, surrendering, and ideally, some listening too. Let’s get real about what we are really doing when we are worrying, because sometimes it is a practice that enables us to avoid bringing the deeper feelings more squarely into our relationship with God.