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:
- “what if I accidentally do something that causes my husband to fall off the top of the shed he’s standing on and he breaks his back?”
- “would I be able to keep being a therapist if my face were horribly burned?”
- “if I could endure the most pain imaginable for one hour and then have the body of Jillian Michaels, would I do it?
- “is my underwear making a line on my butt?”
- (when leaving my kids for the weekend to celebrate my anniversary) “what if I never see them alive again?”
- “if I were selected to star in a Broadway musical, would I disclose my history of vocal chord problems?”
- “what if someone I respect reads this and loses all respect for me because my thoughts are totally nuts?”
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!