Might You Actually Want Your Unwanted Thoughts?
Your thoughts can carry you to different destinations, but how exactly, and why?
Posted Sep 02, 2020
So many things in psychology can only be understood paradoxically. And when we focus on the deliberative battle going on within ourselves, as regards what we should do or the decisions we should make, this curious fact about human nature becomes painfully obvious.
Whether inconsequential or imperative, we’re all obliged to decide many things daily. Most of these considerations are carried out unconsciously, as a matter of habit, impulse, and emotions we’re generally not even aware of. Unless raised to full consciousness, these well-established patterns assert and reassert themselves endlessly, for all their previous repetition renders them reflexive and automatic. And by definition, anything automatic remains out of our control.
So if, therefore, we’re to take charge of—or master—our sometimes corrosive, but routinized thinking, we must learn what’s causing such reactions in the first place. Put simply, what’s automatic are the thoughts underlying the disturbing feelings that plague us. And we can’t alter these frequently self-defeating thoughts until we’re able to recognize, identify, and explore them.
Here's a fair sampling of the kinds of thoughts that typically stay more or less hidden from us, yet operate autonomously in influencing our behavior—regrettably creating ongoing distress for us:
- I’m not worthy (or worthwhile).
- I’m inadequate (or incompetent).
- I’m inferior (or stupid; don’t measure up).
- I’m defective (broken or flawed).
- I don’t fit in (or am looked down upon).
- I can’t do anything right (or I’m a loser).
- I’m not good enough (or, there’s something wrong with me).
- I can’t be good enough (or I’m hopeless).
- I’m a failure (or can’t succeed).
- I’m not likable (or lovable).
- I’m a bad person (or seen as a bad person; unacceptable).
- My anger could make me do something I’ll regret.
- I’m guilty (or I did something wrong).
- I’m embarrassed (humiliated or shameful).
- I’m not listened to (or all alone).
- I’m a fraud (or impostor).
- I don’t deserve love (or respect).
- I can’t be trusted (trust myself, or trust others).
- I have no authority (or less than others).
- I’m weak (helpless or powerless).
- I’m not in control (or can’t control myself).
- I’m in danger (trapped or threatened).
- I will die (or go crazy). (This especially relates to those who experience panic attacks.)
- I can’t cope with stress (or I’m easily overwhelmed).
- I have to be perfect.
- I can’t let myself relax.
- I have to be responsible for others (can’t disappoint or set limits on them).
- It’s not safe to have feelings (or show them).
- I’m a victim (or can’t protect myself).
- I’m a burden (to myself and/or others).
- I can’t be myself.
As large as this number of examples is, each portrays only a small fraction of all the negative beliefs we’re capable of tormenting ourselves with. And it’s these so-unfavorable beliefs about self and the world around us that engenders the adverse feelings we so desperately would like to get rid of.
According to Daniel Wegner’s research (2011/10, APA Monitor), the most effective tools for avoiding unwanted thoughts are “pick[ing] an absorbing distractor and focus[ing] on that instead; try[ing] to postpone the thought; cutt[ing] back on multitasking; think[ing] in controlled ways of the thing you want to avoid—or what’s called 'exposure'; and meditat[ing] and [cultivating] mindfulness.”
But notice that all these here-and-now fixes are essentially temporary because although the process of “avoiding or postponing” suppresses disturbing feelings, it cannot, as such, resolve them. In fact, the problem with all coping techniques is that they don’t, and can’t, permanently dislodge internal programming that intermittently gets reactivated, triggering exactly what the individual regularly has endeavored to escape.
As emphasized, for instance, by Jeremy Dean (2011), in his “8 Ironic Effects of Thought Suppression, much research has suggested that trying to put a thought or emotion out of mind while we’re stressed can have ironic effects: It actually comes back stronger. For our mind may be dead set against us. We want to do one thing and it wants to do precisely the opposite.
Moreover, our feelings and emotions are just as prone to paradoxical effects as our cognitions. So when people try to suppress a depressed mood, they often find it coming back with a vengeance, which is why standard psychological therapies avoid thought suppression, instead attempting to focus on distraction and acceptance. (See Beavers, C. G., et al, 2006.)
Finally, as Robert L. Leathy highlights in “Those Damn Unwanted Thoughts,” when people have unwelcome, intrusive thoughts they say things to themselves like:
- I'm having that thought again.
- What's wrong with me that I'm thinking that?
- It must mean something about me.
- I have to do something to make sure it doesn't become a reality.
- I have to stop having that thought.
I shared my own approach to this quandary in a recent post, “How to Talk to—and Tame—Your Outdated Defenses." And it can be viewed as richly embodying the aphorism, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join em.”
According to Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems Therapy, every human is composed of parts, each of which has its own mind and motives. Best described as “subpersonalities,” they all originated at a beleaguered time when you felt overwhelmed. And to safeguard you from feeling so painfully anxious, ashamed, or out of control, these protectors taught you to hold off, deny, or distort such feelings, or to project them onto others. Moreover, their maneuvers were actually adaptive since otherwise back then you couldn’t continue to function the way you needed to.
The problem with these protectors, however, is that the powerful defense mechanisms they chose for you were deemed as what you had to rely on permanently, falsely assuming you’d never develop the resources clearly lacking when they intervened on your behalf. Their static, unshakable convictions are now what necessitate intervention—from, that is, the more mature and sophisticated present you.
Still, you won’t be able to reason with them until you engage them, and you can’t succeed in this task by outright attacking them. If they regard you as their enemy, they won’t let you in, for they’ve got a 24/7 job to do and they’re unwavering about performing it. Nonetheless, if you can approach them with curiosity, compassion, and concern—in short, welcome them and treat them as allies, not adversaries—they’re far more likely to eventually share their well-kept secrets with you.
So what you need to tell them is that you’re aware they’re totally in the service of a younger you, that you’re grateful and indebted to them for their efforts, and you’d greatly appreciate their sharing how, and why, they safeguard your interests. When did they come about? What was happening to you that was so threatening? In particular, where in your body might they be located—in your gut, chest, heart, limbs, throat, head, genitals?
Then you invite them to speak for and from themselves. “Unblending” from them by distinguishing your essential, core, and non-reactive self from their highly reactive, defense-infused personalities, you quiet yourself down and listen intently when they’re ready to speak. Ideally, you want to learn what traumatic experiences (suffered as far back as early childhood) prompted them to take charge over you and manage your life, allegedly to keep you safe.
Now is your opportunity to let them know that you’re older, no longer requiring the extreme protection that, acting on their own, they automatically saddled you with. Since you share the same visual cortex, you can show them instances of what you’ve achieved, within yourself as well as your relationships, despite their systematically discouraging you from taking risks, which, based on your past limitations, they’ve been exaggerating.
And this isn’t a one-time-only process: You’re initiating a continuing dialogue—not just with a single protector but many of them, each of which inaugurated a different plan for your physical, emotional, and mental survival. These subpersonalities could complement each other or sharply contrast with one another. But they each deserve to be kindly understood and validated.
In time, what you’ll find is that they’ll be increasingly receptive to your suggestions to moderate and allow you to gradually take over their responsibilities, for they’re all exhausted by their relentless efforts—however wrongheaded—to support you. Or, as Schwartz would put it, you want them to permit you to be self-led (vs. protector- or manager-led). It’s not that you want to extinguish them, which would be impossible anyway, for they’re an intrinsic part of you. Rather, you want them to come over to your side and willingly take on a more subordinate role, accepting the innermost core of you as now their undisputed leader.
And that’s how you, transcending their unwittingly arbitrary restrictions, can reclaim your peace of mind, state of well-being, and capacity to enjoy life fully.
© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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