Tara came to see me when she was in her mid-30s. By her own account, she had devoted the previous 10 years of her life to conquering and eliminating her obsessive and, as she called it, unstoppable thinking.
She had been devoted to self-help for a decade and tried anything and everything to convince her mind to “stop talking” and specifically, to stop telling her she was worthless. Mostly she had used positive thinking methods, which included affirmations and gratitude practices.
She had worked as hard to change the thoughts she heard in her head.
She was a self-help pickle by now—no longer a cucumber and no going back. But here she was in my office, still struggling and stymied by her unceasing inner chatter, feeling hopeless and beaten, powerless over her thoughts and powerless over what they were doing to her.
I’ve met hundreds of Taras—people who have been disappointed by self-help and psychological fix-it strategies. My practice is filled with folks who were unable to find lasting relief from their excessive thinking through the self-help techniques that forever beckon and promise us a new life. If you also have tried everything on the shelf, don’t despair. It’s not your fault that you haven’t found what you need.
Controlling the content of our thoughts is a temporary fix, a shiny hat over dirty hair. It works to some degree when things are running smoothly and we like what’s happening in our life. But when the going gets tough and life rolls out the hard stuff—which it always does at some point—the positive thoughts don’t stick. The fix-it strategies fail, and we revert back to our old belief systems and historical thinking patterns.
Positive thinking can be helpful, and it feels good, but it doesn’t get at the real problem; it’s not strong enough to create real change in the beliefs that underlie our negative thoughts. Ultimately, it’s just a Band-Aid on a far deeper and more powerful condition.
What makes positive thinking an inadequate solution isn’t just its unreliability. The real reason it falls short is that it’s addressing the wrong problem. When the strategy is to replace negative or unwanted thoughts with positive ones, we’re relying on misguided beliefs, assuming the following: We can and should be able to control our thoughts, what our thoughts are saying is important, our thoughts have the power to control us, and finally, we have to get our thoughts under control before we can be okay. All of which are false.
Positive thinking maintains (incorrectly) that our well-being depends upon what our thoughts are saying at any moment, and thus, our successful management and control of the thoughts are the keys to our happiness. In this system, we are still at the mercy of the contents of our thoughts, still dependent on what is not ours to control. Positive thinking claims to empower us but, at the root, it disempowers us.
Self-help sells a kind of cognitive ammunition, an arsenal for winning the war against our unwanted thoughts. But if what you want is to not feel controlled by your thoughts, then the answer is to stop trying to control your thoughts—stop trying to defeat them. What frees us from negative thinking is not winning the war against our thoughts (over and over again, minute by minute, day by day, for years on end), but rather, removing ourselves from the war altogether.
Stepping Out for Peace of Mind
So then, how do we step out of the battle? What is the strategy for surrendering the fight? The process I’m suggesting begins with a radical shift in perspective. The positive thinking system says that in order for us to be okay, our thoughts have to be okay—to our liking. This suggests that we are reliant upon our thoughts. Essentially, it says we are our thoughts.
But what if this is not true? Stepping out of the battle with your thinking starts by considering that your well-being doesn’t depend on correcting thoughts at all, and furthermore, doesn’t depend on your liking or even agreeing with your thoughts.
Have you ever noticed, when thoughts are not here, even if it’s just for a moment, that you are still here, still awake, still conscious? We remain, with or without thought, which strongly suggests that we aren’t made of our thoughts. How can we still be here if what we are is not here?
As you’ll experience repeatedly through the exercises in this book, sometimes we can see our thoughts happening, see them actually arising and even passing. The fact that we can see our thoughts and hear what they’re saying also tells us that we cannot be our thoughts. We can’t be what we can see happening in front of us. It turns out that well-being depends upon our realizing that we are not our thoughts and our thoughts are not us.
Ask yourself: What if I am not my thoughts? What if I am what hears and sees the thoughts, the awareness within which thoughts are appearing?
Let this possibility germinate in you; walk with it, sit with it, shower with it, eat with it. … notice what happens.
Thoughts appear and disappear within our field of awareness, that much is true. We, however, are not responsible for their content. Thoughts can say what they want and will, and we can still be okay. Our thoughts stop controlling us when we cultivate a separate place inside ourselves from which to observe thoughts and when we stop seeing it as our job to correct and conquer them.
Freedom dawns through awareness, specifically, the awareness to see what’s happening inside your own mind, as an observer. And it begins by surrendering the responsibility for controlling what you see.
“Can’t Stop Thinking: How to Let Go of Anxiety and Free Yourself from Obsessive Rumination” was released in May and is available from Amazon and other book retailers.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, and author of “Can’t Stop Thinking” (2021) “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” and “Inviting a Monkey to Tea.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com