Have you ever noticed how frequently your mind returns to problems and situations that cause you pain, and insists on rehashing what’s wrong? It’s a strange phenomenon really, our addiction to thinking about problems. Even when we don’t want to think about what’s bothering us, still, we keep thinking about it. Why do we do this, and how can we break this thinking addiction?
We return to painful situations because, at the root, we believe that more thinking (about our problem), will fix it. We imagine that every problem can be figured out with more thinking. We are conditioned from the time we’re born to trust that thinking is the solution to everything that ails us. And so, painful though it may be, we keep thinking over the same issues, believing that we can think up a way to make the problem not a problem.
Ultimately, we are trying to make ourselves feel better, but the solution we have come up with—more thinking—actually makes us feel worse.
Simultaneously, we keep rehashing our problems because it feels like thinking about the situation is a way of empathizing with our pain. Going over the difficulty again and again is our attempt to offer ourselves compassion. We keep repeating (to ourselves), “Can you believe this, how could they do this, isn’t this crazy?” We do this so we can feel heard and known, even if it’s just inside our own head.
Furthermore, we keep returning to what hurts because if we let it go, stop thinking about it, then it’s as if we will be dishonoring how much it hurts. To stop thinking about our problems would be (we imagine) to behave as if our pain doesn’t matter. In essence, to abandon ourselves. In this way, our obsessive thinking is an attempt to award our suffering with importance and care.
How to Let Go of Thoughts on Repeat
So, with all these reasons to keep thinking about our problems, how then can we stop and unstick from these stickiest of all thoughts?
The first step in any change process is always the same: awareness. We can’t change anything if we’re not aware of it. So, we have to notice how and when we are yet again rehashing a problem or difficult situation. We have to become a witness to our own mind and see how it keeps drawing our attention back down the rabbit hole—into suffering.
Once we become aware, we must be willing to consider the idea that we, as we are, cannot figure out this problem. And therefore, we have to give up the fantasy and delusion that more thinking about it will solve it and make us feel better. We have to accept that there is no diamond at the bottom of this rubble of thought, no magic bullet in this latest round of thinking that wasn’t there in the last 9,000 rounds.
In essence, we have to give up the hope that more thinking will deliver us to peace. And instead, we need to be open to the possibility that the way to peace may well be in turning away from the problem and thinking less. Surrendering to not being able to figure it out—rather than trying harder to figure it out—may indeed be our refuge.
Furthermore, in order to stop the constant ruminating on our pain, we need to remember that our pain comes with us, whether we are thinking about it or not. What we’ve suffered is woven into who we are; it’s part of us. We don’t need to keep thinking about our pain in order to make it matter, take care of it, or keep it with us. We don’t have to keep thinking our pain into existence in order for it to exist.
Just for today, try noticing your own thoughts, where your attention is going, and what tapes are playing in your mind. Become aware of when you are returning, yet again, to a problem you’ve visited many times before. Try noticing what returning to this problem does to your mood and how it makes you feel.
Finally, we are addicted to thinking about our problems because we identify with our suffering. Who we are (or think we are) is a tapestry of what we’ve lived through, endured, and survived. We derive our identity, in large part, from what we suffer. That said, when we dive into what’s bothering us, what’s not OK, it feels like we’re coming home, returning to some fundamental aspect of ourselves. Rehashing our difficulties allows us to feel alive. We can feel our own existence, our self, when the mind is gnawing on a problem. There’s nothing, in fact, that makes us feel more here than when we have a problem to figure out.
Consider this: Maybe you cannot figure out this problem, not in the way you normally try, not with more thinking about it. As an exercise, contemplate the possibility that the way to peace and feeling better might be something ultra-radical, like not thinking about it, like turning away from the problem and leaving it there—unfixed and un-figured-out. As crazy as that might sound, try out the reality that you simply cannot figure out this problem, not with what you know and who you are right now.
Just for today, instead of moving into the problem yet again, searching for that diamond in the rubble, do something revolutionary: Turn your attention away from the problem and back to your present moment. Opt out of what’s wrong and move toward what’s here now. With the simple intention to not do what you’ve always done, and therefore, not end up with the same result you’ve always ended up with, try out the reality that you simply cannot figure this out, that you have to leave it undone. So too, know that you will not find peace through more thinking. If you’re looking for peace, be willing to try a different route.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, and author of the upcoming “Can’t Stop Thinking” (2021) and “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com