Manage Your Intrusive Thoughts & Feelings

Although often ‘life’s a box of chocolates,’ sometimes it most assuredly ain’t.

Metaphors of rollercoasters and rough-seas don’t come close to encompassing what some life-events do to us.

Devastation comes in many forms, all bad, and while we undergo whatever trial Fate has in store for us and those we love, life, our life, must indeed go on—at least, we want the rest of our life to keep going, even as we have so little attention to give it.

And there’s the rub. As we contend with whatever challenges we face we often neglect aspects of our lives that then compound our difficulties, adding insult to injury.

Rumination is one of the dynamics.

Cows Do It

Ruminate comes from the Latin ruminare, meaning “to chew over again.” Intrusive thoughts, feelings, images, memories, and unwanted associations all have the quality of being the kinds of things that we ‘bring up and chew over’ again and again, without making real progress.

And yet we continue to run the movie, rerun after rerun.

Worry has this feature, as does grief, trauma, anxiety, and that old black dog, depression.

This post is about how to get through and keep our lives as intact as we’re humanly able to, while the healing or adjustment process takes care of the rest.

We’re going to explore an approach to working with the stuff that just won’t go away. We know it won’t because we’ve tried. A lot. Without success.

I’m going to suggest there are three levels of response we can cultivate towards thoughts & feelings that keep imposing on our attention and derailing our life’s activities.

For the first, we need to make an agreement.

1. The Deal

I’ll often liken feelings to small children; they are going to pull on your pant-leg until you give them the attention they want, and if you won’t, they’ll start acting out.

If you have something important you’re wanting to do right now, then you’ll need to don your negotiator’s hat and start hammering out the terms of an armistice with those parts of yourself that are preoccupying your personal bandwidth.

The broad agreement is going to look something like this:

“If you (thoughts, feelings, worries, preoccupations, etc.) would be willing to leave me be for < time span >, then I promise to give you my full attention for < time span > on < date > at < time > .”

Your thoughts, feelings, memories, and internal rehearsals all want their day in court. Your court. Make a date with them to have some quality time.

And don’t you dare not follow through or show up!

This approach will only work if you are in fact trustable. If this is really just a strategy on your part to dodge having to feel uncomfortable stuff or think uncomfortable things then that’s not trustable.

For encouragement when the time comes to show up to how you’re feeling I give you two of my favorite reminders:

The way to not feel like this forever,
is to feel like this now.

—Nicole Daedone

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.

—Eugene Gendlin

2. Come To Terms

None of this is a magic spell.

We tend to see progress as something linear because we seem to get better at things over time. Even when that progress is choppy, with good, mediocre, and bad days, the average of all that, we think, is progressing.

And maybe that is the way to look at things.

The downside remains: we’re often looking for a reframe that will work when the old stuff returns and we’re thinking, “back to square one…”

An alternative to the linear model of progress is the cyclical or spiral perspective wherein we do indeed ‘return’ to experience the familiar uncomfortable stuff, and progress has to do with the way we deal with that return.

Think of going through a relationship breakup. It starts off as excruciating, getting better over time, until you have an anniversary, hear your song, come across that mutual friend, or smell that fragrance―boom, you’re right back in it. Seemingly, at that moment, it’s a fresh wound.

Here, progress would be determined by the way you relate to that familiar constellation of thoughts, feelings, and impressions.

Applied to our threefold process in working with distracting and preoccupying thoughts & feelings the question to answer becomes this:

When that compelling discomfort next arises―because it will―how would you like to relate to these thoughts & feelings?

I call this coming-to-terms, as a direct reference to the origins of that expression. The ’terms’ are both the condition of the ceasefire as well as the parameters within which we are to relate to each other once this fight has stopped.

So again, how would you like to relate to these thoughts/feelings when they arise? (n.b. the answer can’t be: make them go away).

Here are a few ideas to start you off with.

You might want to remind yourself of the deal you made and that you will be exploring these concerns when the time comes, which isn’t now.

You may want to affirm that you value what those feelings are an expression of, what they’re a stand for, and so want to give your undivided attention to them when the time comes, which isn’t now (see the theme?).

What’s more, rather than taking an aggravated, frustrated or annoyed tone with yourself, you might prefer to say internally, “I hear you, this really hurts/worries me/is sad” and then gently orient your attention back to either the task at hand or the next thing we are going to develop here in stage 3.

For this second phase, think along the lines of relating to your experience with acknowledgment, understanding, gentleness, humor, and a light touch. What’s your version of this?

3. Your Preferred Alternative

When I was younger I went through a phase of having frequent nightmares. They were of the chasing variety with me ever so slightly out of reach―from lions, from The Authorities, from a mob.

My problems continued upon awakening because I knew that if I kept thinking about the nightmare as I was falling asleep, there’s a good chance that I’ll start again where I left off. I was unintentionally priming myself.

My alternative?

I devised the practice while lying there, of imagining the kind of dream I would love to have.

So, what would you prefer to have your attention on?

Remember, your answer needs to be of something you will attend to that’s more attractive than the obviously compelling yet painful material you’re habitually engaging with.

If you weren’t burning calories ruminating, what would you rather be spending your bandwidth on? What would you prefer to be thinking? What feelings would you prefer to be building on? What would you rather be day-dreaming about?

Really flesh out this alternative train-of-thought. And if you are the type to journal on stuff, then journal on this topic and see what you come up with.

All together

This has been a long post but you appear to still be with me.

In summary (the kind of summary you might want to capture on an index card, sticky to mirror/computer display, or commit to memory):

Three levels of response

  1. Make an agreement
    Schedule some quality time to give to those thoughts/feelings/internal rehearsals/memories, etc., and do not be late.
  2. Come To Terms
    Remind yourself: How would I like to relate to these thoughts/feelings when they arise?
  3. Generate Your Preferred Alternative
    Determine, ahead of time, what you would rather have your attention on when next that uncomfortable stuff arises and after you’ve applied step 2. Have a shortcut way of reminding yourself of that preference and then initiating that alternative. Remember, it needs to be at least as compelling as the stuff preoccupying you, if not more so.

There’s a way of reorienting our attention when now’s not the right time to give something the care it deserves. We can do it gently and firmly. We can be clear and respectful about it.

We can, In the words of Woody:

“Take it easy, but take it.”

And, if none of this seems easy enough, drop me a line and we’ll find your path through it.