Dealing with obsessive thoughts

For many of us, our way of dealing with adversity is some form of thinking.

“Oh shit, X happened. What does that mean? What should I do?”

When faced with adversity we try to think our way out of our predicament.

By making sense of what’s going on, we somehow hope to gain control over our condition and escape whatever undesirable state we find ourselves in.

A breakup is a prime example. It’s very common for us to get caught in a mode of thinking.

We may think: “What went wrong? What could I have done? Why did she do this to me?”

It’s worth realizing that thinking is not the only approach to a coping with a sticky situation, but it’s a common one (not thinking aka meditation is often a helpful alternative).

Problem is…thinking doesn’t always work too well. And when it doesn’t, it can actually keep us stuck — or worse, pull us down.

There’s a saying that goes something like this:

“Fire is a useful servant but a terrible master.”

I’ve come to view thinking in the same way.

It can be very useful when we can put it to use but it can be very counterproductive when our thoughts control us.

Thinking is a skill that helps us survive and thrive in modern day society.

Here’s an example.

When thinking isn’t helpful

I ride a motorcycle and sometimes I’ll have a passenger on the back.

Now riding a motorcycle is considerably more dangerous than driving a car.

You have no seat belts, no protective metal shell and you can easily be brought off balance at high speeds.

As a result, mistakes on a motorcycle are more likely to result in a lethal accident than when using any other form of transportation.

When someone sits on the back of my motorcycle they are putting their lives in my hands and they are counting on me to not make any mistakes.

So with a passenger on the back tremendous responsibility lies with the motorcycle rider.

I realise this very well and I take the utmost caution whenever I have a passenger.

Even though I am familiar with the risks and the realities of motorcycle riding, I’ve also learnt that it is not helpful to think about this while riding.

When I am riding with a passenger, I perform best when I am present, focused and not thinking about anything. All my attention needs to be in the moment.

If, instead, I think about the life that my passenger is putting in my hands – I am no longer present-minded.

I think about the consequences of making a mistake, I think about ways we could have an accident and I become nervous, tense and lost in thought. My ability to ride safely will diminish and my passenger will be less safe on the back of my bike.

Clearly, thinking is not helpful here.

But my thoughts do not represent something that is untrue. In fact, they represent a legitimate and relevant truth: I am responsible for another person’s life and a small mistake can be lethal.

Yet, I am not helping myself or my passenger by allowing these thoughts to live in my head.

My passenger’s safety lies in my hands, but counterintuitively forgetting about these implications makes both of us safer.

The lesson here is that thinking is not always helpful. Even though our thoughts may represent relevant truths, allowing those thoughts to live in our minds in an unrestrained manner, may lead to secondary effects which go against our interests.

Part of the diagnosis of being heartbroken is a hyper-activated mind. It is common to experience obsessive and pervasive thoughts about our ex, the relationship and what we could have done differently.

As was the case with motorcycle riding with a passenger, the core realizations are helpful – constant regurgitation of related thoughts is not.

You may very well have made some mistakes in your relationship. Everyone does, especially in our earliest relationships.

But our interest is in learning from our mistakes. If our rumination is no longer helping us learn from our mistakes and instead our constant thinking leads us to feel bad about ourselves, clearly our thinking is not helping us.

Once we’ve identified what we can learn from our past relationships and the mistakes that we’ve made, the thoughts that persist after that point do not serve in our best interest.

Acknowleding, processing and dismissing thoughts

The best strategy becomes one where we start off by listening to the thought and to process it consciously, if it persists after we process it, we acknowledge it and divert our attention elsewhere.

Let’s say you have a thought about having made a mistake in your relationship. You could explore whether that is true or not, whether it would have made a difference or not and whether you could have done otherwise at the time. You explore the thought from different angles until it is fully explored (One good way to do this is using Byron Katie’s four questions).

This may be enough for this particular thought to decrease in terms of the emotional intensity it triggers or it may just show up less often.

When the thought surfaces after processing it, we may remind ourselves that this is a thought we’ve explored and we’ve learnt the lessons it has to offer us. You may even tell yourself this literally: “Ah, I see you, thought. We processed you the other day. Thank you for the reminder but I am satisfied with the lessons we learnt from you last time.”

Once you acknowledge the thought and thank it, shift your attention to something else. You can shift to a physical activity or to a different thought (an ideal vacation location tends to work well).

By acknowledging these thoughts yet not allowing them to persist we can learn the lessons the breakup has to teach us, gradually calm down our minds and allow the neural pathways that underlie the painful emotions to reset.

All this isn’t easy, however.

What is easy is to get lost in the thought and to forget you’re thinking in the first place.

We need to be aware that we’re thinking for us to observe a thought. (This is where a daily meditation practice helps)

Make sense?

About Jesse

I’ve been helping guys recover from their breakups since 2012. Work with me to fast-track your recovery.

Comments

  1. Hi Jesse,

    I posted similar in another page of yours I was researching. My girlfriend of 7 years dumped me twice. First time about 4 months ago, went strict no contact, started working on myself, researched break up recovery, read, etc and started to feel like I was moving on about 7 weeks into it and BOOM she hit me up, wanting to get back together and that she was sorry / realized she really loved me. 6 amazing weeks went by when boom, she did it again and left me telling me she didn’t think she loved me, didn’t know what she wanted, I deserved better, etc. I really did nothing wrong, aside from being much older (I am 33 she is 25, started dating her when she was 18 like an idiot) and understanding that perhaps she wants to see what’s out there as she’s only been with me since 18… but she fuckeed me over twice which is what really burns.

    Its been 7 weeks now since this 2nd break up. Its hurt worse than the first. And even though all logic should say I should be able to more easily recognize this time that its not meant to be -as its been 2 break ups – I still can’t stop fantasizing that one day she will come back. That she will eventually realize its a mistake and will love me. That we’re special and she’ll see that one day. I know this is all an illusion and am trying to tell myself she’s moved on and its over.

    BUt I feel very tempted to call her and break NC to ‘check in’ and see if she really feels this way. BUt I know either way its gonna be bad because she’ll either tell me she is moved on (which I feel like might help me right now, no? I feel like that’d give me real closure) or that yes its a mistake and wants to get back together, which will surely end a 3rd time as its only been 7 weeks apart. Will contacting her give me closure even if its not what I want to hear? Or will it hurt me and set me back more either way?

    ALso man, please, I am having a hard time not thinking about these fantasy secenarios of how she might come back (another one is maybe she’ll text me on Xmas or nye, or maybe I can text her on her bday in a couple months, etc or maybe in a few montsh after she dates around she’ll realize I’m the best, etc)… How can I get rid of them? I’m reading all around and having a hard time stopping these thoughts. I have used mental strategies like ones you send here, mindfulness, stay busy, and then these thoughts come right back daily. I guess, I am not moving on and accepting its over / still in denial, even after 7 weeks and 2 break ups??!?? Please help, thanks

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