Ok, I get that I’m obsessing
But how do I make it stop?
When I first realized that my anxiety was coming not from the circumstances of my life but from my own insecure thinking, my mind seemed to slow down quite a bit all by itself. A lot of the thinking I’d previously seen as useful suddenly looked like noisy clutter.
This shift sounds subtle, but the impact was huge.
Imagine: what if even 30 percent of your own insecure thoughts suddenly vanished? What if that mental space was filled instead with fresh ideas and feelings of joy? Now, what about 75 percent?
For me, it was more like 90. I struggle to put into words what that change has meant. I get misty-eyed just thinking about it.
I had gotten pretty good at surviving each moment. I thought that’s the best I could hope for. If you’d told me then that with one insight I would actually enjoy my life — even the parts that are sad, difficult, and boring — I wouldn’t have believed you. I would have said, “You must be talking about someone else. You don’t know me at all.”
And yet, here I am a year and a half later, regularly floored by how social anxiety, self-loathing, binge drinking, panic attacks, weight struggles, depression, and suicidal ideation all look like a distant dream. The former version of myself feels more like a stranger every day.
But just when I start to completely lose sight of what it was like to be stuffed with insecure thinking, I get smacked in the face with humility. I find myself having lunch with a friend, taking a walk with my partner, working to a deadline— anything, really — and I suddenly notice that my mind is racing. It’s spinning so fast! I want it to slow down so I can go back to living.
I find myself thinking, “How do I make it stop? I of all people should know how to make this thinking go away. What do I do? What do I say? What do I think about?”
This morning as I was taking a shower I had just such an experience. And it hit me:
Trying to stop thinking is like trying not to think about an elephant.
If instead of trying not to think about an elephant, you simply think about a penguin instead, I bet you won’t be thinking of an elephant anymore.
And that’s where we get confused when our mind is racing. When we want to stop obsessing about something, we try to reframe our thinking about the thing we’re obsessing about, or we try to think of something else. But that won’t work. Because trying not to think is actually nothing like trying not to think of an elephant.
We think it’s the content we’re obsessing about that’s causing our suffering. But it’s not the content. It’s the obsessing itself that hurts.
So, how do you stop obsessing?
I say, don’t try to stop obsessing at all. Don’t think about the pain the it’s causing you. Don’t even think about how useless it is.
I suggest you look in the direction of a quiet mind instead. Look to what you know to be true, which is that fresh thought comes from the quiet, new knowns come only from the unknown, and connection comes from calm.
When I realized in the shower today that I didn’t have to stop my mind from racing, but that I simply preferred what I could glean from a slow mind, I was back.
I could feel the hot water. I could see the light coming ‘round the curtain in rays. I remembered to breathe.