How to Deal with Unwanted Thoughts
Thoughts are our constant companion.
Some thoughts are like passing clouds, we barely notice them before they drift away.
But other thoughts appear to have taken permanent residence in the chambers of our mysterious brain. Such thoughts run rampant, coloring our perception and shaping our attitude.
If they were supportive, motivating, or empowering that would be great. Unfortunately, most of the time, the thoughts are negative, limiting, and unhelpful. These are the types of thoughts that we don’t want, and try to avoid at all cost.
Thoughts become unwanted because of the emotional pain they create in their wake. Doubt, fear, insecurity, hesitation, resentment, sadness, or anger are all born out of thoughts—either as a byproduct of life experiences, or imagined situations.
Unwanted thoughts that are repetitive and negative are similar to negative and nagging people. No one likes to hang out with them.
And like an unwelcome guest, we try to get rid of these thoughts. But they stick around anyway. Ever tried one of the following techniques?
The things that don’t work in getting rid of unwanted thoughts
If you have a dominant unwanted thought pattern, think about it now. See if you’ve used these methods in the past.
Fighting: We treat the thoughts and feelings like a sticky annoying visitor who doesn’t leave. The more we try to kick him/her out, the stronger they get, and the longer it takes us to get rid of them. Even if we finally succeed, we feel miserable, fearing the visitor might come again, or another visitor might take their place.
Assigning blame: We look for ways to blame others for the feelings we have and their underlying thoughts. Victimhood might absolve us from feeling responsible for the unwanted thoughts. But blame also creates more unpleasant thoughts and feelings—resentment and helplessness.
Using logic and judging ourselves: While thoughts are mental processes, their emotional responses are instinctive. We can dig deeper into our own feelings and thoughts, exerting more emotional and mental effort that may not yield the sought after release. Then we judge ourselves for feeling reactive and illogical.
The above attempts add more pain and suffering. I propose the following alternatives. These are not magic bullets that will transform your life. They’re basic steps that will ease the emotional reactivity. Use them on a regular basis, and not as a one-time solution.
How to let go of unwanted thoughts
Instead of going to war with the vicious cycle of negative thoughts, let’s try a different approach that might gradually lead to overriding the old pattern.
1- Release the emotions.
The thing that bothers us most about thoughts is the unpleasant or painful feelings they generate.
Deep unwanted thoughts arise very quickly. In all likelihood, we won’t notice them, but we will definitely feel them.
So let’s start with the feeling. We’re programmed to want to avoid pain. The thing that traps us in the negative emotions is our rejection of them, which compounds the pain. We try to fight the feelings and when that doesn’t work, we try to numb the pain.
The better choice is to release the emotions by allowing them to be.
How do you release negative emotions?
The simplest answer that works really well is this: allow yourself to fully feel the emotion as it courses through your body, then feel it again, till it fades on its own.
If it arises again, feel it. Every time you do this, you become accustomed to the feeling—without the reactive rejection that makes it worse.
This practice takes time, and more importantly, the willingness to stop and feel, instead of automatically reacting. You might fall back into the familiar pattern of rejecting the feeling. But the more you notice and feel, the better you become at it.
Being okay with the feelings is the first step in being okay with the thoughts.
An example: I just thought about an estranged family member visiting soon and that made me feel anxious and nauseous. I feel the tightness in the chest, the knot in my stomach, and focus my attention on the solar plexus area, till the feelings ease.
When the thoughts come up again, I notice another wave of anxiety. I feel it in my body until it subsides. The thought might resurface again with more feelings. I notice and feel. I may still have some residual anxiety, but it’s not as uncomfortable and intense as it used to be.
The more we do this, the more we strip the thought of its emotional power.
Once there is no negative emotion, the thought is neutralized, and it won’t have the same crippling effect.
2- Put the nagging thoughts on a wait-list.
I read about creating a worry list a while ago. You write the worrisome thought, and add more thoughts to the list with the promise that you’ll look at your list at a certain time. This means you postpone reacting to the thought pattern.
Let’s expand on the idea and include any unwanted thoughts. Every time you think of (or feel) an unpleasant thought, add it to your list.
When you’re ready, look at your list. How do you feel about it?
I’ve tried this approach, and was pleasantly surprised that by the end of the day looking at my list made me smile. Most of the thoughts didn’t feel that important or negative.
Think about the items on your list and feel their emotions. Then let go, and if you can, shred your list. There is tremendous release in clearing the list for the day.
Promise the thoughts that you’ll add them again if they come up. Do this for a month and see what happens.
3- Write about it.
If there is a thought or situation that’s consuming you, take half an hour to an hour and write about it. Do it by hand and feel your words on the pages. Write till there is nothing more to write.
If you don’t feel a little better after writing, go through the pages and reflect on what you’ve written. Feel any emotions that come up. Keep feeling till you reach a point where there is no painful reaction. At this point, shred your pages and let go.
Unwanted thoughts will arise based on our experiences, expectations, and previous programming and conditioning. Rejecting them, or judging ourselves for having them, won’t help.
What helps is noticing the thoughts when possible, feeling whatever we need to feel, and letting go of trying to make sense of it all.
This approach may not work with deep trauma and pain, but giving it a shot won’t hurt. It might be a sign for you to seek professional help.
No matter how strong and repetitive your thoughts are, they do not define you. You are much more than that—a boundless masterpiece of creation. You’re simply the host of all the thoughts and emotions. And like life itself, you are a gracious and kind host. You welcome, you attend, and then you lovingly say goodbye and let go.