I struggled with anxiety and depression for 10 years. I was awkward, shy, and I couldn’t look people in the eye.
Along my journey of overcoming the pesky affliction of “background sadness,” as it could be described, I uncovered many interesting things about the inner workings of my mind.
Repetitive thoughts can be incredibly annoying, and depending on their nature, they can be downright tormenting. We can easily become distracted by these thoughts and miss the thoughts, experiences or emotions that actually triggered these repetitive thoughts in the first place.
When we are able to recognize our repeating thought patterns and bring awareness to them as they arise, we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves; this is the path to growth. In my own experience, the only way to become free of irritating repetitive thoughts is to figure out their source.
Everyone has repetitive thoughts to some degree and they can manifest in different forms. The forms—images, memories, phrases or stories—are not as important as the underlying patterns which these thoughts are operating under. The first step to identifying these thoughts is to try not to suppress them, which is usually our natural instinct, because doing this only gives them more strength.
Once we’re able to look at the repeating thought, the practice becomes exploring what triggered it. Anything that repeats can be considered a pattern, so understanding how that pattern works is the key to getting past it.
I figured out how to use repetitive thoughts to my benefit—and how to overcome them—because of an especially consistent thought I had for many years: “I wish I had a girlfriend.”
This thought was at times a constant plague, and the more I yelled for it to stop, the more it would play over and over again in my mind. Here’s the weird part—eventually I became involved in a relationship, I had a girlfriend, but the thought didn’t stop! This really confused me. I was thinking, “I solved the problem! I should be free of this! What the hell?!”
My bewilderment forced me to investigate. I began listening for my mind to say its favorite phrase, and after doing this for some time, I realized that there was a distinct type of thought that was triggering it. Every single time, before I would have the thought “I wish I had a girlfriend,” a thought or experience was there that was making me feel embarrassed or ashamed. The emotions of shame and embarrassment, from my past or from my current situation, were triggering that repeating thought.
So then I asked myself, “What is the origin of this pattern? How did it form?” It made perfect sense once I asked myself those questions. As a young teen, whenever I would go to family gatherings, my aunts and uncles would always ask me if I had a girlfriend, and every time I would have to say no. I felt embarrassment and shame around this. I remember feeling like I should have a girlfriend. In response, I became obsessed with the idea of having a girlfriend, always reciting to myself, “I wish I had a girlfriend.” Deep down all I really wanted was to not feel shame and embarrassment. I was trying to make an external shift to solve the problem, when what I really needed was an internal shift—to deal with the root cause.
Once I made this connection, it was like I learned a new language; the language of my mind. Every time I would have that repeating thought I would see it as an opportunity to find out what I was feeling ashamed or embarrassed about. My former tormentor became like a giant poster saying, “Hey, look at this! You’re feeling shame and embarrassment about something and you need to deal with.”
I unearthed a lot of stuff that I was holding onto simply by following this “pointer thought,” as it could be called.
For example, when I was in high school I tried out for the varsity soccer team, but I didn’t make it. It was a big deal to me because I had been playing soccer my whole life. I loved playing soccer and a lot of my closest friends played soccer too. I felt ashamed about not making the team because I thought I had disappointed my father and I felt embarrassed to go to school and face my friends.
Years later, when I would recall this painful memory my mind would instantly chime in, “I wish I had a girlfriend.” Instead of dealing with the emotions of shame and embarrassment created by the past experience of getting cut from the team, my mind was tricking me, or to think about it in a more positive way, it was protecting me from feeling the painful emotions of shame and embarrassment. If this protective part of myself had a voice it would be saying, “You don’t want to feel this, so I’m going to distract you with something else that might be easier for you to work with.”
In this case, that “something else” was the problem of not having a girlfriend. Unconsciously, I made the choice that focusing on my girlfriend problem would be easier than fully experiencing the root feelings of shame and embarrassment. But, as I said, once I “fixed the problem,” the thought still persisted.
It was never about the problem, it was about the underlying emotion.
This is one way that traumatic experience can remain buried. There is an aspect of our minds that wants to protect us, because the emotion itself was too intense at the time of the original experience. So the mind says, “Here you go, deal with this other problem and avoid the emotion.” That part of us is like a parent who is trying to do their best to help us, but really, they’re doing more harm than good. The only way to heal is to feel.
Here’s a step-by-step process I use that might work for some people:
- Identify common repeating thought-forms. These could be manifesting as words in the mind, images in the mind, or a combination of the two. Make a list of repeating thought-forms and describe them in as much detail as possible, so that when they come up it’s easy to immediately recognize them.
- Try to become aware of these specific thought-forms as they arise. I would always say to myself, “There’s that thought again!”
- Try to remember what you were experiencing just before the thought occurred. It could be something actually happening in the moment, a memory of a past event, worrying about a future event or just a raw emotion. This can be the hardest part, because a lot of times it’s something we don’t want to look at or feel, either because it’s too scary or too painful.
- Try to make a connection between the repeating thought-form and the type of thought, emotion, or experience directly preceding it. In other words, try to identify what triggered the repeating thought and attempt to see how those two things might be linked.
This process is something that has helped me immensely in my own personal growth and development, and I hope by sharing it other people can benefit from it as well.
In my experience, every repeating thought has meaning, each of which is a unique pointer to some aspect of ourselves that is unconscious. There is a reason that certain thoughts repeat. I think that at some level we’re being taught to look at these specific thoughts, and until we do, they won’t stop.
Only by bringing awareness to them can we let them go for good and experience true peace of mind.
Author: John Miller
Image: Guilherme Yagui/Flickr
Editor: Emily Bartran