When You Can’t Get Out of Yourself

2018 November 5

Most people talk about thoughts as if they come to us only in times of inspiration. A light bulb goes off. An idea suddenly comes to you. A thought passes by and then is gone as quickly as it came. Although this is how some people may experience thinking when life is going as planned, this process doesn’t come close to describing how someone in distress interacts with their own thoughts. When in distress . . .

Certain thoughts can imprint themselves on us and in us. When confusion flourishes, thinking isn’t free and open to all of the world’s possibilities. No, thinking under duress is overwhelmingly restrictive, not creative. It doesn’t allow us to notice much of anything else. It conceals more than it reveals as the thoughts that come to us when we experience stress are a type of extreme focus. But this isn’t the kind of focus most people talk about. This laser focus isn’t on anything or anyone in front of you, rather on something that happened. Yesterday. A week ago. A year ago. Something or someone no one else can see, yet you can’t let go of. Something you wish you had said. A conflict you can’t forget. Words that hurt and stay with you as they play over and over in your mind without interruption.

Peace of mind is elusive when so much is being asked of us as our attention is being moved in ways that we seem to have no control over. It’s as if we are always in two places at once: listening to ourselves and the person in front of us. We can try to perform this dance for a while but it’s exhausting. We can’t really listen to the person or situation before us because we’re also trying to attend to what we are preoccupied with. We see their lips move, but we don’t hear them. They see us, but they may never know what we are thinking.

Certain thoughts are difficult to let go of even when we desperately want to be freed from them. When life is unfolding in ways we anticipated, it is accurate to say we are thinking about something or someone. Under the influence of uncertainty, however, we are no longer thinking about something. When we feel powerless and incapable of impacting events and situations, thoughts find us even though we don’t want them to. They turn up when the lights are turned off. They are loudest when there is a moment of silence.

When distressed, we experience a paradox. We can’t seem to free ourselves from certain thoughts because the more we give ourselves to that worry, that hug we never got but so desperately wanted, that compliment that was given to someone else, the more attention it demands. And the more attention it demands, the more it grows.

When we get in this mindset, we believe that if we would simply give it more time and attention, it will be polite enough to disappear into the background, if only for a short while. But that usually doesn’t happen.

Ironically, the more we pay attention to certain types of thoughts, the more we devote ourselves to them, the louder they become. In the process, all that is before us becomes background noise as we become consumed with chasing down thoughts far beyond where we are.

Certain thoughts can contaminate the way we think. When we are tired and exhausted, we are at our must vulnerable to become consumed with a regret, a frustration, an argument, an interaction that begins to contaminate other ways of thinking. Destructive patterns of thinking can quickly emerge in which we lose the capacity to think about what most distresses us in creative, novel, or different ways. When this happens we are not really thinking about something—from different perspectives, with reflection, checking our own reactions with the voices of others—as much as we are thinking about something in the same way, over and over again. Thinking about something—again and again in the same way—can quickly become familiar. And then, familiarity becomes normal. Over time, normal becomes expected not because it is helpful or good or accurate, but because it is what we have become accustomed to.

Not all thinking is created equal. How we feel about something and what we believe we can do to improve or change a situation changes not simply what we think about, but also how we think. For those of us who are in highly distressing situations, being told to think “logically” or “abstractly” or “rationally” about someone or something, can be a type of insult because it assumes we have the luxury of stepping outside of our situations. That sounds noble, but it is often not possible.

We accept the biological reality that people under the influence of alcohol and drugs physiologically respond to stimuli differently. Isn’t it time we begin accepting the fact that the influence of exhaustion and stress also means we will think differently about the situations we are faced with?

In the book I wrote with co-author and caregiver advocate, Donna Thomson, The Unexpected Journey of Caring: The Transformation from Loved One to Caregiver (June 8, 2019), this is exactly what we do as we explore the ways in which caregivers are shaped by experiences that can’t be understood apart from the influences of care, exhaustion, stress, isolation, and relationships that shape and remake who they—we—are and how we respond.


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