Understanding Thoughts is One of the Keys to Breaking Free

by | Feb 26, 2023 | Intrusive Thoughts | 20 comments

A significant amount of anxiety would be reduced and would never manifest to begin with if we were taught about our thoughts early in life. Not only would we understand that we all have strange, dark, and wild thoughts, but we would understand that thoughts come in categories, and when we understand these categories, we’re able to label what has entered our minds and attend to what’s needed. Discernment, which is a skill of the mind, is key, for when we can name which type of thought is arising, we can then decide how to respond.

There are four main types of thoughts:

1. Meaningless Thoughts

There are usually random thoughts that we have throughout the day: thoughts about the cat we met on our walk, thoughts about the weather, thoughts about something funny that happened at work. There are daydreaming thoughts where we’re lost in another time or another world. There are planning thoughts where we’re thinking about what we’re going to eat, buy, or do later in the day.

We know that most of these thoughts are harmless, but when one of the “weird” or “dark” ones enter, it’s easier to grab hold.

2. Protective/Intrusive Thoughts:

These are the textbook intrusive thoughts that I talk about frequently in my work:

  • What if I don’t love my partner? (relationship anxiety)
  • What if I’m gay/straight? (sexual orientation anxiety)
  • What if I said something “stupid” to a friend? (social anxiety)
  • What if my thoughts or feelings aren’t “right” in some way? (just right OCD theme)
  • What if I have cancer? (health anxiety)
  • What if the world ends? (eco-anxiety)

Protective thoughts can easily snowball into intrusive thoughts if you don’t know how to work with them. The faster you can name them as “protection” and say, “Just because I have a thought doesn’t mean it’s true” then drop down into the feeling embedded inside, the less they’ll snowball into intrusive. 

3. Beliefs/Stories

There’s a type of thought that exists below conscious mind and lives in the stratum of psyche called the unconscious or subconscious. These are thoughts that we don’t necessarily think about on a daily basis but they inform how we feel about ourselves on a basic level. If you hold a belief that you’re a good person and that you deserve love, for example, you will feel worthy of love on a deep level and you likely won’t fall into the trenches of relationship anxiety.

If, on the other hand, you believe that you’re not worthy or that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you, you will push others away in an attempt to keep your heart safe. Again, these deep-seated beliefs don’t always appear consciously. In fact, you may consciously believe that you’re worthy but in the underground sub-strata layer you carry an opposing belief. 

I know from parenting my two boys how little it takes to form a belief that you’re not enough in some way. My husband and I have done everything we can do to nurture a positive self-worth in both of them, and yet there have been situations beyond our control that have led to them feeling less than positive about themselves in certain situations.

It seems to be part of the fabric of living a human life to come up against situations that challenge our intrinsic self-worth. I know how little it takes to feel slighted, hurt, or made to feel inadequate, even if it’s unintentional. 

From what I understand, we’re torn down so that we can be built up stronger than before (*see Anita’s comment below for a different perspective on this statement). So, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, let’s go beyond blaming parents or siblings or teachers and trust that we were hurt in exactly the ways we needed to be hurt in order to strengthen and grow in exactly the ways we need to strengthen and grow.

4. Creative, Innovative and Reflective Thoughts

These are obviously the most fun types of thoughts! I’m not sure that they’re thoughts, exactly, as creative thoughts often stem from a place that’s deeper than mind, but since they feel like thoughts I’ll place them on this list

Creative thoughts emerge when we’re in a peaceful frame of mind, dropped down into the place where the contents of the unconscious rise up to meet conscious mind. Creative thoughts can arise in the form of a poem, an image, an idea for what to make for dinner, an insight for how to plan out the garden next year, or a million other permutations (actually, more than a million, for the creative mind is infinite). 

When we’ve calmed the anxious mind enough, creativity emerges. I often say that anxiety and creativity are two pathways that stem from the same core, meaning that the core is sensitivity and when the sensitive self is honored it can be channeled into more creativity and less anxiety.

This isn’t about creating more products. It’s not about creating anything out there. Rather, it’s about opening to the wellsprings of your soul, and inviting its expression. This may be in the way you make your bed or the song you sing to your child at night. It may look like more presence when you eat or more patience in the way you love. It’s much less about producing and much more about being. From the being, the doing may arise, but it doesn’t necessarily look like the way we’re conditioned to think it should look. 

In a centered state, we also invite reflective thoughts. “I need to have a good think,” someone might say when they’re in a quandary. This isn’t the kind of “think” that centers on mind-spinning and problem-solving. Rather, it’s more of a creative think that leads to new ideas or pathways not previously seen. 

To recap:

When we have an inner witness we can discern, label and sort the thoughts that enter our minds. Some are junk mail. These include the weird and dark thoughts that every human has. Some are messengers and metaphors that we might want to explore. 

The most important piece is to recognize that we have the power to choose. We choose which thoughts we want to explore. We choose which thoughts we want to brush away. And we choose whether or not we ruminate. Once we’re on the ruminating hamster wheel, we also choose when we want to step off. 

I’m not saying this is an easy choice. Stepping off means letting go of the crutch that is protecting us from the more vulnerable emotional states that live underneath: our fundamental groundlessness (Pema Chodron), our grief, our loneliness. But when we recognize the power of choice, we regain healthy control and can then decide what’s next. 

Final note: To learn more about how to stop ruminating, I recommend reading through Dr. Michael Greenberg’s articles and also listen to his interview on The OCD Stories, which you can find here. 

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20 Comments

  1. I totally agree that it’s up to us to choose what to do with our thoughts. For me, I choose to go deeper into some of them (through therapy), and I choose to let others simply ‘be there’, while getting on with something else. The longer I practice this, the more these latter types of thoughts simply fade into the background. Practice is key, as is finding something with a sense of value, such that it feels *worth* stopping the ruminations. For me, this is my art, and being present with my wife.

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    • Beautifully expressed, Joshua. The value-driven approach is at the heart of ACT. Is that a modality that has resonated with you?

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      • I’ve ever tried it, it’s just something I discovered for myself.

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        • You might just find ACT useful, Joshua – I found the work of Dr. Russ Harris very beneficial 👍

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          • Yes I do actually have a book by him – ACT With Love. I haven’t worked through the exercises but I do find the general philosophy very helpful, and very pertinent regarding Relationship Anxiety in particular

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  2. “In fact, you may consciously believe that you’re worthy but in the underground sub-strata layer you carry an opposing belief.”

    Whoa. That had never occurred to me, but it definitely resonates. I always thought my feelings of unworthiness came with intrusive thoughts but I guess that’s just how it came to the forefront.

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  3. I read some of the articles about ruminating and learning to stop it, but I felt anxious after reading it because I’m not sure I know the difference between ruminating and plain old thinking about something. However, as I wrote this comment and reflected, I realized that ruminating is probably thinking that causes anxiety. Is that on the right track? Also, do you have any guidance for how to recognize when to engage with a thought?

    Reply
    • It can take some time to discern the difference between the two, but in a nutshell: regular thoughts don’t have a charge and typically don’t make you feel bad whereas ruminating feels like you’re stuck on a hamster wheel. They have a different quality to them. So yes, your question about ruminating causing anxiety is spot-on.

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      • I guess I’ll just listen to my inner guidance on this and keep what helps and leave what doesn’t. Thank you for modeling trust and for repeatedly pointing us back to our own wisdom. I find that anxiety spikes the most when I get caught up in doing something well according to what other people say instead of letting other people’s words help me find what works inside for me.

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  4. This is one of the clearest outlines of thoughts I have read. A comment on the following:

    “From what I understand, we’re torn down so that we can be built up stronger than before.”

    Not sure that I agree with this, some pain seems to be too much for people to come back from with the resources they have at their disposal. I have come to think that bad things happening is just random, there is no purpose, but we can choose to use these experiences for growth. I don’t know why some people do that and others don’t /can’t.

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    • I appreciate that perspective, Anita. Thank you for sharing it.

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    • I agree with you on this one, Anita, some things are just random, but we do have a choice when they arise as well, and hopefully it will be a choice leading to growth and love.

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  5. I get anxiety attacks and people say what were you thinking about that may have caused the anxiety I have no idea what I was thinking about.

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  6. There’s something comforting about stepping into ‘the trust’ in that way, about having been hurt by for ex. our caregivers, and it does feel healthier than being caught up in blame. Is that gained ‘peace with life’ ‘proof’ that it was truly ‘meant to happen that way’, and that it was ‘for our highest good’, or is adopting that attitude simply a tool to find peace and using the energy of a huge wave to ride it to lift us up instead of letting it crush over us pushing us into the deep sea?
    But a part of me resists this immensely. It makes the dark stuff of life ‘inherent to life’, ‘intentional’ even, and in the ‘finding light in darkness’ post not long ago you mention how there’s types of darkness that shouldn’t ever happen to anyone, which comforted me to read.
    Moreover, that would imply that you did your boys a disservice by not tearing them down but instead doing everything you can to build them up. (Yes, that sounds very silly, but if you stop to think that being torn down is a portal to building ourselves even stronger..). Plus, if someone was torn down when they were very small, there really wasn’t a ‘before’ to outdo..
    I’ve been going through immense life-poop where I really struggle to ‘see the point’ and really, really struggle to see life as a harmonious flow that ‘knows the best and is taking care of me’ so that’s why philosophies like “it’s all happening as it’s *meant to* to meet our needs for growth” are very triggering to me and don’t really make me feel ‘safe in the flow of life’ as it ‘should’ but color life as unsafe, even cruel, in my eyes..

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    • I’m sorry if my comment came off as negative or in any way dismissive of your own beliefs. It wasn’t my intention. Truth is, I received profound wounding by way of a yogic-based spiritual organization and after my world fell apart after their intense practices, I wasn’t met with the support I needed, instead their message to me was simply that what happened to me “was meant to be” and “was needed for my growth”. So though you may come from a positive and encouraging place, I equate “everything happened as it was meant to; the hurt comes exactly as it’s needed” with people not taking responsibility, and choosing ‘trust’ over critical thinking, in a non-constructive and passive way. I desperately want to trust life, but also can’t if the horrors are ‘a natural (even predetermined!) part of the show’..
      But the truth is that this space (your blog and work) means more to me than I could possibly put into words, it’s literally been the only place where I consistently find some comfort and also tools to rebuild myself psychologically, one moment at a time; and I’m endlessly thankful that your space is ‘safe’ from talk of karma and past lives. I got triggered because of my own trauma and wrote a bunch of reasons why I didn’t agree with something you said, but actually the vast majority of the words you put out there is very healing to me.

      To end my comment with a cheerful spin, if I may offer a link to a comic strip that irresistibly reminded me of your current situation of your son soon leaving home:
      https://tinyview.com/fowl-language/2022/10/17/dreading-the-future
      (It’s part of a very funny, very warm, very binge-able comic series that’s mostly about parenting struggles. I don’t have kids, and yet this comic often makes me laugh, which isn’t so easy these days.)

      P.S. I think you may have made a tiny lapsus in your post and wrote “I often say that anxiety and sensitivity are two pathways that stem from the same core..” instead of “..anxiety and creativity are two pathways..”. Or maybe I misunderstood something…

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      • Thank you for both of your comments, Tea. I appreciate your thoughtfulness, and your self-awareness regarding places that are triggered (which makes so much sense given your traumatic experience). I’m glad you’re here and that this has been a safe space for you. And YES, you are correct – I meant to say “creativity” instead of sensitivity! I’ll correct it now :).

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  7. Thank you Sheryl, I read this over the course of a few days and it helped each time!

    Also your email was very helpful. I’m in so many transitions right now (and always, I suppose 🤗), some long and some short. You said, “a new birth always follows the ending stage of transitions. We grieve during these months while trusting that something new and beautiful will be born, something that we can only imagine from where we now stand.” I love the idea of imagining with peace and joy while also trusting it will be amazing and something we can’t control. So often it has been tempting lately to try to control, and to enter fear that my life will never be as good as it is now. How funny to verbalize that. Though in a way it’s true – life is always best “now” and not in the past or future (I’m reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now right now). But the reminder that something beautiful will be born next (and again after that, and again after that), brings joy and trust.

    You asked, “What transitions are you currently in, and what mindsets and tools have been helpful for you as you ride the currents?” I’ve been asking myself this question for the days since reading it. What transitions am I in? What perspectives help me right now in these transitions? These questions bring a sense of peace and joy in the present moment.

    Love 🤗

    Reply
    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments and reflections, Jamie. They’re always a joy to read. 🤗🤗

      Reply
      • 🤗

        Reply

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