Dealing with scary thoughts and painful feelings

Updated: 6 days ago

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”

Lao Tzu

People often ask me, "How can I get rid of these thoughts?" or "How can I stop feeling this way?". It's a natural question when our thoughts are frightening or our feelings seem to be too much to handle. While we may eventually change the thoughts and feelings using therapy or medications, that isn't always the most productive goal, especially at the start.

We all have painful feelings. We all experience intrusive thoughts. So why does it seem like some people aren't bothered by these thoughts and feelings, while others seem completely derailed by them? Often times, our level of distress is related to our desire to rid ourselves of these thoughts and feelings. A helpful saying is "What you resist, persists." and this saying is especially applicable to our thoughts and feelings. In fact, I tell my patients with anxiety (and myself) that the most surefire way to worsen your anxiety is try and get rid of it. This holds true for many other things too- intrusive thoughts, anger, depression, basically anything your mind might throw at you.

Why is this so? Well, let's illustrate. What comes to mind now if I tell you NOT to think of a purple giraffe? Think of anything else, literally anything, except a purple giraffe. Give yourself a few minutes to make sure your brain is scrubbed free of any purple giraffes that may be wandering around.

How did that go? For most people, a purple giraffe immediately pops up and firmly lodges itself in their brains. It seems strange, but in trying to NOT think about something, we are, in effect, thinking about it. There is no way to actively get rid of thoughts. You can't do it. Instead, your mind flits from topic to topic. The natural course would be to allow your thoughts to simply move on when they are ready. But if instead we keep trying to get rid of a thought or feeling, we bring our attention to it and force it to take up more and more space in our brains.

Instead of trying to rid yourself of painful thoughts or feelings, the most effective strategy is to allow them to be there so that they can eventually show themselves out. I mentioned, the natural course of any thought or feeling is to build, hang around for awhile, and then leave on its own. No matter how strong, scary, or surprising a thought or feeling, it will eventually subside.

So the next time you feel tempted to push a thought or feeling away, make space for it. Imagine yourself as the water flowing around a rock. Remind yourself that you can allow the thoughts and feelings space to come and go as they'd like, because they are temporary and you are strong enough to hold space for them (no matter what you may think). Whatever is soft is strong and when we greet our thoughts and feelings with softness, they tend to eventually bow to our strength.

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