A few months ago my house was robbed. I have been surprised at how long the sense of violation has lasted. I still come home concerned that my new computer might be gone, and when I look out my kitchen window I scan my garden for an intruder.
It was only a minor crime. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people more seriously violated. I shudder to think.
I aim to let the incident go from my mind, but my thoughts have different ideas: often I imagine myself finding, with pleasure, a thief who has fallen into my frog pond and drowned. It’s an awful thought to have, but I have it. Or, I imagine overpowering the intruder and giving him a broken jaw and plenty of bruises. An unpleasant thought, yes, but I have it.
I would like to be the type of person who doesn’t think such thoughts, and whose sense of violation can vanish in a day or two. I’d like to be the guy who shrugs off such incidents with zen-like detachment, and have warm and benevolent thoughts for the thief. I know I would be better off. However, I am not yet that person and probably never will be.
Truth be told, in life I have millions of thoughts which are banal, repetitive, immature, cowardly, and dare I say it, seedy. I would rather not have any of them. Yet, when I have those thoughts I don’t criticise myself for having them. I don’t say to myself, ‘Mark, these are bad thoughts contrary to your long-term aims. Stop thinking them.’ No, I observe myself having the thoughts (because they want to be heard) and I move on.
Every human being on the planet (to my knowledge) has unwanted thoughts. It’s normal to have them. Our brains are wired to interpret the world, and some interpretations will be weird, negative, stupid or seedy. It’s our brain’s way of dealing with our experiences, our hormones, our emotions, and our situation.
Our species has thrived because our thoughts are so nimble and diverse. The more ludicrous and outlandish our thoughts are, the more likely we are to link disparate facts and come up with something brilliant.
Having countless diverse thoughts means we have to suffer unwanted thoughts as well. If those unwanted thoughts are a natural result of having such a clever brain, then it’s no use criticising ourselves for having them. It’s like criticising ourselves for being bald. Pointless.
So, we might as well welcome them.
My suggestion: avoid criticising yourself when you have such thoughts. Don’t let shame and guilt intrude. They do not prevent the thoughts from recurring. Instead, give yourself permission to have those thoughts. Give your thoughts permission to be, and you can observe them without judgement.
The thoughts will ‘feel heard’. They will haunt you less, and their weight on you will diminish.
Do you remember Alice in Farmer Brown’s paddock? Emotions visited Alice and she gave them permission to stay with her. She listened to what they had to say, and when they felt heard, they left.
In the same way, give yourself permission to have any thought that comes to you.
‘I, . . . (your name) . . . officially give myself permission to allow any thought to come to me, no matter how unwanted it might be. I will hear what it has to say. Then, if I choose, I will ask it to leave.’
Ask it to leave? How do we ask a thought to leave?
See you in the next key.
Q. ‘So, if I am a serial killer planning my fifteenth murder it’s okay to have those thoughts? If I am suicidal and thinking of how to kill myself, it’s okay to keep thinking about suicide? If my thoughts are racist, I can give myself permission to keep thinking those thoughts? Is that what you’re saying?’
You’re going to have those thoughts anyway, so give them permission to be. Become acquainted with them. Find where they’re coming from. What emotions are behind them? Why do you think you’re having those thoughts?
Then you can ask the thought to leave.