After I was burgled my sense of violation lasted a long time. I would come home concerned that I had been robbed again, and when I looked out my kitchen window I would scan my garden for an intruder. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people more seriously violated. I shudder to think.
I aimed to let the incident go from my mind, but my thoughts had different ideas: sometimes I imagined myself finding a thief who had fallen into my frog pond and drowned. It’s an awful thought to have, but I had it. Or, I imagined overpowering the intruder and giving him a broken jaw and plenty of bruises. An unpleasant thought, but I had it.
Even today, if I hear the house creak, I’m alert.
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 person 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 seedy. I would rather not have them. Yet, when I have those thoughts I don’t criticise myself for having them. I don’t say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t be having these thoughts. Stop thinking them.’ No, I observe myself having the thought and move on.
To my knowledge, every human being on the planet has unwanted thoughts. It’s normal to have them. Our brains are wired to interpret the world, and inevitably they will come to conclusions we don’t want. It’s our brain’s way of dealing with our experiences, our hormones, our emotions, and our circumstances.
‘All healthy human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include criticism, doubt and fear. That’s just our minds doing the job they were designed to do: trying to anticipate and solve problems and avoid potential pitfalls.’
Susan David and Christina Congleton. Australian Financial Review, Dec to Jan 2014.
Our species has thrived partly because our thoughts are so nimble and diverse. The more ludicrous and outlandish our thoughts, the more likely we are to link disparate facts and come up with something brilliant. However, having those nimble thoughts means we have to experience the unwanted thoughts as well, so it’s no use criticising ourselves for having them.
Do you remember Charlotte 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, let’s give our thoughts permission to be with us..
‘I, . . . . . . 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.’
Q. ‘An example, please?’
Notice repetitive thoughts. ‘I’m insulting myself again.’ . . . ‘I keep thinking about what she said to me this morning’ . . . ‘I have been thinking a lot lately about how I look’ . . . . ‘I make a lot of jokes about the same subject.’ . . . ‘I keep having that same daydream, with the same ending.’
Think about those thoughts and search for what is behind them. Get to know yourself. That’s one big step towards getting a handle on life.
Q. ‘If I am a serial killer planning my fifteenth murder, is it okay to have those thoughts? If I am suicidal and thinking of how to kill myself, is it okay to keep thinking about suicide? If my thoughts are racist, can I give myself permission to keep thinking those thoughts? Is that what you’re saying?’
You’re going to have those thoughts anyway, so become acquainted with them. Search to see where they’re coming from. What emotions are behind them? Are there ‘shoulds’ behind them? Why am I having those thoughts?
In short, welcome your thoughts. Give your thoughts permission to be, and observe them without judgement. Get to know yourself.
(1) Our thoughts will ‘feel heard’. They will haunt us less, and their weight upon us will diminish.
(2) The less judgmental we are of our thoughts, the more accepting of ourselves we will become.
(3) The more we get to know what we are feeling and thinking, the less tossed about by the world we will be. As a result, we add to our inner authority, and discover that we can handle life.