I ran a support group the other day for people with chronic illness. One woman said, “I didn’t want to come here today, I don’t want to think.” When I asked her to tell me more, she said “All I do is think, and it gets me nowhere! Coming here today I was scared …of what I might think about!”
What is it about thinking? People come to see me and say “but I think all the time! Why would I go to therapy to think even more?” I even had a friend tell me that she couldn’t understand why seeing a therapist would be better than advice from a girlfriend, a glass of wine, or comforting words from the mailman. “Why think so hard? It’s not so difficult to feel better.” This can be true. So why go through the trouble of actually thinking deeply about our lives, past and present?
More interesting to me – what is this resistance to thinking really about?
First of all, there is real confusion about what is actually “thinking” and what is “ruminating”. When I hear, “I think all the time!” …this isn’t thinking. Ruminating is thoughts running around in circles – snakes biting their tales – oftentimes accompanied by self-blame and accusations. Ruminating never arrives anywhere.
One of my sons brought home his philosophy homework on the Truth. The Truth almost always means that we need to confront our responsibility for the events in our lives. This is the difference between comforting words that help raise our moods, and psychotherapy. Comforting words are nice, but they usually don’t facilitate change that stops unhelpful behaviors. For example, if you are addicted to a certain type of man (the “bad boy” for example), and in spite of numerous breakups, somehow always end up with him, comfort isn’t going to stop it. Thinking, or as one famous analyst says, “facing the music”, will. This isn’t easy or fun – in fact it can be one of the most painful things we do. But it is curative. Why? I will go back to my son’s philosophy homework (he got an ‘A’)…
Therapy, like philosophy, doesn’t pretend to provide a solution to what arises from our thinking… but it creates freedom – we can see where we have been held prisoner by beliefs, and create new possibilities for action – we can dream ourselves- and eventually create ourselves – anew. The goal of psychotherapy isn’t necessarily breaking up with the latest bad boy, even if all your friends tell you that’s the answer to all of your problems. He’s just going to show up again in another incarnation. If you could tell the truth about yourself, and your life, what would you say? Even more essential, what would you desire, in your heart of hearts? Maybe the fear of being alone keeps you with “him”. Maybe it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without a “him” to complain about. Well, now there’s some food for thought…
Yet simply imagining slowing down, and thinking, can cause anxiety. If you have ever been on a spiritual retreat, you’ve seen this. There are panicked last-minute phone calls; people pack up and leave – even if they have already paid. What is so terrifying here?
The answer isn’t so simple or clear. Creepy crawly things that live in darkness seem a lot worse than when the sun rises. Remember closing your closet door in your bedroom at night? The thing under your bed that would snatch you, but only if the lights were out? Same principle. Yet, it’s the dread of discovery that’s terrible – enough to keep us moving, afraid of our thoughts, and the words that could bring them to life.
Left alone in the dark, these creatures become parasites; they suck on your spirits. There can be darkness on lovely sunny summer afternoons, deadness and loneliness in a crowd of friends… these are the sensations we desperately try to avoid.
Becoming aware of melancholy understandably generates anxiety. Yet, as another famous analyst said; the thing you are most frightened of, you have already survived. These sensations are the ghosts of situations already lived, from a time when you were helpless to think them through, and dependent on others to make them less scary.
“Fear of thinking” is really fear of engaging with one’s self in those empty spaces; where we may have flashes of recognition that running around is ultimately a decoy. Anything – bad relationships, acting out – can seem better than stirring up the darkness.
It takes some courage to lift up the rocks, open the closets, or go down in the basement, psychologically speaking. Remember always that once Pandora’s Box was emptied, there was hope left at the bottom. It took a lot of unpacking to find it.