Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Have you ever felt stuck in your thoughts?
Have you felt consumed by them, trapped in them, without any easy way out?
These sticky thoughts are unfortunately all too common, and sometimes it's hard to know how to escape them.
Sticky thoughts can be:
Depressing negative self-talk: Maybe you're beating yourself up over a past mistake. Or you can't stop ruminating about a negative quality you have. Negative self-talk like this doesn't push you to be better or encourage you to change. Rather, it paralyzes you, and holds you back from the growth you're capable of.
Re-living past pain: Maybe you're hung up on something that somebody did or said that deeply hurt you. No matter what you do, or how long it's been, you can't seem to move through and process the pain.
Anxiety about the future: Maybe the uncertainty of the future is consuming you, and you find yourself obsessing over all the "what ifs." The worry isn't likely to protect you tomorrow, but it is definitely going to take away from today's peace and calm.
Sticky thoughts can come in many other forms, but basically it's anything that holds you back from living in the present moment. I have so many clients who come to me with these sticky thoughts, and they can't find a way to escape them. If you relate to this at all, here are a couple practical tools you can try at home.
THE FILING CABINET
I am a pretty visual person, so I enjoy coming up with visual representations of the struggles we face. I imagine my mind to be a little like a filing cabinet system. It's like a wall full of filing cabinets from top to bottom, and each individual drawer is a specific topic.
In an ideal world, I'd be in charge of exactly which drawers are open at what time. If I'm at work, I'd pull open my work cabinet. If I'm taking a test, I'd pull open the drawers for test taking and whatever subject matter I am testing for. If I'm with friends, I'd pull open the social drawer.
Unfortunately, sometimes our thoughts control us more than we control them. At times like that, it feels like those cabinets start pulling themselves open, without our permission. This is particularly problematic when we really need to be *present* in the moment, but our thoughts are distracting us and preventing us from functioning fully.
When that happens,
FIRST, notice it. "Dang it, look at all these open cabinets!"
SECOND, get curious about why that might be. "I wonder why they're all open right now?"
If you stumble upon a need that needs to addressed, meet that need!
THIRD, visualize shutting all of those cabinets that shouldn't be open. "I'm closing you right now. This is not the time or the place for you right now. I promise I'll sort through you when the time is right."
This approach requires some mindfulness: What cabinets are open at any given moment? Are the right drawers open at the right time? Are you struggling to stay focused on the cabinets that you need in this very moment?
LIKE A PIE
This exercise is helpful if you're finding yourself obsessing over your negative qualities. First, take a piece of paper and draw a large circle on it. Divide it into many "slices" and label one of those slices with the negative quality that's bothering you. Now, write down positive qualities and characteristics you have in the other slices of the pie.
This exercises helps you to notice your (not so awesome) qualities in context with more positive traits. This helps you gain perspective and learn to shift focus. Maybe you shift your attention to a quality you appreciate about yourself. Or you can zoom out and see the whole pie, and recognize the good with the not-so-good. One important aspect of mindfulness is the ability to see things as they really are (without minimizing or exaggerating something). Rather than over-emphasizing your negative qualities, you are able to witness the quality in context of the bigger picture and everything else that you are. Adding a little bit of self-compassion into this, remind yourself how *human* it is to have not-so-great qualities mixed in with lots of great ones. What would you say to your best friend who is beating themselves up over their negative traits? Try turning that kindness inward.
Your homework for this week is to try out one of these two tools, and notice what it feels like to use them! As always, don't hesitate to reach out to us if you've got more questions.
Carrie Nicholes is a Maryland Board approved Licensed Certified Social Worker - Clinical (LCSW-C) and the founder of Cedar Counseling & Wellness. Recognized as one of the top therapists in Annapolis, she has a lifelong passion for teaching people tools to improve their lives.