By Rachel Factor LCSW
Thoughts are an interesting phenomenon. We can’t see them and we can’t touch them. Yet they are always there, determining our moods and influencing our behaviors. We don’t choose the initial thought that comes to mind, but we get to choose how we interpret it and if we choose to act upon it. This article’s aim is to help the reader make better choices as to which thoughts are worth listening to.
Thoughts and feelings that come with a bang, a fright and a sense of urgency are usually the kind we want to let pass through. They trick us into thinking they are genuine and noteworthy. However, they hold no substance and can lead us astray. For example, Suri, a high school teacher, is about to start teaching when she is suddenly overtaken by a state of anxiety. Thoughts of worthlessness and inadequacy begin whirling around in her head. She desperately tries to push them away, but they only get stronger.
It would be helpful for Suri to let these thoughts pass through. These thoughts are not helpful, and trying to push them away only makes them worse. Trying to reason with them is kind of like trying to reason with a tantruming toddler who wants every candy in the store. However, just as we believe that our toddler can get through the tantrum without heavy parental intervention, the tantrums in our minds can run their course and we can be okay too.
Yaakov is davening and is struck with the thought that maybe he mispronounced a word. The thought makes him so uncomfortable that he repeats the word. This happens again, and again. Eventually davening becomes burdensome. All this started with a thought that produced such a feeling of urgency that Yaakov felt compelled to listen to it.
Individuals often don’t realize that they have a choice whether or not to listen to the thought. The thought appears so real and lifelike that it just has to be true. Or some will think, “If Hashem planted this thought in my head I must be meant to follow it”,.. though that’s also just a thought.
Helpful thoughts, which can be seen as wisdom or insight, come when we are in a quiet state of mind. They come with a sense of knowing. There is a different quality to these thoughts, and they just feel right. One cannot force wisdom to come; one only needs to trust that if one lets go it will come.
Upon the need to make a decision or deal with an uncomfortable situation, it is best not to negotiate it when feeling tense. That’s kind of like using the same unhelpful thinking that is causing the unpleasant feelings to solve it. If one can wait out the uncomfortable feeling and try one’s best not to get involved with it, one’s innate wisdom will emerge and one will know how to deal with it.
Many are quicker to trust someone else’s wisdom than their own, in their feared situation. For example, Rina, a woman who often finds herself obsessing, is petrified that she “might have” said something insensitive when talking to her neighbor. All day she replays the conversation in her head trying to determine if she should apologize. Finally she calls a friend to ask her opinion on the matter. Rina feels relief that her friend feels she has nothing to worry about. However, Rina is reinforcing her inability to trust herself. I try to impart to my clients that Hashem gave them their own mind, with everything necessary to make proper decisions. This is not to say we should never ask for advice; however, people often know inside what they need to do, they just seek out reassurance because they crave a feeling of knowing for certain.
In therapy, individuals will learn to become more cognizant of their thought processes, especially those preventing them from branching out of their comfort zones and facing their fears. Clients are encouraged not to act on fearful or insecure thinking, and to have the courage to see all kinds of feelings through.
Over time, our goal is to see our fearful thoughts for what they are, no matter what costumes they are masquerading in. When we can postpone acting upon them, either they will fall away or our wisdom will tell us what to do next.