Every day I work as a shrink I hear someone say the same thing, “I wish I could stop my thoughts.” They’re talking about intrusive thoughts. The kind of thought you wish you didn’t have.
I wish they didn’t have these thoughts. These are usually destructive thoughts, thoughts of drinking, drug use, gambling, violence, worries, or needless self-recrimination. I wish these thoughts didn’t exist, or that they’d go away to wherever thoughts go. But they can stop them if they understand the thought stopping process and practice it whenever they need it.
The first thing to understand is that you can’t reduce the incidence of intrusive thoughts without first reducing their duration.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate how to do that. You know those people who walk through your neighborhood in pairs and knock on your door asking you to join their church? I get them in my neighborhood, too. One day, I invited them in for coffee. I gave them donuts. We had a good talk about the Bible, but I couldn’t get them to leave. They next day they were back. I didn’t want to be rude, so we had coffee again, and again, and again, and again. They were good people, but I wasn’t going to join their church. I was wasting their time and mine also. I couldn’t make them stop. It was madness.
Then, one day when they knocked, I made an excuse that I was painting the kitchen, so we couldn’t have coffee. They were back a few minutes later in old clothes and offered to help me paint. Since I wasn’t really painting anything, I had to tell them the truth. Please don’t knock on my door anymore. Goodbye.
The next day, they were back.
Eventually, I learned that even engaging with them in the doorway was a mistake. Whenever I would hear the doorbell, I had to peer out a window. If it was them, I’d make like I was not home. I knew that if I made a single mistake and answered the door, they would just get started again; so, I didn’t. Finally, they stopped coming.
Your intrusive thoughts are like that. You can’t stop these thoughts from knocking at the door, but you don’t have to let them in.
When you notice you’re engaging in these thoughts, that’s the time to stop them. Say to them, “Stop”, and do or think something else. It helps to do or think something absorbing that takes all your attention. The thoughts will stop for the moment you say the word. Seriously. All you have to do is identify it as an unwanted thought, tell it to stop, and do something else. This will end the power it has over you for that moment. It’s as simple as that.
Oh, of course they’ll come back in, like, two seconds; so soon it’ll seem like you never stopped. It’s simple, but often it’s not easy.
Sometimes intrusive thoughts of use have already moved in, are sleeping on the couch, or even kicked you out of your own bed, or are holding you hostage. They’ll dig in their heels, argue, threaten, lie, hornswoggle you into believing they need to stay. Getting rid of them will take persistence, but it all starts with you telling them to stop.
So, do it again. Say stop and do something else. The thoughts will stop once more. Do this as many times as it takes. You will reduce the duration that intrusive thoughts occupy your mind. Time spent in those thoughts will get shorter and shorter. You’ll get better at doing this. It’ll get easier for you to stop. Eventually, you’ll learn to see the intrusive thoughts coming and, like me, pretend you’re not home.
I was complicit with the people knocking on my door, but I didn’t know it. I had a choice. I didn’t need to let them in. I entertained them. I fed them. I sat with them and had coffee.
When you stop answering the door every time your intrusive thoughts knock, you’ll see you have a choice, too. You’ve been complicit. The sooner you terminate your engagement with intrusive thoughts, the sooner they lose their power over you. They’ll get tired of coming. You’ll see.