Whether we’re struggling with our bodies, our relationships, our addictions, or some other intractable problem, many of us find our thoughts covering the same painful ground again and again. We’re not gaining new insights, and we can’t seem to stop the cycle. The thoughts themselves become a topic of worry and self-judgment.
Peeking behind the curtain
In their book When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies, Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter explain that “bad body” thoughts are never about the body. Instead, they serve as a curtain to hide underlying issues that have been labeled “unthinkable.” Not only are “bad body” thoughts (or any other obsessive thoughts) painful in themselves, but they leave the “unthinkable” issues unaddressed and unchanged.
Their process of noticing, questioning, and putting aside “bad body” thoughts can be adapted to any recurring painful theme. Over time, the theme occurs less often, and the underlying issues are gradually addressed.
1. Name a theme
Perhaps a recurring theme comes to mind immediately. If you can’t think of one, it is possible that a theme runs below your conscious awareness. For example, body hatred is so common it can become unnoticed background noise. Choose some reminder to check in with yourself – every time you go through a doorway, for example – and notice what you’re thinking about over the next few days.
If you have several themes taking turns in your thoughts, choose just one, perhaps the one that seems easiest to address.
2. Gentle observation
Once you’ve selected a theme, simply observe when it comes up in your thoughts. “Ah, there it is.” The more often it comes up, the more chances you’ll get to watch it, so there’s no need to judge the frequency of the topic in your thoughts. If judgment does arise, gently observe that as well.
At first, you may be deep in the familiar obsessive pattern before you remember to step back and notice it. After some practice, the first few words or images will be enough. “Ah, there it is.“
3. Exploring context
The next step is to explore the context that triggers the recurring theme. With gentle curiosity, look back at what you were doing, thinking, feeling, and noticing just before the recurring theme started. At first, you may get repeatedly distracted, but eventually a pattern will emerge. Often a sense of relief and rightness accompanies the discovery. Sit with it and breathe.
Sometimes, the process of noticing and exploring the context needs to be repeated many times before a clear resolution appears. If frustration or other feelings arise around the process itself, bring your attention to them. Perhaps they carry the message you are searching for.
4. Thinking the unthinkable
The previously unthinkable issue may be much bigger or much smaller than you feared.
Sometimes, simply noticing and allowing a previously disallowed feeling – shame, or anger, or joy – resolves the problem.
Sometimes, embracing a previously disallowed thought entails years of gradual action. “I never wanted to be in this career. I want to find out how I can contribute to the world.”
Sometimes, it heralds a big change. “I need a divorce!”
5. Reclaiming energy
Remember, noticing the underlying issue does not oblige you to make any immediate changes. The issue has been there all along, and simply acknowledging it is already a big step. As you reclaim the energy that was previously diverted into the obsessive thoughts, you may notice new ideas and plans bubbling up. Welcome them, and take action when the time is right for you.
Peace and power
The process of questioning and setting aside obsessive thoughts can bring peace and power. Unchanging, painful thoughts are gradually replaced with awareness of underlying issues that have real solutions.
In their article “Hold That Fat Thought“, Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter explain their process for examining body hating thoughts and discovering their underlying message.