Stepping out of obsessive thinking

I’d gone into therapy during my sophomore year in college, and remember the day I brought up my current prime-time fixation: how to stop binge eating. No matter how committed I felt to my newest diet plan, I kept blowing it each day, and mercilessly judged myself for being out of control. When I wasn’t obsessing on how I might concoct a stricter, more dramatic weight-loss program, I was getting caught up in food cravings.

My therapist listened quietly for a while, and then asked a question that has stayed with me ever since: “When you are obsessing about eating, what are you feeling in your body?” As my attention shifted, I immediately noticed the painful, squeezing feeling in my chest. While my mind was saying “something is wrong with me,” my body was squeezing my heart and throat in the hard grip of fear.

In an instant I realized that when I was obsessing about food—craving it, wanting to avoid it—I was trying to escape from these feelings. Obsessing was my way of being in control. Then I realized something else. “It’s not just food” I told her. “I’m obsessing about everything.”

Saying it out loud unlocked something inside of me. I talked about how I obsessed about what was wrong with my boyfriend, about exams, about what to do for spring break, about when to fit in a run. I obsessed about what I’d tell her at our next therapy session. And most of all, my tireless inner critic obsessed about my own failings: I’d never change; I’d never like myself; others wouldn’t want to be close to me.

After pouring all this out, my mind started scratching around again—this time for a new strategy for changing my obsessive self. When I started down that track, my therapist simply smiled and said kindly: “If you can notice when you’re obsessing and then feel what’s going on in your body, you’ll eventually find peace of mind.”

During the weeks that followed, I kept track of my obsessing. When I caught myself planning and judging and managing, I would note that I was obsessing, try to stop, and then ask how I was feeling in my body. Whatever the particular focus of my thoughts, I’d find a restless, anxious feeling—the same squeezing grip I had felt in my therapist’s office.

While I didn’t like my obsessing, I really didn’t like this feeling. Without being conscious of pulling away, I’d start distancing myself from the pain almost as soon as I’d contacted it, and the relentless voice in my head would take over again. Then, after a month or soof this, I had an experience that really caught my attention.

One Saturday night, after my friends and I had spent hours dancing to the music of a favorite band, I stepped outside to get some fresh air. Inspired by the full moon and the scent of spring blossoms, I sat down on a bench for a few moments alone. Suddenly the world was deliciously quiet. Sweaty and tired, my body was vibrating from all that dancing. But my mind was still. It was big and open, like the night sky. And filling it was a sense of peace—I didn’t want anything or fear anything. Everything was okay.

Check out Meditations for Emotional Healing: Finding Freedom in the Face of Difficulty (2CDS), and other titles by Tara Brach.
By Sunday morning, the mood had vanished. Worried about a paper due midweek, I sat down to work at noon, armed with Diet Coke, cheese, and crackers. I was going to overeat, I just knew it. My mind started ricocheting between wanting to eat and not wanting to gain weight. My agitation grew. For a moment I flashed on the evening before; that quiet, happy space was like a distant dream. A great wave of helplessness and sorrow filled my heart. I began whispering a prayer: “Please … may I stop obsessing … Please, please.” I wanted to be free from the prison of my fear-thinking.

The taste of a quiet, peaceful mind I’d experienced the night before had felt like home, and it motivated me not long after to begin spiritual practice. In the years since, I’ve become increasingly free from the grip of obsessive thinking, but awakening from this mental trance has been slower than I initially imagined.

Obsessive thinking is a tenacious addiction, a way of running from our restlessness and fears. Yet, like all false refuges, it responds to mindful awareness—to an interested and caring attention. We can listen to the energies behind our obsessive thinking, respond to what needs attention, and spend less and less time removed from the presence that nurtures our lives.

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4 Comments. Leave new

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Padraig O'Morain
October 27, 2012 6:49 pm

Thanks for this valuable article. I find myself that tuning into the physical expression of my emotions is always easier than staying in the stories my mind likes to tell. When I stay with the physical feelings they gradually fade, even if it takes days for substantial change, and then the anxiety feeling is gone. Really worth trying for anyone who hasn’t done so before.
Padraig

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Great article!

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Reading this article I identify myself with the “squeezing grip” and pain in the chest when dealing with my holdings. I have been feeling this way every time I think about my ex-fiance. Though, I notice that every time I feel this way, I escape or maybe feed my emotions by looking at his social networks. I still don’t know why I do that, but I know it only causes more pain.

I guess I need to look within my body when this sensations are present?

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Hi, Awa.

When you’re in pain like that, you need to give yourself empathy and self-compassion. You can search for “self-compassion” in the search bar in the header of this site, where you’ll find a ton of resources, or you can go straight to some of these articles: Transforming hurt and anger through self-compassion, Cultivating self-compassion, Self-hatred, self-compassion, and non-self, and Self-compassion for writers (and other tortured souls). (The last one is not just for writers.)

If you respond to your pain compassionately then you’ll be less likely to stalk your ex on social networks.

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