Self-Compassion for Obsessive Thinking


Obsessive thinking is when we have one thought or a string of thoughts that continually rotates in our brain.  Even people who do not struggle with this can relate to hearing the same stinking song played on the radio again and again or the sound of a bird pecking on the side of their house or window. 

It is, as a young autistic boy I used to work with called it, the kaka poopy brain.  He lived in a poorly maintained, rent-controlled property that often had maintenance issues.  One such issue was that the toilet would some times not flush.  Similar to his experience with the toilet when it backed up, he bemoaned having thoughts he just wanted to be rid of that somehow stuck around long enough to stink up the joint.  Wise beyond his years, I appreciated the kindness and well being built into acknowledging that obsessive thinking is a very human process rather than a strange experience that alienates you from normal people (don’t worry no one is normal).

When we think obsessively our heart tends to be in the right place, but our environment or action plan simply are not.  When we have a problem that we cannot resolve yet is important and is made more difficult by our environment or our action plan, we begin to internalize this problem.  Internalizing this problem means self-blame. Self-blame means the self suffers and this kind of suffering persuades us that we need immediate resolution.  This is how we become so dynamically involved in one or several thoughts without the ability to get off what becomes a more and more frustrating ride.

Before we disentangle from this self-judgment and look at ways to organize our experience around self-compassion, there is nothing wrong with a little obsessive thinking, so long as it is not inflicting suffering on us or others.  If you tend to think in patterns and seek thorough answers to problems, you are probably conscientious in what you do and that is helpful in some professions.

You probably want the person that designs bridges, implants hearts, creates plans for patients in crisis, and nurses searching for lice to be a little bit obsessive.  By all means, search every hair.  Get rid of that lice!  We begin to understand our experience as unhelpful when suffering becomes involved.  Also, obsessive thinking is an action.  Please do not refer to yourself as an obsessive thinker, especially if the meaning behind this identity is limiting or disempowering.  You deserve self-acceptance and kindness. We all engage in actions that can be unhelpful sometimes.

When obsessive thinking leads to suffering, I think of something the Dalai Lama once said when someone asked him about gastric issues that might have been life threatening while he was still far away from medical care.  He said that he experienced much pain, but that he did not feel the need to worry.  Of course, the interviewer responded querulously, but the Dalai Lama reported that if he could do something he would do something, and if he could not he would not. 

The Dalai’s recipe seems too simple, and I know the doubters are beginning to think, so what I just don’t do anything about my problems???  Just the opposite.  It is all action.  When you can do something, you act by doing something.  When you can do nothing, you acknowledge the suffering and bring kindness to your experience.  You need the internal resources you have to feel better, and you need them to wait until somebody or something arrives to ameliorate the situation all together.  To not add on to the suffering you are already experiencing and to begin to diminish it, you must give the body and mind something to hold in exchange for the obsessive thinking or anxiety. You trade kindness and acceptance.  You acknowledge your suffering. You name it.  You make space to allow it to exist (if you can), then you bring kindness to it, perhaps with the self-compassion phrases or simply by doing something nurturing for yourself.

I once worked with a guy in his 60’s who had congenital back pain.  He did everything he could to get rid of it.  He took meds, went to the gym, and tried every sleeping or resting position known to man.  He had gained considerable weight, and was devastated by his condition.  As such, his mind would circle around thoughts about the pain and helplessness all day.  After several sessions of trying to problem solve this issue without success, I asked him if he would consider accepting the pain.  He was livid, but then I asked him what else he had left to try.  He had nothing.  I asked him if he was not deserving of the opportunity to at least test something to feel better, and he conceded that he was.  When he came back in the office, he noted that a remarkable thing had happened.  Once he accepted the pain, the obsessive thinking slowed down, and he was able to get some sleep.  Sleep was the ticket he yelled with glee!  Oh and that acceptance shit was alright too was his next thought.  After that day he started to apply sleep and that acceptance shit to more of his problems.  The more he did that the more he had energy for activities that made him feel useful and happy again.  By the end of our work he had a very full and happy life.

Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for ourselves is accept our suffering when it manifests, and trust that we have the resources we need to survive it, and that the resources we need to transcend it are on their way. What other choice do we have?  Obsessive thinking?  Forget that.  I change the channel when the same song comes on again.  Hey, life is short. I want to hear all the songs I can! 

May you have the patience to acknowledge your obsessive thinking when it arises.  May you have the kindness to accept it, and nurture yourself.  May you have the wisdom to notice that it is simply a passing event, one with no everlasting hold or defining nature. 

Well, we do not love the kaka poopy brain, we all have one from time to time, and it is ok.  It is our humanity not our perfection, after all, that gives those who truly love us (including ourselves) an opportunity to stake that claim with the greatest effect.

365 Days of Kindness.  Self-Compassion.  Day 31.  In the Books.