How to think of things I'm not thinking about?
October 4, 2014 9:52 PM   Subscribe

If I'm obsessing about a small problem in my life, odds are, it's actually a displacement activity for something else in my life that I'm a) not thinking about and b) is actually the main source of stress.

TLDR version: Do you have any tools, methods, or resources for identify the things you're avoiding thinking about? Preferably things I could do regularly unearth them. If I procrastinate after that, hey, at least I'm aware of it.

I'm reasonably good at problem solving, but, for some reason (probably related to childhood environment, yaddayadda), I just 'block out' most big sources of stress in my life from my thinking.
I don't think about them, therefore I'm not consciously aware of them, and therefore I can't solve them, even though they are still stressing me out.

I am not consciously thinking about the issues that are most worrying to me.

The thing that's made me most functional as an adult, has been digging out these actual problems, and then resolving them - or at least acknowledging that it's reasonable to be experiencing stress from these worries.

Current useful tactics have been:
1. Friends - I have a couple of close friends who will straight up, tell me what they are worried about for me. It seems obvious once they point it out.
2. To do/worry lists - If I try and write say, 20 odd things in my life I'd like to fix, sometimes the Big Issues sneak in towards the end. Especially if I break it down into categories like Relationships/Home/Health-Body/Work, otherwise I may blank out on an entire category that is causing me stress.
3. 'Excuses' that turn out to be Reasons - Embarrassingly, several times I've had to say, explain poorer performance at work, or bow out of a social engagement or something, and I've been struggling to find a plausible sounding excuse. And then once it comes out of my mouth, I realise that that actually seems super reasonable.
E.g. 'Excuse': Sorry Boss, I came back to work far too soon after that flu that was going round, and the overtime on stressful x project, combined with ill relatives staying at my house has me a bit run down. All three are true. In regards to x project, Boss goes, oh, fair enough, I'll get someone to help you with x project. Four days after getting additional support on X project, my coworker tells my boss that X project needs to be divided between at least 3 people, because it sucks that hard.
posted by Elysum to Health & Fitness (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
This is normal, and it's also a common protective strategy for a lot of people. I think the trick is just to be patient and open with yourself, because rationally you know that confronting the Big Stuff (or hell, just acknowledging they exist) is going to get you to where you need to go. It's just that your totally-reasonable given-whatever-the-cause-is protective strategy is irrational -- and has more practice coming into play.

Maybe you could start setting aside some time each day or week to just sit with yourself and be honest with your heart and mind. The to do/worry list practice is great. Maybe extending that and starting a journal could be a conduit for this if you don't already have one. Your goal is just to be more present in your day to day life, to "notice what you notice" as it were. Taking time each day to think more deeply about what's been going on for you can help you tune in to patterns you otherwise might miss. Try to catch yourself retreating from the big stuff. Notice what emotion or bodily sensation accompanies that blocking out process. There's often a trigger that shuts off your awareness to the issue because some part of your brain doesn't think you can handle.

FWIW, I am one of those people for whom this process comes really, really easily, primarily because I have a therapist who doesn't let me retreat from what's going on no matter how badly I want to. If doing this on your own doesn't yield the results you want, look for a cognitive behavioral therapist in your area, and ask about EMDR. EMDR is a processing solution that helps unpack related concepts so you can resort them and deal with them more effectively. It might help you keep the big stuff more at the conscious level of your mind, rather than let it sink so deep that it only comes to the surface when some exterior force makes it do so. YMMV. :)
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:08 PM on October 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

You need to get your problems out that you're purposefully not thinking about. Maybe doing something like free-form writing where you're just letting it flow instead of self-editing would help in the short-term. I find it useful when I'm stressed in a vague sort of way, more than lists where I'm constantly questioning whether an issue is 'significant' enough to make the cut.

Also, if it's only major issues in which you have this, it could be useful to keep a running list of little issues so you have some sort of guide on what could be causing problems in the future. Perhaps pretending that you're looking at your situation from the outside and wondering what would be the most likely stressor from your list would help, though that might feel silly at first.
posted by Trifling at 10:15 PM on October 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

My lovely husband does this. Thanks for the confirmation it is a leftover coping skill from childhood.

The obvious solution is to marry someone like me, who will force you to use your words and stick up for self + practice good self-care habits whenever you start slipping.

Nah! What a bore!!

I'm pretty sure what you describe is part of the journey towards self-improvement.

I'm pretty sure there are journaling techniques (and maybe apps!) that will help you keep track of your goals.

Mindful meditation, yoga, hiking, and especially a good meditation habit, will automatically help you improve and stay conscious of the work you'd like to accomplish/actively help you work on these issues.
posted by jbenben at 11:03 PM on October 4, 2014

Response by poster: Woah.
It just realised that maybe this is the same mental mechanism that makes meditation ineffectual for me?

I've done several meditation courses that met weekly, tried sitting practice on and off, and even went on a full 10 day silent meditation retreat.
During retreat other people ended up 'processing' a bunch of apparently heavy stuff, but the only thing that 'came up' for me was bad TV and advertising I'd seen (and the Buffy Musical soundtrack for some reason - by the end, I remembered ALL the words).

Put that way, it sounds kind of silly to have persisted so long with something I've never felt to be helpful, but I kept hoping something would click?

I enjoy Yoga for the exercise?

Would welcome specific journaling techniques or apps. (Or offers of marriage?)

Writing has definitely been more effective than meditation in retrospect. Freewriting seems so aimless but, *sigh*, putting it in terms of meditation does suggest I should just put more Time into writing, even if it's unpleasant.
posted by Elysum at 11:35 PM on October 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I dunno, I've always found just brainstorming/freewriting on paper to be adequate for getting everything out where I can see it, but I also try to always keep a constant awareness of how various things make me feel so these sorts of things don't tend to ever get that buried deeply to begin with. So maybe start by making a habit of monitoring how you feel and probable causes for those feelings (accepting that the answers will often just be "I'm hungry" or "I'm tired" or "my brain chemistry is being randomly obnoxious" and not some deep hidden problem).
posted by Jacqueline at 11:49 PM on October 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Pay attention to your dreams. Write them down as soon as you wake up, and look for symbols. Sometimes dreams seem like random BS, but then you think them over and realize that the cat you kept trying to cover with blue paint in the dream (the hissing cat that kept scratching you and yowling and spitting and oh GOD it was so frustrating and scary and horrible) is actually exactly how your job makes you feel. For instance.

Do you stop and ask yourself questions about your life? What I mean is, stop yourself on a semi-regular basis and take an honest look at what you really feel about your health, your career, your relationships, your past, your future. Don't just assume stuff about your life and how you're dealing with it. If something's been nagging at the back of your mind, don't let it hide there.

Do regular internal diagnostics like that. You can do it on the bus, in the shower, whenever you have some downtime. If you do it often enough, hopefully you shouldn't be blindsided by your emotions as often. Just be careful that you don't end up neurotic like me, endlessly chewing this stuff over!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:49 AM on October 5, 2014

In group therapy we'd use a technique called, "repeated question." It is exactly what it sounds like. Ask yourself what you want to know like, "Why am I feeling stressed?" (This works best with a trusted partner--but I've done it in a journal). Then answer with what comes to mind. Don't give yourself a lot of time and try not to repeat answers. By about the 10 or 15 time, you start getting to the meat. You have to ask the question each time. If you are alone it also helps to do it with a mirror. Yes it is weird but that is kind of the point it knocks you out of patterns/ruts in thinking.
posted by agatha_magatha at 8:02 AM on October 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

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