This post regards everyday uncomfortable thoughts. If you are experiencing painful thoughts that alarm you or others, frighten yourself or others, or prevent you from performing your normal activities, please contact your health provider without delay
I regard uncomfortable thoughts like a pebble in my shoe. I could be wearing the most comfortable shoes that exist, but if there is a pebble in there, it’s distracting. My whole focus shifts to my foot no matter what I am doing. It’s uncomfortable, and after a while, it causes real pain.
Most of us stop and take action when we feel that pebble. We remove the shoe and shake the pebble out. It's so clear when there is physical pain occurring; we usually do something immediately to stop the pain, treat it, or find the underlying cause.
When it comes to emotional pain, the action is less clear. What if we treated our uncomfortable thoughts like a pebble in our shoe. What if we realized that discomfort was indicating a need to take notice, slow down and take off our mental shoe?
Here's an example. Let’s say during a family gathering, a group you are sitting with starts discussing current events. It's going along fine and then, all of a sudden, in response to a statement you make, a relative says, “You don’t know what you are talking about.”
A sharp intake of breath. Time slows and gets a bit lumpy. You sense an internal sting, a jab of something, a pebble forming in your mental shoe, but you push it down and carry on as if you are fine. Because you have many good reasons to do so. Maybe it’s a special occasion. Maybe it’s not that big a deal. Maybe she always says things like that. Maybe you will not give her the satisfaction of looking agitated. You'll have your own well-curated list.
Oddly, you find yourself in rooms where that person is not the rest of the night. Maybe you leave early. Maybe you beg off, saying are tired. That thought pebble is starting to get uncomfortable.
You get in your car, and as you drive along, you replay the scene in your head, over and over. Looking for meaning, for clues. By doing this post-game analysis, now she’s told you 20 times that you don’t know what you are talking about instead of just the once. Over and over. The ruminating builds and the emotions creep in. Perhaps shame: “What did she mean by that? Did I sound stupid? Did everyone think that?” Then the defensiveness begins, “How dare she? What a jerk!” The pebble is really rolling around now, gaining momentum. You might start to placate yourself (“I did know what I was talking about! She’s the stupid one!”) or any number of other devices and techniques. Now you are in real pain.
Before you know you it, you are at home, in bed, unable to sleep because that tangle of thoughts and emotions has you in its grip. You need, you need something. What is it? You turn to Netflix or ice cream or a drink to numb yourself so you can silence that thought and get some relief. You stay up late or eat too much or drink too much and the next morning you oversleep your alarm or feel terrible and get up in a horrible mood, which dictates your day. Maybe you spend your lunch hour and post-work relaxation time calling several friends to complain about this event . . . and now you have made that pebble a true stone. It's hobbling you.
All because of one unexamined thought.
What if . . . ?
What if instead of silencing or numbing that thought, you sat down like you would if you had an actual pebble in your shoe and treated your reaction with the same care and concern you have for the future of your foot? Take off the constraints, let it all fall out. Let those thoughts have their say. Pay attention to what feelings that thought is provoking in you.
So you sit still and recall the party and the relative making the comment: “You don’t know what you are talking about.”
Stay quietly with this moment. See it all in your mind. Breathe into it. Close your eyes. If it was impossible for you to be offended, what would your wisdom say about this?
Don’t try to solve it or think it into resolution. Allow your wisdom to emerge. Let your wisdom meet your experience. Slow way, way down. Breathe and ask yourself, what is really true here? Imagine your mind is a wheel slowing, slowing and coming to rest.
If you do this, slowly, slowly, you might have a thought like this: “Well, she is always reading political science books and articles. It is her hobby. She’s clearly passionate about it.” Slow down. “She does always have something interesting to say about international politics.”
Breathe. “I have learned things from her.” Keep breathing. “I know I haven’t read nearly as much about this as she has.” And then you might laugh. “And she does talk like that to everyone. It’s just how she shows up.” Laugh more. “Really, do I need her to speak differently to me than she does to everyone else?” And you might end up laughing at the fact that, “Yeah, when did I become an expert on Eastern Europe? On that particular topic, I don’t know what I am talking about. It was a true statement and I made it personal. I made it personal. She didn't.” And you’ll feel a lightness come over you, a shift, a freedom. Not a concession, not a convincing, not a win or or a loss, but an unravelling of awareness of the ways we all use use other people to judge ourselves.
It feels a lot better than carrying around that irritating, uncomfortable pebble for days, weeks, maybe embedding for a lifetime.
As I like to say, don't believe me. Be your own experiment. Experiment with it. It might just bring you peace.