How do I stop my obsessive thinking?

Emotional processing and self-regulation are the short answer.


When I’m obsessing over something, often the obsession is a distraction that my mind is using to help regulate (manage) the wound underneath the obsession. For example, let's say I'm worried about my boss at work being displeased with my recent performance. I find these thought loops going around constantly in my head:

  • "What if I get fired!"
  • "I shouldn't have done that."
  • "I'm so scared to chat with them."

There are deep feelings of anxiety coming up. And these thoughts are coming from a part of me that wants to protect me from the shame I'm carrying (the wound underneath). The shame says 'I'm bad' and is being activated as I sense my boss being disappointed in me. The obsessive thinking is keeping me from feeling this shame and galvanising me to take action.

This action may include:

  • Pleasing my boss via working extra hard or manipulating the situation (lie) and get my way out of it.
  • Get defensive and blame someone else.

However, if I work on emotional processing, I can get to the wound and process the repressed feelings. When this happens the parts of me obsessively thinking won't have to protect me from my shame anymore (the wound underneath). 

This brings a sense of relief. 

So, some thoughts need to be listened to. Some only once, others can be let go of, and others need time and energy to really sit with and wrestle with.

The difference between ruminating and processing thoughts

How do I decipher which thoughts are which? I lean into them through self-examination. I can write them down to start.

What are these thoughts trying to tell me? I can share them with someone. Saying them out loud is super powerful. Sometimes all I need is to say them out loud once and then they drift away effortlessly.

The more charged thoughts might contain some valuable information that can help guide you. Share these ones with someone you trust. Process it, observe it, get some space from it – this is what I mean by 'wrestle' with it.

If we leave our thoughts to ruminate and swirl around us, it can be like a friend poking you constantly.

For example, let’s say your friend said something that very much bothered you, but you didn’t say anything and hid your 'botheredness'. That night as you try and sleep, your friend (your mind) is poking you constantly:

"How dare they say that."
"You should have said this!"

You: "Ahhhh go away I want to sleep!"

Eventually, we must turn towards our friend and say, "What would you like?"If we take a deep breath and lean into our thoughts, we’ll discover the ability to process the inner chaos. Something happens when we decide to turn towards whatever is bothering us. It activates something within that says, "I can handle this."

There's a fine line between ruminating and processing. And we move from ruminating to processing via leaning into that which we're ruminating on. 

In doing so, this processing starts to organise the chaos within our inner worlds. And suddenly the voices are no longer screaming to be heard. It becomes clear these voices were trying their best to protect us. But much like ignoring a young child who is frantic, they will keep bothering us until they (you) burn out.

We can also grow familiar with our parts when we do this – so they feel less threatening and torturous as we recognise their repetitive nature and their self-protective intent.

Do this day by day and, one day, you'll find yourself looking back saying, "Wow, I don't get lost in my thoughts nearly as much!"

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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St. Leonards-On-Sea, East Sussex, TN37
Written by Will Adolphy, MBACP | Integrative Counselling and Coaching
St. Leonards-On-Sea, East Sussex, TN37

Alongside being a counsellor-coach & writer, Will is a public speaker and workshop facilitator, delivering workshops and talks on healthy masculinity & mental health all around the country.


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