My wife is planning a trip to somewhere warm and she is doing it wrong. As a guy I would go online, find the very first place that was on the ocean and book it. It wouldn’t matter if it had air-conditioning or bedrooms or anything so trivial. As long as it had wi-fi (which I wouldn’t use) and I could hear the waves I wouldn’t obsess about the options and would worry about the other details when I got there. Last time I was in Hawaii I got in a taxi on the Big Island and told the driver, “find me a rental car that a local would get”. He took me to a Rent-A-Wreck where I paid nineteen dollars a day. Hertz wanted fifty-five. The next day we asked around until we found out there was a Wal-Mart in town. Supply problems solved. I’m a fairly “live and let live” kind of dude and investigating options isn’t part of my DNA. I am all about decision-making, don’t confuse me with details or facts. I like to fire the weapon, not waste all day aiming. I suck at board meetings. After about forty-five minutes I am ready to kill something. I do not ordinarily obsess about details.
For people struggling with mental health issues, however, obsession is a very real temptation. In counseling we talk a lot about cognitive distortions, about how easy it is to catastrophize when anxious or upset. It is also tempting to employ something called emotional reasoning – using our heart, not our head, to make decisions and formulate opinions regardless of the objective facts. Then there is black and white thinking, and “should” statements, and making mountains out of mole hills and seeing the negative in every situation. You can see where I am going with this. There is something in all of us that, when we are stressed or hurting or in trauma or struggling with anxiety or depression, likes to obsess about possibilities and worst-case scenarios.
Obsession is an emotionally bankrupting practice. Letting your mind “go there” is rarely healthy or productive. For some reason we have this impression that we shouldn’t deny our feelings and we should let ourselves experience all that frustration and fear and negative thinking. Sadly, many people believe that if they don’t catastophize the hell out of their problems they are somehow being untrue to their emotions and inauthentic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Practicing healthy mindfulness and being true to oneself has little or nothing to do with obsessing yourself sick. Emotional regulation is an extremely important, though often overlooked, part of maturity and growth. It is my contention that my journey to maturity and wisdom is nothing less than learning to control my thought-life. As James Allen says in his classic As A Man Thinketh, “Self-control is strength. Right thought is mastery. Calmness is power.” The Bible, another good source of wisdom, says it this way, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. That is good counseling advice, whether you are religious or not. Obsession is sickness.
Learning to reign in our thoughts, as hard as that seems, is a learnable skill and not impossible. A good counselor will help you take control of your cognitive distortions and learn to process your thoughts in a healthy and hopeful manner.
It isn’t easy, but it is incredibly worth it.