What does it mean to be “in your head too much”? When we drop judgments and simply see our thoughts as messengers, we can learn to manage them.
Shakespeare was my father’s first great love (my mother being his second). Our family took in plays whenever we could, and I came to share Dad’s passion for language and wordplay. Now, my partner and I do our best to get to the Stratford Festival in Ontario each year to see two or three plays. In order to understand the lofty sentiments—and the dirty jokes—we study the text closely in advance.
This year we read the The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s a lighthearted romp. We enjoyed the performance and enjoyed the gorgeous gardens (pictured) during the intermission. But the play that knocked our socks off was one we hadn’t even planned to see: a premiere called Birds of a Kind. We got rush tickets ten minutes before the performance and emerged three hours later in an altered state. The Canadian playwright, Wajdi Mouawad, dove unflinchingly into questions of identity, race, prejudice, violence. He centered his story around a young Arab-American woman, a young Jewish researcher, their complex love affair, and a terrorist attack in Israel that shatters their sense of self.
My partner and I talked about Birds of a Kind at length on our trip home. And I kept thinking about it for days. I savored the complexity and craft of Mouawad’s language and characterizations, and pondered why certain scenes moved me so powerfully.
Long story short, I did a lot of thinking before, during, and after this trip. I studied and learned, pondered and reflected, compared and criticized. I love all these kinds of thinking, especially when they serve to connect me more deeply with a piece of art and, as a result, to understand myself better. Even if I get a bit obsessive, my obsession is heart-connected.
But I’m quite capable of disconnected obsessive thinking, as well. After all, I’m built sensitive, and my mind is wired to go deep. So I’m prone to repetitive rumination. If don’t manage this tendency, I end up in that unpleasant state known as “being in my head too much.”
Seeking advice on “too much thinking”
How exactly do people manage their thinking? Curious to know what advice was out there, I googled “I’m in my head too much”, and found a Psychology Today article by the respected psychologist Rick Hanson. I couldn’t have agreed more with his plea:
We have to take a stand against the crazy mental busyness that has become the new normal. We’re bombarded with things to think about all day long, flooded with words and images to process, and forced to juggle unprecedented complexities.
No kidding. Even as I read his words, I was suffering brain overload: I had just completed a lengthy online search to resolve a printing problem that was making my words look like they were sliding off the page. Dr. Hanson helpfully suggested taking little mind breaks; using breathing to engage the calming parasympathetic wing of the nervous system; cultivating body awareness; and “pulling out of thought [by taking] “a bird’s-eye view”.
But Dr. Hanson’s closing comments troubled me. He concluded that most thinking not only “doesn’t solve a problem, prevent a bad thing from happening, or bring us to peace with others”, but is “deeply unnatural.” I flinched at the judgment in the word “unnatural.” If you are a sensitive person struggling to manage repetitive negative thoughts, being told your experience is unnatural probably isn’t going to help.
There are good reasons for your thoughts
Most sensitive people are all too aware we think about things more than most people. And we may feel ashamed of that. I’ve often heard a client stop himself or herself mid-thought, saying, “Sorry, I’m in my head.” They assume I’m judging them for “thinking too much”. When I assure them they couldn’t be more mistaken, they look indescribably relieved.
When this happens I always explain my belief that there’s always some good reason for the thoughts going on in our minds. I assume my mind is employing the most effective means currently at its disposal to get something across to me. The key is to find out what that “something” is, then to listen to the message in a respectful way.
In this regard, I have come to view my all my thoughts as “natural”: they are simply an expression of my humanness, unfolding in the moment. When I take this positive attitude towards my thoughts, I find I can manage them much more effectively.
Why I “think too much”
When my I find myself “in my head too much”, I picture the airplanes circling above O’Hare airport in bad weather. The planes aren’t “bad or wrong”. They just haven’t had a chance to land. Likewise, my thoughts can’t “land” until I develop a kind, interested relationship with them.
As human beings, we each have the capacity for this kind, interested inner relationship. But many of us need some help to recognize and cultivate it. The philosopher Eugene Gendlin, whom I honor with deepest gratitude, was the first to identify this ability and to notice that clients’ success in therapy depended upon it. He called it Focusing. in his research work with Carl Rogers, the father of humanistic psychology, he found he could teach clients how to stay with the inner experience he called the felt sense.
How does this help those of us who “think too much”? Because the felt sense is the means by which our thoughts can “land” in the body. As we learn to “be with” our thoughts in this new way, the planes land and unload their cargo of clarity and energy. Our inner process moves forward. And “right action” naturally follows.
Cultivating your inner relationship
When you Focus, your thoughts are no longer floating around unattended; you are there with them. In his article Three Assertions About the Body, Gendlin describes this process of becoming present in his uniquely precise way (italics mine):
A felt sense comes. It isn’t just there waiting. We have to let it form and come. That takes at least a few moments, sometimes longer…. If we attend to our bodies, in the middle of the body it comes, and then it is in an odd sort of space of its own. It brings its own space. In that space the felt sense is a direct object, that, there. When you sense “that, there”, and begin to describe it and relate to it, you start to get relief as your thoughts become embodied.
You can try this now. Notice your thoughts. Then invite in your body the whole felt sense of the thoughts. Wait for 30 seconds or more. See if something fresh, new, and a bit odd comes. Or try this the other way around: start by noticing how you are feeling, then invite the sense of something that is causing you to feel that way.
Isn’t that a relief to know you don’t have to calm your thoughts or get rid of them? Instead, you simply invite the felt sense that comes with the thoughts. This creates a link between your thoughts and your body. Instead of trying to calm your thoughts or get rid of them, you simply invite the embodied feeling of the thoughts. And then, miraculously, where there was stressful rumination and repetition, you will get an inner shift.
We need our thoughts, and we need our embodied experience. Like the black-eyed susans, the rain clouds, and the sun, our thoughts and our bodies are interlinked in an infinite loop. Whenever we attend the felt sense, we facilitate this infinite loop between bodily experiencing and thought. Our thought “planes” can land, and we feel at peace.
Staying with a felt sense takes practice…
In his Three Assertions article, Gendlin explained why:
Most people don’t know to turn their attention to their bodies so that these experiences could form and come as a felt sense. Or, sometimes they do become a distinct felt sense, but not because the person deliberately lets it come. Such experiences are, therefore, spread out along a continuum from being hardly noticed all the way to coming as a felt sense.
Focusing 1 for Sensitive People starts Sept 12
Last day to register: Friday, Sept 6
Are you ready to experience felt sensing and to find out how it can release you from the shame of being “too sensitive” or believing that you “think too much”? There’s still time to join us for Focusing 1 for Sensitive People. The course meets on Zoom videoconference for two hours on 6 Thursdays starting Sept 12, 3 PM to 5 PM EST. Click here for full course details and to register.
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