Calm

Understanding the Reasons for Obsessive Thinking

Painting by Van Gogh of a crows flying over a wheatfield at dusk.

For some of us, today like every day, will mean another case of immersing ourselves, from the moment we wake up, in a by-now very familiar set of painful thoughts. We will dwell – once again – on how awful we look and more particularly, on how our nose is repulsively proportioned relative to the rest of our face. We will think – once again – of a website we inadvertently visited twelve years ago and how the police might be preparing to close in on, and arrest, us. We will think – once again – of how several of our neighbours (especially the people upstairs) might be colluding to ruin and disgrace us. Or we will think – once again – of something we said to a colleague which we fear they misconstrued and which may well lead them to seek disciplinary action against us at any moment.

Painting by Van Gogh of a crows flying over a wheatfield at dusk.
Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, 1890

These thoughts may ostensibly be about a variety of topics but beneath the surface, they have two key features in common: they are about something appalling we feel we are or have done. Or they are about something appalling we fear that others are about to do to us. We are the victims of one of the cruellest and most remorseless of all mental afflictions: obsessive thinking.

Crucially, obsessive thinking is not – despite the linguistic proximity – to be confused with thinking per se. It certainly looks, on the surface, as though the obsessive thinker is thinking a lot. All day, they might be drawing up dense charts and jotting down intricate matters in a notebook. They might want to leave a party early or escape family life in order to go to their room to ‘think.’ They might have become near world experts in plastic surgery or police surveillance techniques or an area of employment law. They would be able to tell you everything about tracking devices, post operative skin treatments and the minute by minute developments in a specific aspect of the media agenda.  

Their cogitation may be extreme but we may still want to resist calling any of this thinking. As obsessive thinkers, we are not making progress though anything of note, we’re not advancing through a dilemma; we’re not clearing up a priority. We are thinking in order not to think. By which is meant, we are using one kind of thought to ward off another. We are employing obsessive thinking as a defence against thinking more laterally and emotionally about who we are and what has happened to us; against knowing ourselves properly.

To try to break the agonising loops in our minds, we might try to ask ourselves a deceptively simple-sounding question: if we could not think about our chosen topic, if we were to be debarred from returning to our favoured theme, what might we think about? What other thoughts might lie behind or to the side of our entrenched ritualised preoccupations?

Our minds are unlikely to yield a neat answer. But we can hazard a generalisation: if we could not think about our obsessive topic, we would most likely to need in one way or another to feel intensely, overwhelmingly sad, lonely, desperate or bereft. Behind the monomaniacal thoughts about cameras or data packets or legal processes or social media, there is almost always an extremely frightened, isolated, unloved child who long ago could not bear to inhabit their own experience. Obsessive patterns of thinking have gripped themselves remorselessly to the walls of the mind in order to prevent a tragic re-encounter with an early, highly vulnerable and hurt version of oneself.

In a bid for relief, we should dare – for once – to risk not returning to our usual themes and instead, while conceding that this is what we might be doing, to stop running. We should pause where we are and leave our secondary thoughts time to catch up with us. We should put down our fixations and let the waves of our background grief and fear wash over us. However tightly we have associated our problems with our favoured topic of scrutiny, there has almost certainly long been something bigger, older and more tragic that we have been unable to look at: that we were maltreated by a caregiver, that our parents chronically preferred a sibling to us, that a father humiliated us repeatedly to overcome his shame at his own sexual abuse.

We have at an unconscious level made a desperate choice to think ill of ourselves or to worry about plots against us in order to impose a degree of logic on an otherwise impossibly confounding early experience of neglect or betrayal: to an indigestible experience of untrustworthiness, to a failure of love.

Our minds may gradually have an opportunity to grow less consumed by obsessive thoughts the more we can interpret our preoccupations as symptoms of other concerns we are in flight from; the more we can give up our feelings of persecution, unacceptability and guilt in favour of a sadder, slower older truth about ourselves: that we were very badly let down indeed.