When psychotherapist Nancy Colier decided to write a book about addiction to thinking, people told her the premise was absurd. One person called it “ridiculous.” Another said, “Nothing is possible without thinking!” A friend asked mockingly, “So then, I should face a blank wall and hum Om for the rest of my life? Life is short … I want to be in it!”
It was, Colier writes, as if people thought thinking was life.
“Can’t Stop Thinking: How to Let Go of Anxiety and Free Yourself from Obsessive Rumination” (New Harbinger Publications, 160 pp.) isn’t an anti-thinking book, she said, but an effort to help people liberate themselves from the obsessive rumination, catastrophizing and negative self-thoughts that have plagued many of her clients over her 25 years in practice.
“The idea of separating or creating a little distance from the thoughts happening in our minds is so disturbing to our fundamental identity and how we’re conditioned and everything we know,” she said. “The book is not meant to abandon thinking. We couldn’t, we wouldn’t want to. It’s delicious. It’s delightful. It gets the grocery list done, but it’s loosening the identification that we are our thoughts. That’s what brings the suffering.”
USA TODAY spoke with Colier about her new book and how people can take control of their thinking rather than be ruled by it.
Question: You tell the reader repeatedly, “You are not your thoughts.” If you are not your thoughts, who are you?
Nancy Colier: It gets interesting because we’re out of the contents of my brilliant or my terrible thoughts. So who’s listening to the thoughts? … What is this awareness within which the thoughts are firing? We start to notice the gaps, notice the silences, when thought is not grabbing us, when we’re not attending to thought. And that silence starts having a sound of its own. It starts being a place, a destination. Initially we’re terrified. The mind jumps back in and goes, “Oh, where’d I go, where’d I go, where’d I go? I am my thinking, so if I’m not thinking, I don’t exist.”
But with practice, we start to get to know the gaps, the spaces between thought, more intimately and with less fear. And then what happens over time is that place of being the witness to thought, that which can move towards thoughts or move away from thoughts, that becomes me. That becomes who we are. And that’s the profound shift when we’re no longer fully identified with thoughts and we are this space that can also determine what’s good for me, where do I want to move? And where do I not want to move? And thought is just moving through, but the space within which it moves is this sort of eternal presence.
Q: You say you were convinced that the major cause of your suffering came from your own mind. But what about people who are repeatedly hurt or wronged, whose causes of suffering are external? Is this book applicable to people who are, for example, being systematically oppressed?
Colier: Suffering is not all imaginary in our minds. And I would say these two things can go on simultaneously, that we address the very real terrible things that are happening in our society at large, in our lives, and we can be mindful at the same time, asking, “Where are we creating more suffering inside our mind with it?” They go on together.
If I have done everything I can for today with making something happen for change, do I need to come home and replay the horror over and over and over and over again as some sort of way I’m continuing to help, some sort of fantasy that I owe that to the situation that’s happening? These are where our thoughts start to create suffering about the real injustices that are happening.
Q: You write that self-help is solving the wrong problem, particularly as it tries to change bad thoughts into good thoughts. Can you explain that?
Colier: As long as we’re still believing that our wellbeing is reliant upon the content of our thoughts, we’re still imprisoned. We’re still stuck.
What I’m trying to do is move the dial a little bit further, which is to say … your happiness, your wellbeing, your peace ultimately is not dependent upon how your thoughts are framing something. That’s when we start to meet real freedom. Of course we prefer to have happy thoughts moving through. There’s no question, but what would it mean if our real wellbeing didn’t rely on that? Then every time a negative thought got through, we wouldn’t be, “Ah, now my mood has to be negative.” That offers real liberation.
Q: Is the goal then not to replace self-hating with positive thoughts, but to stop believing them?
Colier: The reason I say we don’t just replace them with great thoughts is because when things get hard, that doesn’t work. It’s like putting a hat on dirty hair.
Q: You write about how people spend a lot of time revisiting their hurt, especially when they didn’t get the empathy they needed at the time of the wounding. Can you explain the difference between showing yourself empathy and revisiting something painful in a way that’s to our detriment?
Colier: It’s so tricky with pain because pain for a lot of people is a fundamental home. We’re so identified with our pain. It’s like, I can separate from anything, but don’t make me separate from the things that have really hurt me because those things are fundamentally me. That feels like we’re abandoning our own pain. That feels … almost unkind to ourselves.
At some point, continually paying attention and revisiting and rehashing our pain… starts to create more pain. It starts to just recreate this suffering. And sometimes it’s so counterintuitive, but it’s the moving away from it and saying, “Can I let myself be in this moment now without having to carry that pain into it?” … We can, and I don’t use the phrase “Let it go,” because we never let go of something that’s become part of us. But we don’t have to keep reminding ourselves of it for it to be part of us.
Q: There’s an exercise in the book where you suggest people show up for a day without a story. What do you hope people will discover when they do this?
Colier: We come into every moment with this idea of ourselves. It’s about what we’ve lived, it’s about our past, it’s what we think we’re capable of, the whole gigantic suitcase that is me. I encourage people to imagine, what if you just landed here from another planet or you just materialized in this moment. There’s no you, there’s no way you do things. … And then when we really play with it, we meet the moment freshly.
If we can drop that story of me, it’s like going swimming without a wetsuit. It’s like diving into life. And then we have an experience of what’s happening that is not completely corrupted by this identity that already imagines everything in relation to it, which is made up of memories, conditioning, thoughts, ideas, all of that. … Often, we’re not anything like the person we keep telling ourselves we are.
Q: If the reader takes one thing away from your book, what should it be?
Colier: Sometimes less thinking actually takes us to peace. That figuring it out may not be what ends your suffering. That thought may not be the panacea to what ails us.