The way I see it:

We all have them. Those intrusive thoughts, which by definition are guaranteed to be mostly negative. Those unwanted, uncomfortable, and unexpected guests that pop up in your head on their own will have the devastating power of screwing almost everything that is really going on at the moment. They show up, and it can be it. They can really ruin your day.

But it doesn't have to be like that. The first thing to keep in mind—forgive the redundancy—is that just because they suddenly appear in your head doesn't mean they are true. They are there, running around, but they do not necessarily mean anything.

When it gets really complicated, is when what is called Cognitive Fusion happens. When you identify yourself with that thought and you assume you are it. That thought is not only not true (which isn't), but it's not you (which is not either). 

The whole point here is not to try to stop them or run away from them, as that will precisely fuel their intrusiveness and intensity. Do not struggle with their annoying visit. On the contrary, acknowledge their appearance, but immediately after that, detach yourself from them. The first step is to stop trying not to think about them but to accept them without judgement.

Second big rule, defuse them. You are thinking that thought, but you aren't it. It's not that "I am insecure", but rather, "I am thinking that I am insecure, right now". And that's a whole new story. If you can detach yourself from what the thought is telling you, you are on the way out.

¿How the hell do we do that? After accepting that they just showed up without questioning why, and, after recognizing they aren't necessarily true, that they aren't necessarily you, you need to ground yourself to the here and now. Turn your attention back to the world and leave that uncomfortable thought dancing alone in your head. It will ultimately get bored.

If that resonates with you, keep reading the masterly detailed instructions manual that Eric Barker has put down for you with this article.

Compilation:

In the theater of the mind, unwanted thoughts are the hecklers in the back row, throwing popcorn at the screen of your consciousness. Your brain, that squishy blob sitting in its dark skull-room is like those old jukeboxes in dive bars that play the same three songs on a loop. Except instead of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” it’s “What if everyone’s secretly laughing at you?”

We’ve all had intrusive thoughts at one time or another: impostor syndrome, embarrassing memories, fears, anxieties, guilt, regret or the kind of existential questions that would make Sartre say, “Whoa, that’s a bit much.”

Your gray matter acts like an annoying younger sibling, poking you with a stick to see how much it can get away with before you snap. Why the heck can’t your brain be this creative, persistent and resourceful when it comes to other projects? And the worst part is these thoughts can lead to impulsive, bad decisions and regrettable behavior.

The advice we get for dealing with the issue is priceless. “Just don’t think about it,” they say. That’s like telling someone on fire to stop being so flammable.

Okay, time to end the self-induced torture and do a U-turn on this roundabout of ruminations. If your head is a bad neighborhood you can’t move out of, mindfulness can help.

We’re going to get solid insight from three books: “Pure O”, “The Unwanted Thoughts and Intense Emotions Workbook”, and “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts.”

Okay, let’s get to it…

 

Why Won’t The Thoughts Stop?

We all live under the grand illusion that we’re the CEOs of our brains. We aren’t. Thoughts just pop up without permission. Most of them are unremarkable. But then one gets under your skin, and suddenly you’re berating yourself for thinking “bad” things, as if you had any say in the matter. It’s like getting mad at your heart for beating.

The first thing to remember is just because it’s in your head doesn’t mean it’s true. You have all kinds of odd thoughts that you immediately dismiss. Our brains are like seedy dive bars at 2 a.m.—anything can wander in, no ID required. A thought is not necessarily a fact or even a statement about your character. Thoughts don’t necessarily mean anything. Often, they’re the mental equivalent of butt dials.

It’s not really the content of the thought that matters; it’s your relationship to the thought and your response to it that makes all the difference. “Cognitive fusion” is when you take random thoughts too seriously. Basically, you become so buddy-buddy with your thoughts that you can’t tell where they end and you begin. But just because your brain is serving up a buffet of existential dread and cringe-worthy memories doesn’t mean you have to eat it. But oh, we do. At times, we treat every bizarre, random, and utterly ludicrous thought as if it’s a dire message from the depths of our soul.

“What you resist tends to persist.” A thought annoys you. You wrestle with it to make it go away but the message your brain gets is “Hmm, lots of activity. This must be important.” You tell yourself, “Don’t think about it,” and your brain responds, “Don’t think about what? This thing? Got it. I’ll think about it a lot.” The more you try to suppress a thought, the more it comes back, like a boomerang with a vendetta.

“An obsession is simply a thought that you’re not willing to have.” If you’re not struggling with something, your short attention span kicks in and soon you’re considering something else. But when you’re not willing to have a thought, the mental wrestling match begins. It happens in many forms: You try to answer a question the thought poses. You try to push the thought out of your mind. You try to figure out what the thought “means.” You ask why the thought is popping up. All these actions might seem innocuous or even productive but they all have the effect of supergluing that annoying idea onto your consciousness.

By obsessing over them, analyzing them, and giving them the starring role in our mental drama, we turn these fleeting blips into blockbuster franchises. Your brain is now like a movie director who can only make sequels to disaster movies. Yeesh.

So your brain decides to throw a thought parade in honor of your deepest fears and insecurities. It’s a sourdough starter of anxiety. What should you do first?

 

Label

The first and most important step is to actively notice that the thoughts are occurring. Instead of falling into the usual trap of wrestling with “Random Memory of That Embarrassing Thing You Did in 2007”, you need to pause and realize there’s something you can do.

Give it a label: Oh, it’s the “impostor syndrome symphony” playing again.

Sounds simple but it’s quite powerful. UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman has found that mere labeling can dampen negative emotions. That tiny shift from “I am sad” to “I’m feeling sadness” is a reminder that those thoughts are not you, they are not true, I do not like green eggs and ham.

The thoughts are still there but labeling gives you a bit of sweet, sweet distance. Now you can start to look at the emotions instead of through them. It’s like watching a horror movie and realizing the monster is just a guy in a rubber suit. Your brain’s like, “Boo!” and you’re like, “Yeah, I can see your sneakers under the ghost costume, Kevin.”

The goal is to get to a place where you’re acknowledging the thoughts with the emotional detachment of someone noticing it’s raining outside while they’re comfortably indoors. You’re not in the rain; you’re just watching it.

Labeling should turn down the volume a bit. At least enough to take the next step…

 

Letting Go

Don’t struggle with them or get caught in the other traps of wondering why this is happening or what it might say about you. Just accept their presence. Acceptance here does not mean believing the thoughts, it just means allowing them to be there. Don’t fight them…

…which is about as comfortable as sitting in a bathtub full of eels.

It’s counterintuitive. Our brains are wired to solve problems, not to sit idly by while they do the Macarena in front of us. But struggling is what keeps the thoughts around, feeding them like gremlins after midnight.

It’s like an unskippable ad before a YouTube video, selling products from the “All My Friends Hate Me” corporation. It’s playing, but you don’t need to pay attention to it.

Remember, intrusive thoughts are not commands; they’re not prophecies; they’re not even particularly good suggestions. If you just sit there, acknowledging their presence without engaging, they start to lose their power. They’re like internet trolls; they thrive on your reactions.

This works. Not in a “Poof — your mind is a Zen garden” way, but more like a “Hey, maybe I don’t need to attend every argument I’m invited to in my head” way. It’s a slow realization, like noticing you’re getting old when you start agreeing with the parents in teen movies.

The key thing to keep in mind is that the goal isn’t to rid yourself of the thoughts – that just creates more struggle. They’re still going to be there for now. You just want to shift your relationship to them. Getting some distance and realizing you don’t need to react.

You’ve ceased struggling and you’re not sinking deeper into the mental quicksand. But how do we get out of here?

 

“Defuse”

Cognitive fusion is when you think the thoughts are you. Defusion is when we separate from them and realize they’re just mental static to be ignored. How do we do it?

When the thought “I’m going to fail” pops up, restate it as “I’m having the thought that I am going to fail.” This framing can work for any intrusive notion. It helps to increase that distance so you can observe your thoughts without judgment. The thought is just something your brain burped up, not an edict, truth, or prediction.

With practice, the thoughts become less like terrifying monsters and more like those inflatable wavy-arm tube men you see at car dealerships—frantic, yes, but ultimately harmless and kind of ridiculous.

Okay, you have some distance. The demon thought is trapped inside the pentagram. What now?

 

Be Mindful

Actually, I hate that term. It’s vague and misunderstood. Point is: turn your attention back to the world. The thoughts are not the headline act; they’re the weird street performers everyone tries not to make eye contact with. Get grounded in life, not in your head.

No, this isn’t always easy. You think you have to distract yourself. You brain asks, “From what?” And you reply, “From the idea that I’m not good enough.” And you’re caught again.

The solution is to get curious about the world around you. And if the world isn’t all that stimulating right now turn your attention to your body, your physical state. Because if you’re paying attention to your body, you’re not obsessing about those thoughts. This is why meditation and therapists tell you to notice your breathing.

When it’s working, you won’t immediately notice. That’s the goal. Now you’re thinking about lunch or what you need to do next. And if you’re thinking about that, you’re not dwelling on those mental intruders.

With time, your mind becomes slightly less of a circus and more of a quiet, boring town council meeting. And that, my friend, is the goal.

Maybe the thought has receded and you can focus on the world. But it’s still at the edge of consciousness. The most dangerous part about intrusive thoughts is they can drive us to bad behaviors to address the concerns they’re shouting about.

Here’s how we make sure you don’t do anything silly…

 

Act On Your Values

Time to get back to life. Problem is, thoughts just love to masquerade as values: “Oh, you value safety, do you? Well, it would be really unsafe not to check that stove again, wouldn’t it?” They’re like con artists, trying to trick you into thinking they’ve got your best interests at heart. “Trust me, I’m a thought. I know what I’m talking about.”

Now that you’ve stepped outside of your head and rejoined the world, connect with your immediate purpose and act on your values. What’s important that’s in front of you? Where do you want to go and what do you need to do to get there?

Let that sweep you up. With time, you’ll realize that maybe, just maybe, you’re not just a hostage to your own head. Maybe you’re the hero of this ridiculous, terrifying, and strangely beautiful story.

Okay, time to round it all up and learn what it takes to make this smooth and easy…

 

Sum Up

Here’s how to deal with intrusive thoughts…

  • Why Won’t The Thoughts Stop?: It’s akin to having a parrot on your shoulder with a vocabulary consisting solely of your deepest, darkest fears. But you are not your thoughts and they’re not even necessarily true. You need mental distance; just notice them without judgment.
  • Label: Don’t treat a random brain burp like it’s a sacred text. Give it a label: Oh, it’s the “impostor syndrome symphony” again.
  • Let go: Don’t debate, explore or respond to it. It’s not a discussion partner; it’s a clown in a dark alley offering free hugs. Do not engage.
  • Defuse: Shift from “I’m no good” to “I’m having the thought that I’m no good.” Treat it like that weird uncle at family gatherings—you acknowledge their presence, but you don’t engage in a deep conversation about lizard people ruling the world.
  • Be Mindful: This can be hard. It’s like, “I’m just going to focus on this lovely tree while inside my head there’s a mosh pit of existential dread.” But while you’re caught in your head you’re missing out on life. Turn your attention back to the world.
  • Act On Your Values: That screaming fire alarm in your skull is just a drill. Don’t obey it and run for the exits. Instead, do what makes your life better.

This is a skill to be developed with practice. So practice. Reading this blog post once isn’t going to help much more than skimming a martial arts book is going to turn you into Bruce Lee.

But when you start to build the habit, those thoughts will move much more quickly into the emotional recycling bin. With time, your brain will handle these thoughts like the world’s most bored security guard, watching the same odd characters shuffle past your desk day after day.

And then you win. You’ve faced down the firing squad of your own mind. How liberating is it to act without being puppeteered by intrusive thoughts? It’s like you’ve been doing the world’s worst marionette act, and you’ve just cut the strings. No longer are you bound by the invisible threads of “Everyone Is Judging You” and “What If You Accidentally Say Something Awful?”

It’s about learning to listen to its nonsense, giving it a pat on the head, and then telling it to go play outside while you get on with the business of living.

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