Thoughts as leaves on a stream is a popular metaphor used in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to represent noticing thoughts and letting them pass by without attaching to them. I like this metaphor, since it’s not about fighting the thoughts or trying to make them go away, but just riding them out.
I got thinking about recently this after reading a post by Meg at Why does bad advice happen to good people? A person had written a letter to an advice columnist about the same-sex fantasies she’d been having while in a heterosexual marriage, and she was distressed because she didn’t think she should be having these thoughts yet she couldn’t control them. She was trying her hardest to fight the thoughts, and it just seemed to make the thoughts more intrusive and make her feel worse.
I know there are certainly times when I try to fight thoughts. Sometimes it’s by ruminating and trying to think my way out of them, and other times it’s by trying to shove them into a box in the corner where, like Pandora’s box, they’ll stay hidden away until something prompts them to suddenly get released back out into consciousness to wreak havoc.
Building on the leaves on a stream metaphor, maybe sometimes are minds are overly eager beavers and instead of letting the leaves float by, they start making a dam to try to keep them away. The thoughts get caught up in the dam rather than being able to float by. When we try to fight the thoughts, our beaver mind thinks it’s going to be helpful and strengthen the dam, but that just makes the situation worse by getting those thoughts even more entangled.
I think the biggest dam getting in the way in my mind is an amplification of the brain’s natural negativity bias. We’re hardwired to be on the alert for danger, but after accumulating a lot of negative experiences in recent years my beaver brain has tried to shore up some extra protection. What that means, though, is that thoughts related to transient, minor safety threats get caught up in my head and stick around far longer than they should. Even if my beaver brain thinks that’s keeping me safer, it’s really just making me feel worse.
Do you try to let thoughts float by, or are you a dam builder?