by Britta Reque-Dragicevic
This first appeared in Britta’s blog, “Life After War” on August 8, 2012, and is republished with the author’s permission.
The only thing in life we ever actually have control over is our perspective. How we think and what we choose to believe. If you struggle with intrusive thoughts, it may feel as if you have no control. They intrude and interrupt at will, as if your mind is disconnected from the rest of you. You feel powerless. So how can I talk about having control?
Before I answer that, one of the things I am here to do is help you explore new perspectives. I present questions and hold open a safe space for your heart to explore, wander, try new thoughts on, and eventually embrace the those that make sense to you. Remember, no one “out there” can give you “answers.” All they can do is guide you to and through the questions and let you discover for yourself new perspectives that reshape your beliefs about life, god, death, fear, security, and purpose. Don’t ever think that just because you feel broken or lost or too far gone to be saved, that you don’t have the innate power within your spirit to embrace new perspectives. You are designed to do this. It’s in your nature.
Why Your Thoughts Matter
You may have never considered this, but all of our life experience is held and exists in our thoughts. Something happens, we encode it in memory – which are thoughts. Our desires begin with thoughts. Our dreams are thoughts. How we feel is based on a thought that precedes or supports it. Often we are not aware of these thoughts because we simply feel the emotion and are used to operating in a way that says “that’s just how I feel.” We assume we don’t have control over our feelings, or how we respond to life and circumstances. And we’re used to placing the responsibility for how we feel outside of ourselves (she makes me feel this way, etc.). Why do we do this?
Because we are not used to examining what it is we are thinking. We’re not used to challenging our beliefs or perceptions. Many of them were absorbed during childhood and originate from other people — we swallow them whole and never stopped to ask if that’s truly what we believe. We absorb, adopt, and accept much of what we think from our environment and those close to us.
And we keep walking in those embedded thoughts until something comes along and wakes us up.
War will wake you up. Pain will wake you up. Loss will wake you up. Feeling broken and adrift will wake you up.
Truth vs Facts
But wait a minute, what happened, happened, right? You can’t change that. You’re right, you can’t change what happened. What happened is a fact. But what you can change is how you perceive what that event means to you. And your perception of what happened is yours to own.
Thoughts are not permanent. And neither are beliefs. A belief is a nothing more than a thought that you continue to think over and over until it feels so natural to you that it feels like truth. It is truth to you only because you choose to accept it as such. When we get new information about something that lends us new insight, we often change how we perceive truth. In this case, you are not waiting for something external to provide new insight, you are shining the new light on it yourself. Truth is not absolute. Truth is accepted beliefs. You can choose not to accept it anymore, not by willing it away, but by determining that it’s not useful to you anymore.
Thoughts Protect & Serve
Thoughts are designed to serve your safety and well-being — no matter how screwed up or painful they may be — as long as they are serving to protect you from further pain, they’ll keep working and you’ll keep believing them. This is why you can’t just will yourself to “let it go” or “get over it” or “stop feeling this way.” Will power does not work here. Why? Because you are still accepting and believing the thoughts that keep you safe. Until you stop believing a thought by recognizing that it no longer serves you, and reach for a better thought to embrace, you won’t be able to let it go. Now, I am NOT saying that letting go of intrusive thoughts is simply a matter of choosing different ones. No. There are biological and energetic shifts that need to happen as well. But don’t let that stop you from having a serious look at what you are thinking behind those thoughts and challenging their assumptions.
What This Process Looks Like
How do you stop believing a thought? You get quiet, stop distracting yourself, step back and really look at what it is you think. You realize that you are safe, you set an intention to be gentle and understanding with yourself and you ask questions. It goes like this:
I don’t like to be around people.
Why? Being around people makes me feel nervous.
Why? Because I might lose control.
What would it mean if I lost control? I might hurt someone.
And what would that mean? That I’m not in control.
And if I’m not in control? I’m not safe.
What would it mean if I’m not safe? I’m weak.
What would that mean to me? I’m not a man.
Who told me that men are not allowed to feel weak? My mom, mostly.I was always supposed to be tough, not cry, man up.And when did I first feel weak and hide it? When my dog died.I was 12.
So when I had a real reason to feel sad and grieving, I didn’t allow myself to show it because it wasn’t acceptable. So, being in control means that I am a man. Losing control means I am weak.
How did this help me in my life so far? Accepting this helped me navigate my mom’s perception about how she defined masculinity – and ultimately, her approval of me. How else has it served me? It has supported me through many tough situations. It is still supporting me today by helping me get through my day without feeling too much pain. It keeps me safe, but alone.
Let’s drill down a bit further.
What does it mean if I’m not approved of by others? I’m not worth loving.
So the essence of your belief about you deserving to be loved manifests itself all the way up through feelings that say “I don’t like to be around people.” It’s like an anchored chain, you follow the links back far enough and you’ll get to that thought that supports it all.
This is just a fictional example – and the thoughts that link backwards will be very different for each person. They don’t always link to your parents or your childhood. They may link to something far more recent. It doesn’t matter when and where you absorbed the thought you’re still thinking and anchoring a feeling on. This isn’t about analyzing your childhood or reliving trauma. This is all about finding out whether or not a thought that keeps you in the feelings you have now still serves your well-being. Thoughts that no longer support you are called “limiting beliefs.”
They limit you from growing, moving, releasing, healing, and enjoying your life to the fullest.
Challenging Limiting Beliefs
To find out if a thought is limiting, you start challenging its assumptions. Not blaming anyone, not judging. In our sample scenario, the questions might be:
This thought tells me I am not loved if others don’t approve of me. How do I know that’s “true”? What do I believe about human worth? Could it be possible that I am loved simply because I exist and because the essence of the Universe is love? What if I believed that I was loved exactly as I am? What if I was loved even when I feel weak? What if feeling weak was a sign that I’m hurting? What if losing control didn’t mean that I hurt someone, but that I let myself hurt and feel the loss? What if losing control means that I cry and crying doesn’t mean that I’m weak, but simply that I’m sad? What if I lost control in a safe way, cried, and actually felt better?
Does the belief (thought) that I’m not acceptable if I show weakness support me in the life I want to have now? As a combat veteran, this belief would keep you isolated, alone in your pain, and make it difficult to express the loss and sadness that you’re carrying inside. It may keep you angry so that you could “remain in control” in an acceptable way. Anger would also keep people at a distance. So the “I don’t like to be around people” is, after all, self-protective.
What would be a more supportive thought?
I am loved exactly as I am.
I am safe even when I feel weak.
I can lose control and not hurt someone.
I can be sad and still be a man.
I can be sad and accepted.
I can be sad and okay.
Again, fictional examples, but the process is the same:
Get quiet, and if possible, write your thoughts/questions/answers down.
Write down what you are feeling. Ask why and how you know it’s true. And why it may not be true.
Write down the thoughts that emerge as the reasons. Keep digging.
If you start to feel a shift in your energy or emotion starts to move through you, breathe, don’t fight it or resist. They are only thoughts. You are safe. Let them flow. This is not about forcing anything. And you always have the choice to stay with your original thinking.
Keep drilling down until you get to that anchoring thought.
Does it still support you?
What if you didn’t believe it anymore?
What better thought could you embrace that would support how you want to feel?
What is great about this kind of exploration is that you remain in control. You decide how fast and how far you drill down to the underlying thoughts-beliefs. You’re not trying to swallow someone else’s beliefs; you’re searching for new ones that fit and support you now. You go at a pace that feels comfortable.
You get to choose.
So, all that said, let’s explore a little bit about intrusive thoughts… what if, instead of being a curse, they were a messenger? What if they were your spirit crying out because it’s in pain and needs you to give yourself some care? What if they carried the seed of freedom and blessing in them? What if (yes, we ask a lot of positive “what ifs”)… underneath the intrusive thoughts were perspectives and beliefs that you DO have control over? And if you gave yourself some space, and felt safe to do so, you could look at these thoughts, see if they still “serve” you, and if they don’t, reach for thoughts that feel better?
At the core of trauma are the feelings of fear for your safety and powerlessness. Everything else layers on top of those two core emotions. When we gently look at our perceptions and beliefs about safety and power, we can start walking toward new thoughts that will make the old ones no longer needed. That’s how you start to take back control.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.