Can We Control What We Think? Wild Thoughts and What to Do with Them

Zen rock garden with raked-over gravel “I know I shouldn’t think this, but …”

“This is going to sound completely crazy, but …”

“I hate myself for feeling this way, but …”

Wouldn’t it be great if we had only thoughts and feelings that we liked and wanted and could simply eliminate the rest? I would just love it if every thought or feeling that entered my mind fell within my definition of rational, normal, and good. What a victory that would be—the psychological perfection I have always longed for.

I don’t think I’m alone in wishing my mind was like a placid temple garden, a place where only soothing, constructive, politically correct, and sensible thoughts showed up. Many people come to my therapy office with presenting problems like, “I don’t want to think about _______ anymore,” or, “I want to stop having these ________ thoughts.” These apparently reasonable goals can sometimes hide a secret goal of self-perfection: “I want to purify my mind of the things I judge as irrational, bad, or sick.” We want our wild thoughts out and our “sane,” civilized, “good” thoughts to rule. And there is nothing wrong with wishing for that.

When we chase this ideal and try to make it a reality, though, we chase an impossible fantasy of unattainably perfect control; we forget that though we appear to be highly civilized animals, we are still animals, with automatic, uncontrollable aspects to our brains and nervous systems. We forget that though we are now physically adults, we were once children, and we carry a legacy of childlike thoughts, feelings, and experiences that we can never fully outgrow or forget.

Sadly, sometimes we task ourselves with the impossible: gain total control of a brain that relies almost entirely on non-conscious, automatic, non-controlled processing. When we take up this task, and when we ask our therapists to join us in this task, what can happen to us and our therapy? Can we learn to live with a mind that can produce both rational and “wild” thoughts? Do we have a choice?

Understanding Omnipotent Control

When we hold the expectation that we can or should perfectly control our thoughts through sheer effort and self-policing, we are striving toward what psychodynamic therapists have called “omnipotent control” (see, for example, Kernberg, 1975). We use the term omnipotent, meaning all-powerful, to suggest that in omnipotent control we strive for a degree of control that is beyond the realm of human powers and abilities. When striving for omnipotent control, we deny our human limitations and pressure ourselves (or others) to control the uncontrollable, in this case our wild thoughts. We try to use effort, often in the form of self-shaming, to purify ourselves of any “out-of-control” parts, something that no amount of effort can achieve.

In therapy, omnipotent control tactics can manifest in ways like these:

“How do I stop caring about my ex?” (Here, the person in therapy tries to engage the therapist in the task of achieving omnipotent control over feelings. Another way to read this is, “How can I transform the reality of what I do feel into my fantasy of what I think I should feel?”)

“There I go again attacking myself! I should know better by now!” (Translation: “I should be perfectly in control of my mind by now! I’m mad at myself for not having achieved my fantasy of omnipotent control.”)

“I couldn’t handle that our relationship was over, so I lashed out at him.” (Translation: “I’m having trouble accepting that some pain in life is out of my control, so I take omnipotent control of the pain by becoming the one who gives it.”)

As you can see in these examples, for some reason, some of us, maybe even all of us, sometimes, will ask ourselves to do the impossible, and we will burden our therapy with an impossible task: “Give me omnipotent control! I want to control what no one controls!

Suffering Under Impossible Demands

Naturally, it can be tempting to burden ourselves with this desire for omnipotent control—it does sound pleasant to always be in control of our minds—but the results of this pressure can be depressing because when we give ourselves an impossible task, we always fail.

For those of us who haven’t accepted that omnipotent control is impossible, we may get depressed when our wild thoughts or uncontrolled feelings visit us—we may feel like failures rather than appreciate yet another reminder that we are humans, with human limitations. Paradoxically, we preconceive that perfect control over our minds will help us feel better, but when we show up as human instead of perfect, we learn that pressuring ourselves toward superhumanness can only make us feel worse.

When we impose the demand for perfect control of our thoughts and feelings upon ourselves, we inevitably will hurt ourselves because we will always be asking ourselves to do the impossible. However, knowing this does not always stop us from trying. So why is omnipotent control such a compelling fantasy?

Reality Bites Sometimes

Let’s face it: human reality is distinctly lacking in control. Whereas other species are born with the ability to motor around and do some things from the first moment of life, human babies are helpless; we have almost no control and authority until relatively late in our development. If we’re lucky in our development, we have experiences where we feel in control, even though for the most part those experiences are created for us by caregivers. Those of us who are lucky are slowly disillusioned and come to understand our limited capacity for control over time. Others suffer an abrupt, early, and often traumatic lesson—“You’re not in control of very much at all.”

When we try to reject our wild thoughts and feelings rather than accept them, we miss out on an opportunity to understand their meaning. In this way, rejecting our wild thoughts and feelings limits the effectiveness of therapy—whatever we try to get rid of by omnipotent control, we will not learn from.

Regardless of our upbringing, as we grow up we are required to face and learn about all the things we don’t control. We learn we can’t control how others think or act; we can’t control when we will die or whether we will get sick; we can’t control when the people we love will die; we can’t control the historical, political, or economic climate we are born into. With so much out of our control, no wonder we want to at least be able to control our minds!

The bad news is our minds are yet another thing we have an unfortunately small amount of control over. Sigmund Freud got a bad reputation for asserting as much—that our mind is “just like an iceberg, with 1/7 of its bulk above water,” meaning we can only see and control a small part of our minds. Although many of us do not want to believe Freud’s dictum, contemporary cognitive and affective neuroscience supports this claim with empirical evidence (e.g., Ledoux, 1996).

If you think this aspect of reality bites, I am with you. It is not fair. We did not ask to be born into this set of rules and limitations. But alas, here we are, and so it is understandable that sometimes we will pressure ourselves toward omnipotent control as an attempt to create a sense of stability and power, even if it’s only an illusion.

So I Can’t Control My Thoughts at All?

It may sound like I am encouraging hopelessness about gaining control of our wild, unwanted thoughts and feelings. Some may even wonder, “Are you saying therapy is hopeless?” In a certain way, I am. I am saying that if our therapy goal is perfect, total, omnipotent control over our minds, then yes, the therapy is hopeless—for this is a goal that, as far as I know, no human can hope to achieve. I am writing this to encourage realistic hopelessness about this realistically impossible goal.

That does not mean, however, that gaining some control over our minds is impossible. We all have mental processes that we control. However, we have to accept that we will never have total control, and that there is no magic, instantaneous technique for achieving control. That is simply not possible for the human mind. So what can we hope to gain control of? What can we get out of therapy if we give up on the goal of perfect, omnipotent control?

Can I Accept What I Cannot Control?

Ultimately, we can control what we can control, and we can’t control what we can’t control. That will always be the case. The challenge of therapy (and life), then, is can we accept that? Can we accept our inner paradoxes: we have some control and some lack of control; some rational thoughts and some incomprehensible, wild ones; some love and some hate inside; some goodness and some badness? Can we accept the thoughts and feelings that show up—the ones we didn’t ask for, the ones we didn’t expect, that we did not initiate?

When we strive for omnipotent control over our wild thoughts, we are unintentionally trying to reject and eject our humanity, our complexity, our mysteriousness, the paradoxical elements of human nature. Though we are attempting a kind of therapy on ourselves—“Get rid of the bad stuff”—we are also repeatedly harming ourselves, trying to cut off built-in parts of us that are most likely there for a reason. When we try to reject our wild thoughts and feelings rather than accept them, we miss out on an opportunity to understand their meaning. In this way, rejecting our wild thoughts and feelings limits the effectiveness of therapy—whatever we try to get rid of by omnipotent control, we will not learn from.

We all have a right to go on trying to control what we can’t control, what no one controls. Some of us may need to keep at that strategy for a long time before we’re ready to try anything different. That’s okay. When we’re ready, though, we can pick up the challenge: “Can I accept these wild thoughts?” From there, we can begin the immense journey of letting go of our fantasies of perfection and control, and begin to embrace ourselves as we are, wild thoughts and all.

References:

  1. Kernberg, O. F. (1975). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. New York, NY: Aronson.
  2. LeDoux, J. E. (1996). The emotional brain. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Maury Joseph, PsyD, therapist in Washington, District of Columbia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 2 comments
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  • Elizabeth W

    Elizabeth W

    March 21st, 2018 at 6:33 AM

    Thanks for the marvelous posting! I genuinely enjoyed reading it, you will be a great author. I will make certain to bookmark your blog and will eventually come back later on. I want to encourage one to continue your great job, have a nice holiday weekend!

  • Jenn

    Jenn

    March 23rd, 2018 at 6:12 PM

    Really interesting, thanks for writing! It highlights my recent intention to try to reframe my automatic judgement of feelings and emotions as good or bad. When something is bad or wrong I then want to control it/change it/get rid of it.

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