Uncontrollable Thoughts

This is a fairly long, introspective post, and I don’t mind if you skip it 🙂 I’m hoping I won’t panic in the middle of the night (although apparently it is the middle of the night) and delete it, too…

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about different kinds of thoughts recently, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a language problem when trying to discuss them. There needs to be a way of differentiating between ‘thoughts that just come into your head’ and ‘thoughts that arise after consideration’. Take the following example: when I see somebody who looks middle-eastern, with a beard, the word ‘terrorist’ will pop into my head. This isn’t something I want to associate with what I’m seeing, and it is not something that I ‘think’ in any conscious way, but it’s what arrives in my mind and there’s nothing I can do about it. I obviously do not consider all bearded people who look middle-eastern to be terrorists, and at the same time there’ll be ‘thoughts’ indicating this, but nevertheless the concept of a terrorist is an immediate reaction.

However, if I say ‘I saw that guy and thought he was a terrorist’ then I sound like a horrible person, so I think there needs to be another word. Maybe there is, and I just don’t know it, or perhaps foreign languages have something appropriate. It’s not correct usage, but I’m going to use the german word gedanke (plural gedanken) to refer to these ‘thoughts that just come into your head’.

Having read a couple of popular explanations of evolutionary psychology, I think it’s the case that gedanken are simply the result of associations in the storage structure in the brain. This structure allows the word ‘red’ to cause gedanken of ‘communism’, ‘apples’ and ‘Adair’, despite these three concepts having no other link. The subconscious is continually processing the environment, and will feed information to the conscious mind, and that’s all there is to it.

Why do I bring this up? Because I don’t think I ever really figured this out before, and I have a suspicion everybody else did in their mid-teens. I’ve always been a worrier, but there’ve been phases during the last five years where it’s been extreme. I’ve latched onto something and the worry has consumed me to the extent that I’ve become physically ill. After a particularly bad phase, a couple of years ago now, I managed to wrench myself out of it by sheer force of will. I never really figured out why I was worrying, though, I just figured out a way to prevent myself dwelling. Looking back now, however, I can see that the worries were mostly linked to supposed guilt. My lack of self-confidence had morphed into a sense of ‘I’m a bad person’ over the years and eventually I started with the aforementioned obsessive worrying. Sometimes I would find some insignificant little event (from any point in my life) during which I offended somebody, or lied, or made a mistake, and I’d feel guilty. It was more evidence for the ‘I’m a terrible person’ box. More often, though, I think that the worry and guilt came from gedanken.

A mild example would be something like this: my neighbour downstairs always leaves cash outside her door for the milkman, and if I arrive home fairly late there are sometimes £10 notes sitting there. When I see them, there’s a gedanke that says ‘I could steal that’. It’s not that I want to, nor that I have any intention of doing so, it’s simply that the gedanke is there. That’s fairly innocuous, but it’s the kind of thing I’d pick up on.

A particularly bad time was when I used to worry myself sick if I ever saw a man and there was a gedanke saying ‘that guy’s attractive’. Did that mean I was repressing gay tendencies? I could spin intricate webs of how I must be repressing the notion without realising it. It wasn’t the possibility of being gay so much as that I’d clearly been lying to myself and everybody around me for years. When this kind of worry is floating around your brain and you find yourself, say, wanting to give another guy a hug for whatever reason, this is more proof! Every little thing becomes an indication of made-up ‘suppressed feelings’. These kind of thoughts can result in horrible late-night guilt trips, and it all stems from gedanken.

These may all sound stupid written down, but at the time it was utterly horrendous. When you think you’re a terrible person it’s not something you want to talk to people about, as then they’ll know and hate you…I didn’t really understand that gedanken were not and could not be meaningful on their own. If the gedanke of stealing money isn’t actually coupled with any desire to do so, then what’s the problem? It’s simply an observation. A gedanke saying ‘that guy is attractive’ means nothing unless there’s actually some romantic or sexual desire to go with it, which there wasn’t (this latter reasoning may have occurred at the time, but my explanation was an apparently superhuman ability to repress such feelings). The reasoning may well come from experience of what women find attractive, or maybe it’s entirely possible to judge somebody’s physical appearance regardless of sexuality – who knows. Whatever the case, I think it was a major problem for me that I never really understood that gedanken were simply reflexes of association, and not meaningful without some emotional or logical accompaniment.

As a matter of interest, this train of thought was sparked off by an incident yesterday. I attended a ball on Saturday evening, during which there was a demonstration of Latin dancing. At one point the female dancer moved to within half a metre of me, and swayed, shimmied and looked sultry for maybe ten seconds, while wearing a dress that barely covered her very grown-up figure. So what? Well, although you’d never have guessed it, she was 14. It was uncomfortable enough for me, but she was staring at the guy on my left and I heard him remark afterwards that he felt like he should be in prison. In that situation the gedanken are obviously going to be sexual in nature. It’s just unreasonable to expect otherwise, in my view. Yet the whole time the conscious mind is saying ‘she’s 14, this is wrong’. As it happens, the sexual nature didn’t particularly affect me. I wasn’t turned on – although I have to say I wouldn’t automatically condemn anybody who was – I just felt incredibly uncomfortable, and wanted her to move away. It would be extremely easy, however, to panic over the sexual connotations. Without distinguishing between gedanken and normal thoughts, it would be easy to think you’d had sexual thoughts over a 14 year old, which isn’t what happened. The brain simply saw something it associated with sex, and said so.

The above isn’t as clear-cut as the previous examples, since I think the situation is at least somewhat morally ambiguous, but I’m very glad I no longer have those kind of worries, as that would have been bloody awful.

Geez, I hope the above makes sense, and that you don’t all think I’m a total nutjob. It helps to write this all out so I can get it straight in my head, and I think people should talk about this kind of thing anyway. I considered not posting, but if there’s anybody else out there who’s had similar problems then there’s the possibility this may help them slightly. Of course this could all be nonsensical pop-psychology, but it seems to make sense right now.