Pour Yourself a Think
“Ashly, you need to get out of your head.”
I stared at my therapist like he was speaking Swahili. Out of my head? Where would I be if I wasn’t in my head? Immediately I conjured up an image of going through life like a zombie, with vacant staring eyes, terrible conversation skills, and absurdly slow reactions.
“I can’t stop thinking,” I blurted out, aghast.
“Because...the building would fall down.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“When I was little, we had a Sesame Street book-on-tape about Big Bird. He is leaning up against a building and people keep coming by and asking for his help and he says he can’t help, he’s holding up the building. They try to convince him that he isn’t holding up the building, but he refuses to believe it. Finally, someone comes by and convinces Big Bird that he isn’t holding up the building. So he steps away and for a few seconds, he’s happy because it looks like the building is fine without him. But then all of a sudden the building collapses. You’re asking me to step away from my building. I’m telling you, it will fall down.”
“So... you’re Big Bird?”
“And the building is?”
“I dunno, safety, security, predictability, peace, the happiness of others.”
“And you are able to maintain all of this ...with your mind?”
“You are some Jedi.”
“I don’t think I’m a Jedi, I just have a very important job to do.”
But I sort of did think I was a Jedi. Not just anyone can take a completely benign compliment from a friend like “I like that color of lipstick on you,” and spend half an hour wondering what that meant for all my other lipstick choices and if red really wasn't my color and has she thought this all along and never told me? Why didn’t she just tell me, Pink lipstick is the only shade you should wear and burn all your other lipsticks because they hate your face. I was proud of my strange thinking skills (sure, let’s call it a skill) because it gave me control. How else would I know not to wear red lipstick? How else would I know what people are really thinking?
I learned at a very young age that no one speaks the truth. We are all bundled up in manners and fear of hurting others and confused platitudes, so we couldn’t get a clear idea across even if death was on the line. Once I realized this, I had to evaluate everything that people said, sift through it and pluck out the grains of truth, interpret it like a Modern Art major in college dissecting a particularly abstract painting. Once the real message was deciphered, then I could choose how to respond.
“So what happened to Big Bird after the building fell?” My therapist asked.
“I don’t know, the tape ended. I think it was supposed to be funny. I didn’t think it was funny. I thought it was sad.”
“You know what I think is sad? Big Bird spending all day and all night holding up a building he doesn’t care about. He doesn’t get to see his friends, or go out to dinner, or sleep in a warm cozy bed. He’s too busy holding up the building.”
“But when he stopped holding it up the building fell.” Why didn’t he understand that the building falling would be a total catastrophe? Why didn’t he see that if I let go, the whole world would crumble around me and I would be exposed and vulnerable? He made it sound so easy.
The silence grew around us as my face flushed and tears threatened in my throat.
“I want you to consider something, Ashly. Consider the reality that maybe you aren’t actually holding the building up. What if the building is already in pieces, but you just haven’t noticed yet? You’ve been holding up the building for so long that you’ve forgotten to check and see if it’s still in one piece and it isn't. Meanwhile, the rest of your life is threatened by your obsessive focus on deciphering messages that might be there or might not be there. You are Spiderman, holding up a building that’s already destroyed while Mary Jane plummets to her death. You have to let go of the building and go get your life back.”
He was right. Overthinking wasn’t saving my life, it was sucking it dry. Time ticked slowly past me while I remained mired in the anxieties of my mind. Some nice people came up with a polite name for people like me: ruminators. It makes me sound intelligent and introverted like poetry might come spilling out of me at any moment. But actually, as Amy Maclin points out in her article about overthinking, “persistently dwelling on distressing situations from the recent or distant past...can be one of the most destructive mental habits. It’s closely linked to depression, and it can sap our confidence, our ability to solve problems, and our sense of control over our lives.”
By attempting to control and maintain peace for myself I was actually throwing rocks into the pool. My lifeline was a noose which I now held limply in my hands, but I saw dimly that ahead of me was a possible future where my mind no longer roiled constantly in fear and panic.
This epiphany trickled over me slowly, like when someone pretends to crack an egg on your head and you feel the nonexistent yolk seeping through your hair and dripping down your face. In the quiet of the office, I stared at my therapist. Somewhere in my head, space had opened up and I was breathing freely again.
“What is going to happen to the building?” I asked
“Nothing. It already fell apart, remember? But I think the question you are asking is what is going to happen to you. Big Bird wasn’t worried about the building, after all. He was worried about what would happen to him if it fell. You’ll be just fine. In fact I think you will be surprised at how much living you can do when you stop overanalyzing everything.”
The clock chimed and I stood up to leave.
“Thank you,” I said. “I feel... lighter somehow. I’m going to think long and hard about this.”
“No,” he smiled. “Don’t think about. Just take it with you and see what happens.”
*This conversation is partially fictionalized, but is mainly a mash-up of various conversations had with my therapist and with my own heart.