The Committee in My Head
Have you ever heard someone speak of The Committee in My Head as a way of describing the assortment of thoughts that can seem to appear out of nowhere in your mind, especially in difficult situations? As you’ve tried to reason your way though such a situation, have you been surprised by the unproductive and sometimes downright nasty thoughts that turn up? According to Barry Gordon in an article in Scientific American, We are aware of a tiny fraction of the thinking that goes on in our minds, and we can control only a tiny part of our conscious thoughts. The vast majority of our thinking efforts goes on subconsciously. Only one or two of these thoughts are likely to breach into consciousness at a time. And if that isn’t bad enough news for those of us who would like to be clear and rational thinkers, Harvard University psychologist Daniel Wegner says that vigilantly struggling not to think about something or someone forces part of your brain to be on guard for that thought. Holding it there, even subconsciously, keeps the thought alive, and sometimes it escapes out of the prison it’s being kept in and erupts into your active thoughts. This is mostly likely to happen when you’re under stress, mentally overwhelmed or just plain exhausted. So, if we can’t control our thoughts … and trying can actually make doing so harder … what is an over-thinker to do?
Many years ago, when I was first learning mantra meditation, my instructors cautioned us not to resist the thoughts that interrupted the mantra, just let the thoughts go by like words on the TV screen of our minds. While many people I know find great spiritual value in meditation, for me its greatest value is in training my mind not to attach itself to every thought that goes by. In my experience, once I spend the time to let thoughts drift by while meditating, fewer thoughts tend to bubble up from my subconscious during the rest of my day. An unfortunate aspect of my personality is that once my brain chatter has subsided, I stop meditating until it again becomes intolerable. Fortunately, I am not only good at taking success for granted, I am good at starting over.
Another approach that works for me is to accept that my mind is indeed like a committee and choose to be the chairman of the meeting. In a sense, I decide what kind of a person I want to be, then put that self in charge. As in any meeting, a good leader knows those whose expertise is most appropriate to a situation and also knows that there will be critics and naysayers. He controls the tone and tenor of the meeting and keeps it civil. If some part of me offers a particularly critical or nasty thought, I can say, We don’t talk like that here or just move on to a more positive thought. Gradually, the committee in my head begins to understand that I will listen but only if they are respectful. When I started doing this, there was an arrogant, critical side of me that ran the show. Rather than silence it completely, I listened while reiterating it wasn’t in charge any more. Sometimes, if I seem stuck on a particular line of thinking, I table the motion on the floor until I can write about it or discuss it with a friend. When I re-adjourn the meeting, it often goes more smoothly.
No, I don’t have a multiple personality disorder. I like metaphors and this is one that works for me. You can find a more psychological discussion of the same ideas in Ten Strategies to Control Your Thoughts (And Not the Other Way Around).