Family, Self

     Thinking our way through life is over-rated. Time and time again, we get stuck in the same thought loop. We think in circles, often obsessing about the same problems, or beating ourselves up for making the same mistakes over and over again. Some have called it, “analysis paralysis”. We rely on our heads too much, believing that we can think our way out of our problem. It often doesn’t  work and can make the problem worse. You can spend countless hours of thinking that lands you back where you started with no answer. This can easily make you feel more hopeless and helpless, more anxious and more depressed.


     The truth is that we can’t fix something until we know what is broken. In the case of a repeating thought loop, the problem isn’t with the thoughts. The thoughts are merely the symptoms. The cause is the emotion that lies behind the thoughts. Remember, we think because we feel. The brain doesn’t waste energy on useless tasks. It needs an emotional reaction to kick start itself to solve the problem by using our head. If we can identify the emotion that started the thinking, we will have a better idea of the true problem.

     Here’s an example. I have a patient, Kelly, who is angry at her sister for not including her in a recent function. In the past, whenever she has tried to confront this sister over any difference, some huge conflict has erupted. She is literally scared to death to bring anything up to this sister. She spends hours thinking trying to figure out why her sister didn’t invite her. She then spends additional hours planning what she would say in case that her sister would make up several excuses. She talks to her husband and her friends over and over about the same things. She rejects any suggestions they make, frustrating her spouse, her friends and herself to no end.

    If you were to ask her what is bothering her in the moment, she might tell you that she is worried about talking to her sister, and trying to figure out what to say. She most likely would not be able to identify the emotional dynamics behind her thinking.  She would probably not be able to admit that she is really angry at her sister, afraid that speaking up might damage the relationship, and does not want fo feel the sadness of being distant from her. The threat of being more alone in the end only increases her fears. 


       Kelly needs to use her head and heart together to solve the problem. She needs to start by understanding the emotions that she must face to solve the problem with her sister. The first is her fear of conflict. Kelly probably comes from a family that avoids conflict, and she has little experience solving problems in a healthy way. She must take the risk to challenge her sister, and face her fears of fighting the good fight. Her head will help her separate irrational from rational fear.

     Second, she must prepare herself for the temporary distance that the conflict might create. Kelly’s fears may be exaggerated by the inability to tell the difference between a short-term distance and a permanent distance. Her inexperience with conflict has not helped her develop the confidence to ride out a temporary separation from her sister. She can’t tell if bringing up the problem might end the relationship.

      Kelly must prepare herself to give her sister the time it often requires to gain some new insight into her behavior, and override the sadness of this temporary distance. If she uses her head to prepare herself, she is in a better position to take the risk to speak her mind to her sister and handle the emotional fallout.


     Kelly has to trust herself to manage a difficult situation with little experience. Her fears can easily make her predict what her sister might do, and attempt to counteract those predicted actions with some strategy of her own. This would be a bad use of her head.

     Kelly needs to recognize this pattern of predicting outcomes as the voice of fear. The antidote for her fear is her anger. No matter how large the fear, there will always be the voice of anger inside of her in a conflict. It may be hard to find the anger in the moment. It often presents as a softer, quieter voice within her that is hard to locate in the midst of the loud noise created by her fears.

      Kelly can trust herself more than she realizes. If she believes in natural reason, she can assume that anger exists anytime a problem exists. It goes away when the problem is solved. Until that time, it is inside of her waiting to be heard. It is as natural as pain, and tells a similar story. If she is hurt, her body lets her know. Pain is the signal. If her heart is hurt, her mind similarly lets her know. Anger is the signal. Both will always exist when she is hurt physically or emotionally. She can always trust that fact, and use it in the moment.


     Kelly can spend way too much time trying to predict what her sister will do, and what she will do in response. The truth is, she can’t possibly figure it out ahead of time, and wastes much precious time in useless thought. But how does she stop doing that, especially when she has little experience with conflict, and a history of getting emotionally beat up by her sister? Kelly does have an internal mechanism to guide her in the moment that she talks to her sister. As long as she holds her mad and sad together, she  can trust that her response will be healthy and fair.

     What I mean by the phrase, hold mad and sad together, is that Kelly can reflect on those emotions in the course of the conversation. When she is mad, she needs to look for the sad. When she is sad, she needs to look for the mad. These two emotions buffer each other. Mad prevents too much sadness that would make Kelly give in too quickly and give herself away to prevent hurting her sister. Sad prevents Kelly from flying into a rage over something her sister might say. Both those emotions need to be resolved for Kelly to know that any resolution is the right one.


     Most problems don’t get solved the first time that people discuss them. They need multiple discussions to reflect and reorganize. In the moment, most people get too defensive to admit a problem. Some unhealthy ones will even wait you out and hope that time makes the  problem go away. This never is true. Problems only get fixed with understanding,  compromise, and negotiation. Kelly must be prepared to have several conversations over the course of time with her sister. She must build a case to challenge her sister to critically review her own behavior, and act differently. Kelly’s challenge will be to hold her ground, keep her mad and sad together, and weather her sister’s defensiveness, one exchange at a time.

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For more information on emotional dynamics, you can visit Dr. Van Schoyck's web site at www.drvanschoyck.com, or wait for his new book, "LOOKING FOR YOUR SELF IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES: How To Recognize Your Authentic Self To Live On Your Terms."