When I was going through a divorce some years ago, I found myself ruminating about the many ways I felt mistreated by my not yet ex-husband. The more I thought about him and his behavior, the more angry, betrayed, and injured I felt. One day, I went out to walk my dogs. It was a gorgeous day, we were entering a beautiful park and all I could think about was what a bastard my husband was being. Then it hit me: WAIT! These thoughts are like taking poison and expecting someone else to die! I'M the one whose suffering and ruining what could be a perfectly lovely walk. Why am I doing this?
Why do people obsess about painful things they cannot control? Why is doing something so excruciating and unproductive so utterly compelling? The image that came to mind was of a moth inexorably drawn to a flame which will burn it alive. The answer, it seemed to me, was that on some level, I was trying to solve a problem. In other words, I misguidedly believed that thinking obsessively about an injustice would somehow ameliorate the hurt and give me control over it. This thought had never been conscious before and now that it was, I saw how utterly irrational I was being.
So I decided to deliberately and actively THINK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE. I forced myself to notice the spring flowers, how happy and cute my dogs were, running around with each other, what I would make for dinner.....anything that wasn't about my divorce. At first, I felt the pull of the distressing thoughts, but I persisted in directing my attention to other pleasant or neutral things. And guess what happened? At the end of the walk, I noticed that I'd had a really good time! If I had persisted in my ruminations, I would now have felt miserable. I felt a huge sense of relief knowing that what caused me so much unnecessary pain could be avoided if I CHOSE not to engage with it. What I could not control (his behavior) need not torture me if I shifted my thoughts away from the subject.
This is an example of a cognitive-behavioral intervention. What that means is that a person becomes conscious of the irrationality of their thinking and then does something different. Sounds simple? Well, it is and it isn't. The hard part is the persistence it takes to successfully distract your thinking away from the troubling material. But persevere, and you will be amazed at how much needless misery you can avoid.