science of us

How to Let Go of Pointless Mental Anguish

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Have you ever come up with an almost comically dark theory about why someone said or did something that caused you pain? And even though you knew the theory was ridiculous, and you didn’t actually want it to be true, it also made a perversely satisfying kind of sense??

Anyone? Maybe?

For me these thoughts feel sort of like Gollum with his ring. I know they’re bad, but I just keep petting them.

In a recent essay for Psychology Today, psychotherapist Nancy Colier describes a patient of hers, Carol, who had been doing this in therapy for years. I paused at this line in Colier’s telling: “I’ve watched as none of her theories … have brought her happiness or peace.” Eventually Carol lets go of her terrible theories, surrendering, on Colier’s urging, to “the freedom of not knowing what’s true for anyone else.”

The freest and most frightening freedom. I also liked this bit, about how clinging to these kinds of theories is not only stressful and unpleasant but also selfish and even insulting:

It’s revolutionary and profoundly liberating when we grasp that our version of the truth, which not coincidentally always places us at the epicenter of what’s motivating everyone else’s behavior, may not be and probably is not the truth for anyone else.

As far as avoiding these traps in the future, Colier recommends asking yourself, when you realize you’ve come up with an especially terrible theory about why something happened, if it isn’t something that you’ve mostly created on your own, and that likely bears no semblance to whatever the truth might be — if the truth exists at all. “See if it’s possible to loosen your grip on the ‘big T’ Truth,” she writes. I also like her implicit reminder that these theories don’t do anything useful or uplifting to begin with.

It reminds me of a section I enjoyed in Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True, in which he outlines how little we understand ourselves. In a sub-chapter called “The Darwinian Benefits of Self-Delusion,” he brings up an experiment in which a man with severed brain hemispheres was told, via his brain’s right hemisphere (by way of a visual command flashed into his left field of vision), to walk into another room. Once he got there, he was asked why he’d done it. Unable to connect the language-generating side of his brain to the original instructions, he said he’d done it because he wanted to get a soda.

“His answer wasn’t really true,” Wright writes, “but it does inspire a kind of confidence in him. He seems like a guy who is in charge of himself, who doesn’t go around doing things for no good reason. Compare him with a guy who offers a more truthful account: ‘I don’t really know why I got up or where I’m going. Sometimes I just do stuff for reasons that make no sense to me.’”

I’m reassured by this idea. Although the experiment was done on someone with an extraordinary condition (severed brain hemispheres), the idea is universal: We do something, and then we explain why we did it, pretending to have had a grand plan all along.

So maybe no one really knows what they’re doing or where they’re going, including the people we ascribe terrible motives to. Most likely, anyway. We’re all just doing stuff for reasons that ultimately aren’t always especially clear.

How to Let Go of Pointless Mental Anguish