Many people experience obsessive thoughts of one kind of another. Not only can we drive ourselves crazy with these thoughts, but when our negative obsessive thoughts are about another person, such thoughts are potentially harmful—and at the very least they are unkind.
In this article I want to focus specifically on obsessive thoughts (negative ones) that we have about other people. And how can we stop!
First of all, we can stop our own obsessive thoughts about other people. But, in my opinion, most of us—including many therapists—approach this in the wrong way. We try to deny our obsessive thoughts or use techniques to break our thought patterns. These approaches may help in the short term, providing some temporary relief, but the better answer is to go in the other direction.
Go toward the thoughts and related feelings, not away from them. That’s #1
These thoughts are a call for attention, a call inward. When you distract yourself by focusing on the other person, all you’re doing is ignoring the part of yourself that needs attention.
Recognize that the thoughts are actually about you, not about the other person. There is something in you that’s stuck. Some feeling or belief that is crying out for attention. And instead of attending to yourself, you are using the other person—the target of your obsessive thinking—as a distraction to keep from attending to yourself. Do this long enough and you will build more and more resentment about the other person, not due to whatever you are obsessing about, but because you are using them to avoid attending to yourself. They become bigger, you become smaller.
In addition, the longer you obsess about the other person, the worse you feel about yourself at some level because the act of negatively obsessing about someone else lacks compassion—you are being unkind and even harmful. You are being punitive.
Why? Because what you’re doing is holding a negative idea about someone else—a static picture. You are seeing them as they were in your mind five weeks ago, or five months, or five years—and you are punishing them. And this is antithetical to a universal truth, which is that we are changing and (hopefully) evolving. If we hold an outdated image of someone in our minds then we aren’t available to see them for who they are today.
So what can you do?
#1— Reengage with your thoughts and feelings, don’t turn away from them.
#2— Recognize this is about you, not the other person.
#3— Reconsider whether or not you want to be punitive.
#4— Reconsider this issue in a larger context: by this I mean explore your feelings over a longer period of time and include more people than the person you are having obsessive thoughts about. What do your feelings remind you of? Where did such feelings originate? With what other people do you have similar feelings or issues? What does all of this say about you? Not them, you!
#5— Reconnect with the other person in present time: by this I mean that after you are clearer about what’s going on for you, you can clean up your emotional footprint with the other person by having a present-time conversation. Don’t rehash your history, instead engage with them as the person they are today. This act can be a chance to heal yourself by fully taking responsibility for yourself instead of victimizing yourself with this other person.
Step #5 may or may not be appropriate. The other person has to be willing to meet you halfway. And, there is no point in doing step #5 unless you have gained greater clarity and taken ownership of your issue—making this about you, not the other person.