3 Things to Do If You Can’t Stop Thinking About That Thing You Said
The night I said, “I’ve heard it’s actually good for you” to explain (read: lie about) why I started chomping on the (100%-not-edible) soybean pod when trying edamame for the first time at a fancy fusion restaurant in NYC. That time I immediately, without thinking about the lyrics, started singing, “I don’t see nothing wrong, with a little bump and grind” after a coworker and I agreed we’d never be able to listen to R. Kelly again in light of his sexual abuse charges. (I’m a survivor myself—of all the songs to burst out with!) The handful of misused words or sayings I’ve texted, emailed, or—shudder—said aloud in my lifetime. Those are just a few of the many, many, many “I can’t believe I said that” moments that have haunted me.
I know, I know—none of those missteps are a big deal, nor are they evidence that I’m a bad, unintelligent, or otherwise unworthy person. To err (and say dumb stuff) is human, so I deserve a little self-love. I’m happy to report that I know that now, and I’m much less hard on myself in my 30s than I was in my teens and 20s. But I’d be lying if I said I never dwell on my verbal blunders. (My heart rate ticked up a bit just from publicly sharing the d’oh moments above.) Knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes and feeling that are two very different things.
If you, too, sometimes find yourself face-palming over a poor choice of words or lying awake at night replaying that INCREDIBLY GOOFY/INSENSITIVE/EMBARRASSING thing you CAN’T BELIEVE you said in your mind, I’m here to offer us both some relief. I reached out to Katerina Y. Stratigis, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Thrive Psychology Group in New York City who specializes in perfectionism and shame, to get some practical advice for letting yourself off the hook so you can get on with your life.
“One reason why we might get fixated on a self-critical thought is because we believe it is universally true,” Dr. Stratigis tells SELF. “By reminding yourself that it’s simply something your brain is creating, not a fact, it often becomes easier to cope with.” This skill of noticing thoughts for what they are rather than getting caught up in them is known as “cognitive defusion,” she explains.
An example: Let’s say you can’t stop obsessing over calling your boss’s boss “Mom.” You might be thinking things like, “I am so stupid,” “I’m embarrassed,” or “I can’t go back to work tomorrow.” Using such definitive words as “I am” and “I can’t” doesn’t leave you with much wiggle room to challenge them, Dr. Stratigis says. Cognitive defusion might look like reframing those notions as “I’m having the thought of ‘I’m stupid,’” “I’m experiencing the emotion of embarrassment,” or “I’m having the thought that I don’t want to show my face in the office again.” By separating yourself from your thoughts and feelings by one degree, “you don’t automatically accept them as fact, making them a lot easier to challenge and cope with,” she explains.
Another form of cognitive defusion is using imagery to get some distance from your self-criticism, she adds. For example, you can try the “leaves on a stream” exercise (a tool sometimes used in acceptance and commitment therapy), which involves sitting in a comfortable position, closing your eyes (or focusing on a fixed spot in the room), and picturing yourself placing each thought that pops in your head on a leaf and letting it float down, yep, a stream. Again, the idea is to disconnect from your stream (hah) of thinking so you’re not (heh) immersed in it.
If the idea of being kinder to yourself is eliciting an eye-roll, know this: It really can help you stop ruminating about your perceived slip-ups, according to Dr. Stratigis. “When you can’t stop thinking about that thing you said, exercise self-compassion by trying not to judge yourself so harshly,” she recommends. “Recognize that you are a human who makes mistakes and that’s normal and okay.”
If giving yourself a break isn’t exactly your strong suit (why, hello), you can try some of these practical ways to practice self-compassion, including a Dr. Stratigis favorite: Ask yourself, “What would I tell a friend if they came to me with this?” (We’ll go ahead and assume you wouldn’t relentlessly berate them.) “In my opinion, self-compassion is the most important skill one can learn,” Dr. Stratigis says. “By having a more self-compassionate worldview, you live with less shame and anxiety, which leads to a more peaceful and fulfilling life.” Sold.
Write out your thoughts—but do it strategically.
What, you thought you were gonna get out of here without a journaling exercise? Don’t worry: This one is super simple. “Realistically, no one remembers that time in third grade when you tripped in front of the whole class,” Dr. Stratigis says. “The reason it’s so memorable is because it caused an intense response within you. We are more likely to remember events that have a strong emotional reaction connected to them.”
One of the best ways to cope with a repetitive thought or memory is to address the emotional response and beliefs it brings up, she says, and writing down what you’re thinking and feeling is a good way to do that. “However, you don’t want to fall into the trap of journaling with no limits,” Dr. Stratigis warns, since that could prolong your rumination. Instead, she recommends setting a timer for two minutes and jotting down whatever comes up when you think about the regrettable thing you said. When the timer runs out, ask yourself, “Has this been helpful?” If so, you can set another two-minute timer and continue writing out your thoughts and feelings. Keep doing this until you’ve reached a natural stopping point, she says, or you find yourself repeating the same stuff.
“The purpose behind journaling is to help you process the emotions behind the thoughts that you’re stuck on—embarrassment, shame, or disappointment, for example,” Dr. Stratigis explains. “By putting those thoughts and emotions out of your mind and onto paper, you’re essentially storing them in a tangible place, which can make it easier to move on.” In other words, it can get you (and that thing you said) out of your head.