How many times has this happened to you? You’re minding your own business, sitting in your living room or the kitchen or somewhere else you thought was safe, when your partner unexpectedly asks: What are you thinking about? You freeze. Your mind races. You stop to consider: What was I thinking about? Is there a good answer? Should I tell the truth? Why not? It wasn’t anything special. Or was it? Think fast because if you take too long to answer it will seem like I just made something up, even if I am telling the truth. If I answer too fast will it sound spontaneous or will it appear to be a stock answer kept in my mental file labeled StockAnswers? The clock is ticking and your heart rate increases as the seconds tick away. The buzzer silently sounds in your head. Time’s up. Too late. You’re done. Truth is, you were probably done before you started.
The reason you were done from the start is simply this. Our brains process so many different thoughts, or a string of related thoughts which change slightly from one to the next that the last thought no longer seems connected to the first. This is somewhat incorrectly called “stream of consciousness” due to the fact that this process is usually controlled by the unconscious mind. It’s also how we dream. Therefore, the term “daydreaming” is aptly applied. Just like dreaming while we’re asleep, the process is used to organize and adjust millions of random thoughts in a very short span of time. It’s extremely efficient and so much faster than our conscious though process which makes it difficult to remember most of it. Often, none of it. That’s why when we wake up we sometimes know that we were dreaming but can’t recall what the dream was about. Yes, those frightening dreams, especially the ones that recur periodically are easy to remember, but that’s most likely because they are more significant. Or scarier. Or both.
One of the main purposes of psychotherapy is to “make the unconscious conscious.” Whatever the issues are, if they’re no longer hidden, we are better able to deal with them.
Of course we can identify the problem, at least the outward manifestation of the problem. What we can’t readily identify, however, is the root of the problem. The underlying cause of the problem, you might say. The therapeutic process is frequently like cleaning out the closet or garage, or some other storage space. Keep what you need and toss the rest. So many times we’re stuck on what we need and what we cannot let go of. Sometimes we become like mental hoarders, just keeping it all while we acquire more and more useless stuff day after day, hour after hour, minute by minute. OK, so that was a bit dramatic,
I know. But it was done for effect. Hopefully, it worked.
Now, back to square one. If you tell your partner all this conscious/unconscious stuff you may never be asked that question again, though I don’t recommend it. Better yet, let me suggest something that we therapists use all the time. Answer the question with another question. Yes, it can be annoying or appear manipulative, but if you do it right it usually works. It all depends on your follow-up question. I caution you to use tact and keep your tone from making it sound defensive, even if it is a pretty good defense play. Really, all your partner wants to do is to feel close to you. Get to know you better. Connect on another level. When we disclose our deepest thoughts and private memories we’re revealing things that we reserve for those we truly trust. It makes us vulnerable.
That vulnerability can sometimes prevent us from letting others in. Defending ourselves from getting hurt is natural and also smart. Defenses, from a psychological standpoint are the means by which we protect ourselves from ourselves, too. When those defenses are keeping us from connecting to loved ones, and from our own best interests, that is when they need to be dismantled. Gradually, carefully and skillfully broken down and replaced with healthier alternatives. The delicate process which should only be attempted by a skilled, thoughtful and qualified professional.
In addition, when faced with the question regarding what you were just thinking, it’s just as important to the safety of the relationship to consider how your response is going to be received. I see it as something akin to the standard greeting: Hi, how are you? The clerk at the pharmacy, the guy at the newsstand and even your co-worker does not want to hear the details of your medical conditions, your most recent family problems or the state of your finances. At least I suppose not. And I suppose that you hope not. However, when your partner asks you to share what you were just thinking, he or she may really want to know. Or not. It depends. Truth can be a double edged sword. A lie is not a good alternative and avoidance can be just as bad, or worse. Delicacy, diplomacy and tact. Combined together with care and compassion these three ingredients are a good recipe for a healthier relationship.
So, in the future, when you hear that dreaded question from your partner, or if you feel the urge to ask it yourself, think about the last time you said this to the cashier at the supermarket: Hi, how are you? Then, run out and stock up on bandages, magazines and groceries. You may have a long night ahead of you. On the other hand, you could just say you were thinking about how great it would be if the two of you had a long night of passionate lovemaking and the question may be forgotten…for a while anyway.