Someone I know (call them Z) was betrayed big time by two old friends not long ago. A job was lost, a reputation sullied. One of the betrayers moved far away from their small town, so Z felt OK about cutting them off. But the other person was not going anywhere. It was almost guaranteed Z was going to see her at the supermarket.
This traumatizer kept popping up in Z’s head. She had said some terrible things. She had told some lies. Z suspected she was spreading slander to common friends, not to mention other people in town who were hungry for gossip and did not mind a bit of scandal.
Invasive thoughts were getting a bit debilitating. Z was out for a walk along a beautiful creek on a perfect fall day but the slanderous woman found some headspace and soon Z was arguing with her. She was impossible to shake. Z’s spouse asked what was wrong and suddenly they were both mad again and the leaves began to turn dull.
Most of us can be tormented by recurrent negative thoughts that tie us up: “What if? What did I do wrong? What am I going to do? How can this be happening to me?” Hurts and losses bubble up as anger. We start saying all the things to the person we didn’t say before. We imagine what they are saying and argue back. We let them colonize our minds. Soon we’re afraid to go to the store for fear of being more overwhelmed!
Here are three common ways to get out of the debilitating cycle of arguing in your head, three ways to move on, grow up, or get through rather than dreading the thought of that person, rather than feeling stuck, or fearing the possibility of open conflict .
Shutting off an internal argument
These suggestions are mainly about changing how you behave.
- Accept the problem is not going away and be friendly anyway. This may be important when you are related to the antagonist. Just accept you’re different and let it be. “Don’t go there.” Obviously, some major differences may require planning for a calm conversation. But smaller issues can be let go.
- Choose who you relate to. You do not need to have a good relationship with everyone, especially abusive or argumentative people. It may pain you to scroll by people you think you should care about, or maybe even love. But it is not required to soak up bile or endure uncaring behavior.
- Remember you have value even if they don’t value you. What other people think about you or say about you is mainly about them, not you. If you are not so emotionally wrapped up in what they said or did it is easier to avoid having unfinished arguments with them in your head. If your co-worker mocks you for the mistake you made, talk yourself out of staying awake feeling stupid that night, “He’s got reasons for being mean and I’ve got plenty of reasons to think I’ll master my job.”
- Nip the internal argument in the bud. How often have you been washing dishes and realize the free space in your brain has been invaded by “that old argument?” It is great if you can gently note what’s happening and turn to something else. It might take some practice. Maybe you could create a helpful catch phrase to use like, “These thoughts are poisonous, don’t drink them.”
- If you can’t stop, you could distract yourself. That does not mean looking them up on Instagram and feeling superior. Go for a walk, even if it just around the house; get your body on your side. Call a supportive friend (not to get them arguing too, that could just dig the rut deeper). Do a puzzle. Breathe it out – pray it out. You might not want to vacuum, that might leave brain space unoccupied for more argument.
- Try setting apart a limited time to fret. If certain thoughts are derailing the whole day, you might try setting apart a limited amount of time to go ahead and think them through. A half an hour in solitude after dinner to practice an upcoming conversation or play through an old one might diminish the threat of them popping up when you’d rather be having sex or preparing for an exam.
Working through the feelings
These suggestions mainly attend to emotions.
- Trying mentalizing about the whole conversation instead of deflecting bits. Imagine what you and the other person are really trying to say; you might get to say what you wish you had said. But don’t just unleash your fury and devastate them, focus on the feelings that upset you. When the co-worker made you look incompetent, why did that hurt? Are you insecure? Do you feel you are not recognized for your abilities? Did he remind you of your dad, your brother or that demeaning coach in jr. high?
- Name the emotions as they arise. It is hard to keep a replay going if you don’t feel it deeply. The incident may have triggered some unfinished developmental business you have or may have reignited a traumatic experience. If you name what you feel you might understand your emotions better and and not be run around by a mysterious inner “force.” You might say, “I’m afraid I will be embarrassed when I see them in the store,” or “My anger is strangling me.” It is good for us when we let our emotions be normal, not a threat or a sin, and figure out what we want to do about them.
- Get your feelings out of your head and into your journal. Maybe your process so far has been the first part of working something out and now you can express what you’ve come to and even make a plan. Use your journal. Maybe you could write a letter to the person with whom you’ve been arguing. You don’t have to give it to them; sometimes communication is no longer possible, or advisable – especially if you’ve been abused or they represent how you have been marginalized. In that case, just getting it out of your mind and onto the paper may be enough. You could burn the letter and let the contents go. You can close your journal and leave the feelings in the past.
- Professional counselors try to be adept at helping people work through anxiety. If you are losing sleep, t of knowing increasingly angry or depressed, you might like to talk to someone you can trust, professional or not.
Having a healing interpersonal process
These suggestions mainly work with how you relate.
- Express yourself. If you are a Christian you probably feel obligated to be reconciled with people or, unfortunately, appear to be OK with everyone. Regardless, if you’ve been having an argument with someone in your head and you think it is remotely possible you can have a personal, undistracted moment with them, it would could be good to talk to them. You could begin with, “That comment you made the other day about my work really bothered me. So I thought I’d circle back. Were you just being funny? Or were you trying to say something I need to hear?” It helps to rehearse what you’d like to calmly say.
- Create a safe place. When you initiate a dialogue, it would help to let the person know you are doing something you care about and invite them into it, rather than just appearing out of nowhere saying something super serious. You could begin with something like, “I feel a little awkward being this personal, but I would like to tell you about what I’ve been feeling. I hope you’ll take a turn to talk when I’m finished.”
- Keep calm. Something that even smells like conflict often sets people into fight, flight or freeze mode. So it will help them if your tone is calm and you speak slowly. If you have them listening and you bring some fiery emotion they will probably get caught up with how you are acting, not with what you are communicating. Remember to tell an “I” story, not a “you” story. The more you say “you,” the more likely they are to stop listening and start defending themselves.
- It is always better for healing if there are less details and more feelings. Yes, they came home an hour later than expected and they’ve done other inconsiderate things in the past. The point is to invite them to care about how worried you felt and to work on a deeper trust that will allow you both to feel safe and connected. Especially if you are married, your marriage is a “common ground” you share. You can work on building a good relationship rather than working on one another’s flaws.
What if none of that stopped the argument in your head?
Wouldn’t it be nice if relationships were “plug and play?” Wouldn’t it be great if each of us were not so complicated? Not long ago, one of my clients said to their mate, “Can we just agree that everyone is shitty?” The mate did not naturally go with such thoughts (thus, therapy), but they went with it that time and it relieved quite a bit of tension. Nothing really “works.” We won’t do everything “right.” We can’t. And if we did do something right, it probably would not get perfect results in an imperfect world.
If you keep rehashing after all this work, you must be very committed to this internal argument! Maybe it has come to define you. Chances are, if you can’t let go, you are working with something rather deep. I hope you can let it be unresolved for now in a tender way. It must be a mystery and Jesus will need to save you. Constantly working out the puzzle like you are in charge of your own salvation is not going to be better than giving up on complete resolution. Many people have taken these conundrums that torment them like they torment you and lifted them to God in an act of submission and trust. Maybe you need to acknowledge the “thorn” that keeps poking you and let Jesus bear the pain with you until something better develops.