Haunt is a word often heard this time of year. In the context of Halloween, we think of ghosts in particular. Haunting thoughts – ghosts of the past repeatedly inhabiting our minds – are likely to cause us problems. You can face and exorcise some of these demons head-on, but others are more firmly entrenched and need the help of a professional to resolve. So, how can we distinguish which are beneficial to give more attention to, which to let go of, and how?
Guilt and regret are the emotions from which most ghosts emerge. They are double-edged swords – often propelling us into positive action and at other times spurring nothing more than an undeserving self-imposed punishment. After all, do we really need to chastise ourselves for eating that piece of double-fudge chocolate cake or can we relax our expectations occasionally?
That said, guilt can sometimes boost us into making positive changes. For example, if you're consumed by guilt at placing your parent in the least expensive and most rundown retirement residence even though you can afford more, then guilt may drive you toward revisiting your decision so that you ultimately feel more at peace when you see your mom settled into a better location.
If you're going through a period of unsettled feelings, don't ignore these feelings. Instead, commit to putting 20 minutes aside at a time when you are least distracted. Then write a letter to yourself or close your eyes and allow your mind to flow freely over thoughts you've been pushing aside. Feel the emotion and retrace your steps over the past couple of weeks. Allow yourself to arrive at a destination that will reveal the real reason for feeling unsettled. Then, either at that moment or another time you're alone, consider options for change.
There are times when talking about feelings can bring us peace. If you've been unfaithful in a relationship but are typically proud of being an honest and loyal person, then it's important to identify and acknowledge feelings of guilt before you can move on. Guilt is a normal response to cheating; it's a good sign if you feel this way. After the affair has ended, even if you're convinced it's behind you, remnants of your past may persist. For example, you may feel undeserving of compliments from your spouse and unconsciously sabotage fun times together. Rather than trying to contain your emotions and pretending that it never happened, consider whether telling the truth might banish the ghosts, even if it means experiencing the consequences of your actions.
People sometimes casually joke about going through a particularly OCD period, but for those who live with it every day, it's no laughing matter – chronic obsessing may signal a chemical imbalance in the brain that might require medical intervention. When it comes to more of the occasional niggling thoughts about decisions such as whether you should have blown your budget buying something you didn't really need, you need to analyze and stop these thoughts. During periods of extreme stress or fatigue, we are more likely to second-guess our decisions.
If you're obsessing about something you know is not life-changing or beating yourself up about something that can't be changed (such as eating that piece of chocolate cake), then free yourself from these thoughts by visualizing a stop sign and banishing the thoughts from your mind as soon as they present themselves. This may require some patience on your part, but with persistence, it will work.
Sara Dimerman is a psychologist and author of parenting and relationship books.