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The Hamster on the Wheel

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 82 - November 2002

Perhaps I am behind the times, and wheels for hamsters to exercise in are politically incorrect and therefore banned, but the image remains: a small furry creature endlessly climbing upwards within a wooden wheel that keeps turning, turning, yet staying put inside the cage. And so, despite its prodigious efforts, the hamster is getting nowhere.

To me, this image is a perfect symbol for circular thinking, that universal mental aberration so many of us indulge in without noticing what we're doing. As a rule it's based on some actual problem or unfinished business that we should but can't (or daren't) sort out; it nags and nags like just-bearable toothache, and so we think about it – in circles. The keywords in the process are 'if', starting off much chewed-over possibilities, and 'but', which dismisses them instantly, until the next turn of the wheel brings them back once more. The subject may be trivial – "if I invite X to the party, she'll forgive me for what happened at Christmas …but Y will be furious and may walk out…" – or profoundly important – "if I give up my job, I can finish my book at last …but my savings may run out before I find a publisher…" And so it goes on, with no decision in sight.

Circular thinking can be practised in different time frames. Referring to the past, it revolves around the wistful phrase, "if only I had… " or "if only I hadn't…" and up come the memories in nostalgic droves, tinged with regret.

It's a kind of posthumous action replay, particularly suitable for recalling doomed romances and other dashed hopes. Unlike Wordsworth's "powerful emotion recollected in tranquillity", which can be the source of great poetry, past-centred circular thinking only leads to self-pity and dejection. However long the "if only…" goes on for, the past remains stubbornly unchanged; but it can overshadow the present.

Tuned in to the future, circular thinking can really wreak havoc with one's sense of reality. Choose a subject, some event or happening that may, just may occur some time in the future. As if that weren't vague enough, pile some flimsy, largely negative possibilities on it.

Stir and add a dash of anxiety to the mix. Discuss – endlessly, inside your head, going round and round and round, until you mistake the fantasy for the real thing and become suitably depressed about it.

Yes, I exaggerate, but only a little. Circular thinking is a major time-waster because, irrespective of time frame, it's based on assumptions, which are notoriously unreliable. As some wise person said: "We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are", namely subjectively, with the human equivalent of what our symbolic hamster can see from inside the wheel. In my work as a psychotherapist I often see how some of my clients blight their own lives with assumptions which are as negative as they are groundless – and how reluctant they are to abandon them. In the worst cases the circular thinking speaks in the disapproving voice of an internalized parent, the strict father or all-controlling mother of childhood who pours out reproaches or dire warnings in an endless cycle. For instance, every time a highly competent client of mine thinks up a new idea to boost her business, an inner voice tells her to forget it:

"Don't make a fool of yourself, it won't work, you aren't bright enough, stop before it's too late". And so, instead of working out the details of her plan, her thoughts go round in circles, like an increasingly unhappy hamster stuck in its wheel.

Putting it bluntly, circular thinking is a total waste of time. It stifles creativity and produces nothing but indecision and procrastination.

Fortunately it's only a bad habit, which can be broken by becoming more aware of one's mental acrobatics. The average person's ability to concentrate is regrettably weak. Just follow your train of thoughts for three minutes: you'll be amazed by the medley of unrelated subjects and crazy associations rushing through your brain. We're told that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance; in this case vigilance means to notice when a familiar thought starts to turn circular and stop the wheel before it begins to spin. "I've been here before, there is nothing to add" is the simple formula to use. But then we need to go on, either to accept that a problem cannot be solved (for instance, because it belongs to the past), or to decide to tackle it forthwith. Not in a mad rush or without forethought, but realizing that the main thing is to make a move that gets us away from the stuckness. We needn't be as radical as Alexander the Great who cut the Gordian knot in half with his sword when he realized he wasn't able to untie it – although sometimes that may be the only way forward.

And what about the circular thoughts that assume the voice of a judgmental parent? Well, the first task is to identify just whose voice it is; the second is to remember that when this voice used to put us down, we were children; the third is to reply to the voice that drones on inside our skull. This must be done politely, without anger, because anger would turn the dialogue into a duel, and that would defeat the purpose. "Yes, thank you, I've heard you," is the correct answer, "but I'm now an adult and I make my own decisions." The message may have to be repeated for a while, until the voice stops circling around, and the exhausted hamster can get out of its wheel.


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About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail:

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