The ‘Stuck Gears’ in Our Minds

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When someone is deep in thought, we say “I could see the gears turning in their head.” But what happens when those gears refuse to turn properly?

Metaphors of Mind

Our language fails to keep up with the times. We insist on ‘dialing’ a phone even though phones with dials went almost extinct decades ago. Even as our gadgets become cool, silent slabs of plastic and metal with hardly a moving part, we like to think of things — including our minds — in mechanical terms. When our thoughts are well-ordered and comfortable, we might liken the mind to a well-oiled machine. Other times, we may feel like our thoughts are a runaway train, or that we are ‘spinning our wheels.’ Still other times, we might describe our thinking as stuck, or jammed.

I would like to suggest that this metaphor isn’t just a colorful turn of phrase, but has real explanatory value. If our mind is like a machine, then it has various parts we can think of as ‘gears.’ Memories, emotions, perceptions, and expectations could all be likened to a few of these gears that together make up our minds. When our minds are in good working order, we know each of these parts as distinct objects. And while they’re distinct, they affect one another; they ‘mesh’ together like real gears. These ‘objects’ of minds neither slip against each other (fail to duly affect our thinking) nor do they bind up (get confused with one another). Being a metaphorical mechanic of mind, let me share with you some of the common ways I’ve observed how the mind tends to bind up and cause malfunctions.

Expectations Stuck to Past Results

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Continuing with the mind-as-a-collection-of-gears metaphor, there must clearly be a giant gear for what we call memory. Equally familiar, it is hard to get through a day without some part of the mind making predictions and estimations about what is about to happen. These two critical gears clearly mesh: if we burned our hand on a hot stove, we’d be fools not to use that memory in deciding what will happen if we put our hand on the stove again.

But what if memory and prediction are too tightly linked? What if they’re consciously or unconsciously jammed together so that predictions are based entirely on memory and nothing else? Now there’s a really big problem because a mind jammed in this way can admit nothing new that hasn’t already been experienced. I see this frequently when people remain in bad relationships because their mind is so conditioned to being in the relationship that the ideas of finding someone else or just leaving don’t even show up.

Expectations need to mesh with memories. That’s not the problem. However when memories and expectations stick, then other gears need to be brought into contact, such as imagination, reason, and desire. All need to add their spin to the gear of expectations. If I can get a client to imagine something vividly enough, to rationally think through how things could be different, or feel the depth of their unmet needs, that may be enough to break expectations free of memories.

Perceptions Stuck to Objective Reality

Is what we perceive really real, is it all just in our heads, or is it something in-between? Although philosophers have covered this ground in excruciating detail, my point is practical, not academic. If you’ve ever seen an optical illusion, misheard someone, or misidentified one person as another, you’ve had the experience of perceptions failing to match up with external realities.

By now I hope you see the pattern forming: all of us sometimes equate our viewpoint to what’s really happening and the results can be disastrous. When we forget that the eye (and mind) can be fooled, we’re less likely to double-check ourselves, even when what we’re seeing is unlikely or nonsensical. Furthermore, if we automatically believe our viewpoint and disbelieve all others, then it becomes almost inevitable that we’ll damage our relationship because it will be too easy for us to ‘make others wrong’ and elevate ourselves, along with our opinions, above others.

We live by our senses. There’s no way around it. Yet when we have a reasonable level of doubt that what we think we see is what is really there, then we can benefit from others’ viewpoints and our own better judgment.

Self-Image Stuck to Others’ Perceptions or Expectations

How do we know what kind of person we are? There many ways to answer that question, but I will examine two of the main ‘gears’ that can drive identity. One is what other people tell us, explicitly and implicitly, about who we are and what we can do. The other is our own internal sense of self — what feels good and right when nobody else is looking.

I know of few unhappier people than those trying to live up to externally-imposed identities that have nothing to do with their basic personality and constitution. Unhappiest of all are those who manage to reach some external level of success that locks them into the pattern for decades, if not for life.

External expectations are real. Except for hermits, we all have duties and responsibilities to fulfill towards our families, mates, and the larger community. The trick is to realize that most of the time we have great latitude in the specific way we fulfill them, and with enough self-knowledge we can keep our promises while remaining true to ourselves.

Musts Stuck to Wants

“I must ace this test.” “I must make my parents proud.” “I must pay this bill.” These are easy sentences to say and I believe most of us have said thousands of utterances just like them. Unfortunately, we were wrong about nearly every single one of them. Strictly speaking, we need air, water, food, warmth, and shelter (and some people get by without the shelter in warmer climates). Everything else is a want, not a need.

Am I just playing semantic games? I don’t think so. When we say “must” we close off our minds from any other outcome and make it unacceptable to stray from our predetermined path. When musts are confused with wants, we invest optional, even nice-to-have items, with do-or-die levels of anxiety.

Albert Ellis devised an elegant tool for unsticking “must” from “want.” He recommended that any time you find yourself starting a sentence “I must…”, replace those words with “I prefer that…”. “I must ace this test,” becomes “I prefer that I ace this test.” Using Ellis’ technique pushes almost all our desires out of “must” and back into “want.” And in doing so, it yields a wonderful benefit. When we say “I prefer,” we can immediately see that whether we get what we want or not, we will most likely survive. The option we prefer will almost always be more pleasant, yet this simple semantic trick primes us for much greater acceptance of the things we cannot control. Don’t get me wrong: when you say “I prefer…”, that doesn’t make the consequences of failing the test, disappointing our parents, or being late on a bill any less awful, but rather, we can look at the consequences and realize they are not the end of our world, and we can start thinking about how to deal with them if they should come to pass.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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