Your Mind Thinks its an Expert (or Calling Dr. Rutherford)

You’ve probably noticed this already, but our minds have something to say on most topics. Some of this is pretty minor: “That iced tea looks refreshing!” In other cases our minds dole out expert opinions. We become:

  • Critics of modern art: “My three-year-old could draw that!”
  • Experts on gastronomy (i.e., food): “Why would anyone pay high prices for small portions in that fancy-pants place?”
  • Amateur meteorologists: “Looks like it’s gonna rain today.”

Most of the time, our running commentary is pretty harmless. It’s also built into us. As human beings, we seek patterns in our environment in order to understand our world and keep ourselves safe. This tendency has helped us survive.

But it can also create a lot of problems.

A common way I see this tendency go awry in my practice is when our minds become medical experts. Some degree of monitoring our health is important in deciding when to take a sick day, see a doctor, or get some rest. But sometimes our minds jump to worst case scenarios. The Internet tends to escalate these problems. Here’s an important equation to consider:

Ambiguous physical symptom + worry/anxiety + Internet search = “I might be dying!”

In researching that small brown spot that you recently noticed on your face, you’ll learn it’s probably just a harmless freckle—OR IT MIGHT BE SKIN CANCER!

Dr. Rutherford

The people with whom I work often come with clever and interesting images, metaphors, and ideas for working with their problem—far most interesting than anything I come think of—and I’ve learned a lot from clients over the years. I wanted to share one of those ideas in this post. The client gave full permission, and I changed the details to maintain confidentiality.

We had discussed his tendency to interpret physical symptoms—usually symptoms of anxiety—as signs he was dying. At one point I asked him in session, “Does your mind have a medical degree that you yourself don’t possess? It sounds like your mind thinks it’s an expert in areas that you yourself are not.”

I didn’t think much of my comments at the time, but for this individual it planted a seed.

He and his partner named his worry mind after a sketchy-looking educational institution they saw located in a retail area. For the sake of confidentiality, I’ve changed the name and key details. I’ll call the worry mind “Dr. Rutherford,” even though the actual name has a nicer ring to it. According to the client, Dr. Rutherford became certified in different specialties during one-day certification programs in areas such as:

  • Neuroscience
  • Veterinary medicine
  • Infectious Diseases
  • Relationships
  • Dentistry
  • Food allergist
  • “Sudden death prediction analyst”

Dr. Rutherford became a way to talk about excessive worry. When he’d begin to worry, his partner might say to him, “Looks like Dr. Rutherford is here,” and the two could light-heartedly laugh about it. Over time, this tendency towards worry became something funny rather than something frustrating.

He even wrote down a series of Dr. Rutherford’s sayings or mottos in order to identify when he was worrying.  Again, for the sake of confidentiality, I won’t give them word-for-word, but they reflected ideas such as, “Sure it’s rare, but if you get it, YOU’RE DEAD!”

Some concluding thoughts about the ubiquitous Dr. Rutherford

In conclusion, it’s generally pretty harmless when your mind has strong opinions about Wagnerian opera in the absence of a musicology degree. However, you might hold your mind’s views with some skepticism on topics such as interpreting vague physical symptoms or contamination risks that no one else seems worried about. That might just be your own version of Dr. Rutherford talking.

And finally, I just wanted to say thanks to the individual who gave me permission to share this fantastic idea!

Author: Brian Thompson Ph.D.

Brian is a licensed psychologist and Director of the Portland Psychotherapy Anxiety Clinic. His specialties include generalized anxiety, OCD, hair pulling, and skin picking.


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