I’m a full-time writer, but I sort of moonlight as a shitty landlord. No, I don’t own real estate or have tenants, I just have a big old head full of unhelpful squatters. Some of them make sense and come from significant chapters of my life — an ex’s mom, people who’ve passed away and old, messy friends I’ve lost touch with. Others are more random — a dude on Tinder, a young couple in my neighborhood who never wear masks and someone DMing about something I wrote three years ago.
Combined, they all take up a lot of headspace I could admittedly fill with more constructive things, like the geometry of Pringles. But the problem with people living in my head is that I have no clue what to do about them beyond the obvious “just meditate, man.” More importantly, even when I’m done meditating, the same people pop up again.
At this point, the concept of allowing someone to live in your head rent free has been memed and reappropriated too many times to count — from Demi Lovato to Donald Trump Jr., thinking of our minds as a home we have to protect from intruders is universal. And yet, outside of movies like Vanilla Sky and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which, spoilers, do not end well), far less media has explored how to evict unwelcome people from the brain.
The original quote, “Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head,” was from advice columnist Esther “Eppie” Lederer, better known by her pen name Ann Landers. Not only was she known for her advice column “Ask Ann,” but also for being the identical sister of Pauline Phillips, otherwise known as competing columnist “Dear Abby,” who she feuded with for most of her career. Given her history, it makes sense that Landers had a vested interest in the occupancy space of various body parts after sharing a womb with her nemesis. But what are the rest of us supposed to do about our squatter problems?
“Like any other thoughts, it’s unfortunately impossible not to think about it and delete it from our minds and memories,” says U.K.-based psychologist Raffaello Antonino. Nevertheless, we still try to not think about certain people and painful memories from the past. “Thought suppression is a common coping mechanism we use to deal with unpleasant thoughts,” Antonino continues. Simply put, we aren’t the landlords of our own head and we can’t evict anyone. In fact, framing it this way just helps all the wrong people take up more space. “The more we try this, the more the thought will grow stronger and more powerful, affecting our mood even more,” Antonino warns.
To understand why we can’t evict people from our heads, it’s important to look at how they got there in the first place. Whether it’s a breakup, a work conflict or a heated family fight, people make their way in when we focus on those stressful and negative events, replaying them over and over, wondering how the outcome could have been different. “When a person ruminates or continues to think about a person, place or thing, they hardwire that information into their brain in a way that it becomes a brain habit,” psychotherapist Joanne Ketch explains. “It’s not random; the person has literally trained their brain to think of that content. It’s like a well-worn path, and the brain defaults to that content.”
Otherwise known as neural pathways, they become paved the more we go down them. As a result, the amount of problems people cause in our heads is directly related to how much we initially obsess. This helps to explain why some people live in our heads longer than we want when we can forget about others instantly. “The more emotion involved, the more that moment, relationship or memory is grooved into the circuitry of the brain,” Ketch adds. Other details like sounds (music, yelling) and odors (food, perfume) reinforce this circuitry. Thus, our senses are heightened when we’re triggered about the past as a means of instinctual protection. This is what allows people to live in our heads, or more accurately, creates neurological triggers that make them more noticeable. “This brain function is built-in and cannot be avoided,” Ketch says.
“We often use the term trigger casually, but a trigger is an actual mechanism in the brain,” she adds. A trigger can reactivate a memory about a past relationship and just like that, “the thought is in the forefront.” But when we try to fight against that, or effectively evict someone from our heads, all we’re really doing is making ourselves think about the past more, when we should do the opposite. “To change the brain habit, you have to atrophy the pattern,” Ketch explains.
The first step to atrophying the pattern is to label these unwanted guests more accurately for what they are — not a threat you have to fight against, but an unwelcome and unhelpful presence to be mostly ignored. The more we train ourselves to stop arguing with them and disengage, the less distressing they become. Once we’re able to do that, it’s also important to occupy that headspace with what Ketch calls “pre-meditative thoughts,” or two to three easy-to-access happy memories, scenes from nature, motivational quotes or goals we want to accomplish. In the long-term, meditation will “help rewire the brain in ways that benefit the person in a multidimensional fashion,” she says. But you need to have the pre-meditative thoughts in your back pocket when you’re first starting off, which is likely why meditation never worked for me.
To be fair to Landers, her advice was about letting go of resentments, not about viewing our heads as prime real estate — we’ve just focused on the wrong part. Perhaps, then, the best thing any of us can do is stop looking at our brains as private residences, and more like public spaces. Instead of it being your home, your head is a bar you’re hosting a party at. Do you want to be the bouncer tasked with throwing out anyone who crashes? Personally, I’d much rather have fun with the people who were invited and snub everyone else.