Updated: Feb 8, 2019
In the The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment's character, Cole, is plagued by visions of ghosts ("I see dead people"); Bruce Willis plays Malcolm, a child psychologist sent to help. For the majority of viewers, the film's most notable moment comes in the very last scene--a twist ending that was once kept respectfully secret by a pre-internet world.
For me though, the film's most significant scene occurs about three quarters of the way in. It is here where Malcom tells Cole he knows how to make the ghosts go away.
"How?" asks Cole.
"Listen to them," Malcom replies.
In fact, the ghosts do want something--a resolution to an aspect of their lives left unattended to before they died. As a result of one particular exchange, Cole is able to inform the father of the dead girl that it was her mother who poisoned her. The task completed, Cole is no longer burdened by this ghost.
It's not difficult to see the metaphor at work here, where the equivalent of ghosts are intrusive thoughts. In my work with clients, I maintain that trying to push these thoughts or painful memories out of our consciousness is not the way to make them go away. We must acknowledge their existence and discover what their purpose is; in other words, listen to them, and ask them what they want.
Suppose that every time you become involved with a new person, things go well initially but then you are besieged by anxious thoughts. You are convinced that the relationship is doomed. Or maybe you are feeling terrified of commitment. These thoughts and feelings are the ghosts, and they want you to know or do something. So ask.
The answer might come to you on your own, or with the help of a therapist. You may, for instance, discover that because you grew up in an enmeshed family where a collective voice overshadowed your own distinct one, new relationships trigger the fear of repeating such a paradigm. The ghosts have told you that this is the issue for you to be working on--not fear of relationships, but fear of what they mean to you because of how you grew up. Now you can work on differentiation--how to maintain your sense of self within the context of a relationship. Now the ghosts can go away.
Perhaps you have a disturbing, recurring dream--the one place where you actually can be visited by dead people. The dream scares you and you wish it would stop happening. Instead of trying to put it out of your mind and hope it doesn't return, face it head on: what does it want from you? As a staunch advocate of dream analysis, I believe in the power of dreams to reveal our unconscious lives. It may be that this recurring visit from someone in your past isn't about them at all. They may instead represent a part of yourself that needs attention, or adjustment, or resolution. It's a call to work through a particular issue. Once this work is complete, notice if the dream continues to recur.
By the way, if you find that even after asking, you're unable to discern the purpose of your intrusive thoughts, there is still a way to go about your day, accomplish your goals, and live a fulfilling life without being beholden to these intrusions: simply acknowledge them.
"Yes, hello anxious thoughts that visit me every time I get into a new relationship! I see you. You are free to be here, but I'm moving forward in spite of you." Or, put differently, "You may hang out in the backseat, but you will not be doing the driving." Although you haven't eliminated these thoughts from your head, you have now significantly diminished their power over you. You are in control, not them.
This technique, I find, is also useful in dealing with anger, once exquisitely described to me as a letter written to yourself from yourself. Behind anger there exists a secondary emotion--typically fear or sadness. So this letter was written to tell you that something else--something deeper--is affecting you. "Why," you may ask yourself, "am I so angry that my boyfriend was 20 minutes late to pick me up?" Perhaps it's because underneath the anger is hurt; you had told him how much this particular concert meant to you. Upon deeper introspection, you remember having your feelings disregarded was a consistent theme in your previous relationship, or maybe it stems back to a parent or primary caregiver. Now the work becomes processing and working through this familiar theme which, you may come to realize, is not present in your current relationship.
All the ghosts from The Sixth Sense wanted was to be heard. The rest was up to Cole, who acted upon what he had learned. Satisfied their purpose had been conveyed and attended to, the ghosts were able to go away. So too can your fears, your anger, or your intrusive thoughts.
Start by listening to them.