You did, didn’t you? You just couldn’t stop the image of flying pigs springing into your mind, even though you were trying not to think about them! It’s ok, we all do that. It doesn’t matter how hard we try to not think about something, the not thinking is exactly the trigger which will make it come to mind! Intriguing, yes?
There’s some sound scientific research behind the theory of why we struggle to suppress unwanted thoughts. Developed by Daniel Wenger, a psychology professor at Havard University, it is known as ironic monitoring theory and refers to our minds tendency to rebound thoughts that we are trying to avoid. Hence the recurring visions of the flying pigs.
According to Wenger, when we try to suppress a thought, our mind accepts the cue to do so, but then ‘checks in’ periodically to make sure that we are not thinking about the banned thought, thereby bringing the thought back to mind!
Obviously that’s just a bit of fun when we’re only trying to avoid thinking about those pesky flying pigs, but what if the thoughts we were trying to suppress were a little more important or serious? What if, for example, we were trying to avoid the temptation of a cream cake, chocolate bar or juicy steak? Or maybe we’ve finally moved away from a relationship which wasn’t good for us, but we keep feeling guilty about the perceived pain we’ve caused the other person?
Or what if we’re trying to ‘re-program’ ourselves to have a more optimistic outlook on life in an effort to feel happier? In all these situations, it appears to be our natural tendency to keep dwelling on all the things we don’t want and then by keeping in them in mind, it becomes more and more difficult to reduce our ‘longing’ for them.
So how do we turn this around and find a way to stop these unwanted, intrusive thoughts from filling our heads?
Using Positive Distractions
When thinking about techniques to increase our chances of success we are often advised to think about the things we do want, rather than the things we don’t want. This is one of the methods suggested by Wenger as an effective way to suppress our unwanted thoughts. In other words, Wenger is suggesting that we use positive distraction as a method to keep our mind occupied with other more important or enjoyable thoughts.
I sometimes wonder how easy this actually is to do. It’s a little like the idea of those who make throw away comments along the lines of ‘just think positively’. It’s a great idea, but actually doing it requires mindful and sustained effort. In the same way that our mind checks in to make sure we’re not thinking about the banned thoughts, we also need to consciously check in with ourselves regularly to make sure we’re thinking positively!
This is further compounded I believe by our tendency to continue to support our existing thought patterns by continuing with our existing patterns of behaviour. For example, if we’re trying to achieve a different kind of success (by our own definition) to that which we currently enjoy, then our behaviour will need to change. However, by continuing to watch the same TV programs, read the same magazines, meet with the same people etc our existing behaviour and therefore our thoughts are perpetuated.
We make our potential for successful change so much more unlikely if we don’t first accept our current situation and then look for the changes that will need to happen to bring about the level of success we desire. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, then you will already know that I’m a great believer in the notion of personal change to bring about the change in circumstances which I desire.
Does Multitasking Hinder or Help?
Is thinking about dying one of your most unwanted thoughts? If so, then you may be guilty of multitasking! It seems that there is a link between multitasking and an increase in the availability of thoughts of death, one the most unwanted thoughts!
I am a natural multitasker and in fact I have great difficulty in working on a single task to the exclusion of all others. I’ve been reading recently that this isn’t the most efficient way to work anyway, although I would argue that it feels like the most efficient way for me. However, I would readily concede that when I’m able to concentrate for extended periods on a task and get into flow, then all other thoughts are pushed out of my mind. So maybe there is some truth in this?
Get Into Meditation
You’ve heard me mention a number of times that I’m a fan of meditation and (mostly) make time to practice every day. Well it seems that meditation (and mindfulness) is thought to strengthen thought control. Consequently, it’s not too much a stretch of the imagination to consider that it may help us lessen unwanted thoughts.
My personal view on this is that it’s probably true. I have felt a number of benefits accrue from my ongoing meditation practice and the ability to ‘park’ unwanted thoughts has enabled me to keep with my planned activities for the day to a greater or lesser degree.
Each of these methods – positive distraction, avoiding multitasking and meditation are all offered by Wenger as a means to help us deal with unwanted thoughts. There are a further two that are also offered up, but neither of these are something I’ve tried.
Two Bonus Methods…
Wenger suggests that we allot ourselves a ‘worry time’. This should be a set amount of time that we allow ourselves to worry or dwell on the thoughts which we are trying to suppress. Apparently some people have success with this method, but I’m not able to offer any experienced thoughts on this. What about you?
In a similar vein, Wenger also suggests ‘Exposure’. Again, this is allowing yourself to think about the banned thought but in a controlled way. I guess this means not allowing the thoughts to spiral out of control, although I imagine this can be very difficult and potentially painful too. If anything, my experience of ‘exposure’ has only seen the unwanted thoughts escalate into the realms of the ridiculous, although this is usually only apparent with hindsight!
I found this topic interesting, especially the irony in our mind checking in to make sure we’re not thinking about the thing we’re not supposed to be thinking about! But, it was useful to find that despite not previously knowing the science, I was already making headway with some recognised techniques for ‘controlling’ my unwanted thoughts. What do you think about these techniques? Have you tried them and did they work? If you haven’t tried them, do you think they might be worth a try? I look forward to reading your thoughts and comments!