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Hi ,

Hope you’re well. 🙂

Straight into it this week…

How do I not think of an elephant?

Let’s start with a common self-help bromide:

If you want to change your life, change your habits.

But changing our habits – especially ingrained habits – is far more difficult than it seems.

After all, a habit isn’t just something you do…it’s something you do regularly. That repetition embeds the behavior into your subconscious, resulting in the occasionally disconcerting experience of finding yourself in the middle of a behavior you didn’t consciously start. “I didn’t mean to get off this exit, I was just on autopilot.”

How do we change behaviors that live in our subconscious? Since all subconscious behaviors, like balancing while walking, were once conscious behaviors…

And all conscious behaviors start as thoughts…

We’ll need to start with thoughts.

Which is most of us go wrong.

“All successful mental programming is contingent upon the successful management of unwanted thoughts.” – Clifton Mitchell

If you’ve ever tried to suppress a thought, you’ve likely experienced a strange phenomenon:

Attempting to suppress a thought results in the undesired thought becoming stronger.

Even worse, in times of stress – say, when you’re struggling to change a deeply-ingrained behavior – the intrusive thoughts seem to gather momentum.

As you grow weaker, they grow stronger.

You may have run across a variation of this principle in a psychology class, where it’s commonly posed as the “don’t think of an elephant” problem.

If I tell you to not think of an elephant, an image of an elephant will almost invariably pop into your mind, even if only for a split second.

Why is this the case? There are a few different theories, but my favorite is “ironic process theory,” put forward by Dr. Martin Wegner.

Wegner’s theory states that:

“…Attempts to influence mental states require monitoring processes that are sensitive to the failure of the attempts and that these processes act subtly yet consistently in a direction precisely opposite the intended control.…when efforts to implement the intended mental control are undermined in any way, the monitoring process itself will surface and ironically overwhelm the intended control to yield the opposite of the mental state that is desired.”

What does that mean?

In order to comply with your instruction to “not think” of something, your mind has to imagine that thing in order to be sure you’re not thinking about it.

I picture an old-time sheriff, walking around town with a sketch of a wanted criminal, checking passers-by to see if they bear a resemblance. Without the sketch, the sheriff can’t be sure who’s the wanted criminal and who isn’t; without an idea of what thought needs to be suppressed, your mind can’t suppress the thought.

This process seems to ramp up when your defenses come down. It’s like your mind summons the undesired thought to make sure you aren’t thinking about it, realizes you’re thinking about it and then starts to rub it in your face to make sure you get the message: “NO, YOU FOOL! I SAID DON’T THINK ABOUT THIS THOUGHT, RIGHT HERE!” The undesired thought starts to dominate your conscious awareness, even as you specifically struggle to eliminate it.

Thus, the more we try to suppress a given thought, the larger and larger that thought looms inside our minds.

As Clifton Mitchell writes in the book Priming:

“Stated another way, ironic process comes down to this: The mind cannot consciously avoid, it can only intentionally focus and attend.”

Let’s add one more wrinkle:

You now know that simply struggling to suppress a thought will ironically result in that thought becoming stronger.

But what about affirmations?

Adherents of affirmations will say that they don’t try to suppress thoughts at all – instead, they replace unwanted thoughts with new ones.

For example, imagine a smoker who wants to quit smoking.

Instead of trying to will himself to stop smoking, perhaps he takes to telling himself everyday:

“I don’t enjoy smoking anymore.”

He repeats this to himself every day, hundreds of times a day:

“I don’t enjoy smoking anymore.”

What does his mind do with this information?

Ironic process theory applies here, as well. If your brain wants to understand whether you enjoy smoking or not, it has to have a clear picture of what “enjoying smoking” is.

“You don’t enjoy smoking? Got it – so this, right here? Standing outside with friends, taking a slow, relaxing drag off the cigarette, feeling the smoke fill your lungs, laughing, feeling the stress melt away? This? You don’t enjoy this? Got it. You definitely don’t enjoy that. Nope. Not standing outside with friends, taking a slow, relaxing drag off the cigarette, feeling the smoke fill your lungs, laughing, feeling the stress melt away….”

This is simply a more sophisticated version of thought suppression, with the same unfortunate results.

We are entwined with what we struggle against. This is unavoidable. By directing your mental energy towards something, you are feeding that thing – whether you mean to or not.

Understanding ironic thought processes is the first step towards mastering them.

Releasing our struggles, instead of fueling them, is the second.

The final step – replacing our negative thoughts and habits – is the subject of next week’s email.

Until then,


Cool Stuff To Read:

While I was struggling to fall asleep the other day I was struck by the sudden urge to watch No Reservations, the classic food/travel show from Anthony Bourdain.

While I haven’t had the chance to revisit the show, you can check out Bourdain’s first published piece, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This”, from The New Yorker.

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