What if I say, “Do not think about an elephant?” – I bet all you will think of is an elephant or several elephants in your mind.
Well, it turns out that’s just how our brains work. When we tell ourselves not to do something, our brains don’t know what to do with that information. So, instead of ignoring what we try to avoid, our minds focus more on it.
There’s a name for this phenomenon: Ironic mental control.
Our brains have two systems for controlling our thoughts and behaviors. The first system directs our attention and actions toward our goals, while the second system monitors us for errors. When we try to suppress a thought or behavior, that monitoring system kicks into overdrive. It starts scanning our thoughts and actions for any signs of the thing we’re trying to avoid. But ironically, the more we try to suppress it, the more our minds fixate on it*.Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control
In a recent coaching session, I had my client role-play a challenging situation at work. But he seemed very awkward and unnatural in his delivery. Then, during the debrief, he said he was busy thinking he should avoid making the other person feel bad.
Since he is an avid bicyclist, I asked him, “What happens when you are a new biker trying to avoid a pothole”? “You end up in that pothole,” he said, smiling nervously, and added, “Even the expert bikers fall when they only focus on avoiding a rock or a pothole.” He got the point.
In the next round, he focused on his desire to be in that conversation. The qualities he chose were sensitivity, curiosity, and being helpful. His demeanor shifted positively as he focused on those, and he looked much more authentic.
So next time you struggle not to think about an elephant, find out what to focus on instead. That will be a more effective way of using your brain.
*Reference: Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101(1), 34-52.
Feature photo: Harvey Sapir at Pexel.com