“Don’t choke don’t choke don’t choke…”
As we all know, thoughts like that lead inevitably to choking. Why?
Because trying to suppress a thought gives it power. It’s like pushing against a spring. The harder you push, the more force it pushes back with.
I was reminded of this recently by a post on PsyBlog: 8 Ironic Effects of Thought Suppression. It’s not just thoughts of failure this happens with. Whether you’re trying not to be attracted to someone or not to mention a secret, trying not to be depressed or trying to fall asleep, the harder you try, the more you fail.
Back in the 1960s, Maxwell Maltz had an explanation for this. His book Psychocybernetics (which is excellent, by the way) talks about your mind as a guided missile, heading for the goals you present to it most vividly.
So when you’re trying to think unsexy thoughts, guess what happens?
Your mind heads straight for what you are so vividly imagining.
Suppressing thoughts takes effort
Of course, we can suppress thoughts to a certain degree. But it does take effort. A study in Biological Psychology led by Philippe R. Goldin used brain scans to investigate the difference between two strategies for dealing with distressing thoughts: expressive repression (that is, keeping a “stiff upper lip” and not showing your distress), and cognitive reappraisal (changing the way you think about the distressing situation). Expressive repression was less effective – and took more mental effort.
And this is why it’s harder to suppress thoughts when we’re tired. A pattern I’ve noticed with the people who come to me for help in changing the way they eat goes like this: In the early part of the day, even up to the afternoon, they eat healthily. But when they get home from work, they head for the junk food and undo all their good work.
One likely reason is that they’re tired, and the thoughts they’ve been suppressing all day about how good some chocolate would taste have become stronger than their ability to control them.
How not to be a (thought-suppression) hero
So, if the battle against thoughts we don’t want to think is doomed to failure, what can we do instead?
We can think the thoughts and then let them go.
Both parts are equally important. Thinking the thoughts (which you’ve actually been doing anyway while you were trying to suppress them) brings them out into the clear light of day and gives our rationality time to kick in. Particularly for thoughts that hold a strong emotional charge, we respond emotionally before we respond rationally, and if we instantly react by pushing the thoughts down again, all we’re doing is winding ourselves up emotionally. We’re never thinking about the thoughts.
Often, when you think about a thought, it becomes obvious that it’s a stupid thought and you don’t really want to act on it. How often have you done something stupid and said, “I didn’t think that all the way through?”
Think your thoughts all the way through. Say you’re attracted to someone inappropriate, for example. Let yourself think about that. Your mind will come up with all the reasons that the attraction is inappropriate and the relationship couldn’t work.
The feeling, of course, will very likely still be there. And this is where the letting go comes in.
Letting thoughts and feelings go
If you’ve been reading my stuff for any length of time you probably know what’s coming next. Yes, it’s the Welcoming Practice. It’s such a good one that I keep teaching it at every opportunity.
First, notice how the feeling is in your body. Where is it located? What is it like? Is it warm, cool, tight, loose? Become aware of it as a body sensation. This simultaneously connects you to it and distances you from it – it’s like letting the thought come into consciousness. It stops the suppression and your attempts to ignore it, but it also gives you enough space to look at it from the outside instead of being carried along in it.
Second, name and acknowledge the feeling. Naming it sets up a circuit between the “feeling” and “rational” parts of your brain and starts to siphon off the activation of the “feeling” part. In the classic Welcoming Practice, you actually say “Welcome, [name of feeling]“, hence the name of the practice. You’re acknowledging the feeling as a part of yourself, as a genuine reaction. You’re not trying to push it away any more. (You’re not, of course, welcoming the situation that led to the feeling, which may be quite harmful and wrong.)
Take your time over each step. When you’re ready, the third step is to gently let the feeling go. Allow its activation to subside, without having led to any action. You might even make a mental or physical gesture of letting something go from your hand. I usually take a deep breath and let it slowly out as I let go of the feeling.
Now you can move on with your life.
Practicing the Welcoming Practice
You may have to keep letting the thoughts and feelings go for a while before they stop bothering you. That’s OK. It’s no more effort than you were spending suppressing them, after all, and that wasn’t working, whereas letting them go will.
So take a moment right now to set yourself a mental alarm. Take a few deep breaths, relax in your chair, close your eyes and tell yourself, “When I’m suppressing a thought or feeling, I notice and remember what to do. I think the thought and let the feeling go.”
For extra effectiveness, write that down and put it somewhere you’re going to see it frequently.
I think you’ll be surprised by the results.