Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.
~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Since the 1980s, psychologists have been studying an interesting paradox: the more we try not to think about something, the more we think about it.
In the first of several famous experiments, university students were asked to sit alone in a room for five minutes, with no books or electronic devices. Half of them were instructed to try not to think of a white bear (Wegner et al. 1987). If thoughts of white bears came to mind despite their efforts, they rang a bell. On average, they rang the bell six times, or just more than once per minute.
Before the experiment started, they probably weren’t thinking of white bears so often. They only started thinking of them every minute when asked not to think about them. The experiment continued for another five minutes, in which the students were asked to think about white bears. They had many thoughts of white bears. In fact, they had significantly more thoughts about white bears than the other group of students in the study who were asked to think about white bears from the beginning but were never told not to think about them.
This pattern was labeled the rebound effect.
Suppressing thoughts of white bears for five minutes caused the thoughts to bounce back at a higher rate than if they were never suppressed. Thought suppression, or deliberately trying not to think about something, is a common psychological trap.
On the surface, it looks like a sensible way of dealing with unwanted thoughts. But it often backfires and makes the thoughts more frequent. The same thing happens with unwanted emotions and urges. The more we try to avoid or suppress them, the stronger they become.
In this chapter, we’ll consider how this trap works, why we fall into it, and how mindfulness skills can lead us out.
Most of us have thoughts we’d like to avoid. We have painful memories of moments we’d prefer to forget. We worry about upcoming stressors, like giving a speech, even when we’d rather not think about them. People trying to cut back on smoking, drinking, or overeating are often troubled by persistent, unwanted thoughts about cigarettes, alcohol, or food. People suffering from post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety often have intrusive, negative thoughts that are very upsetting.
Nearly everyone has the occasional unwanted thought that seems bizarre or even shameful—thoughts of jumping off a tall building, shouting something nasty during a gathering, or attacking someone.
Thought suppression seems like an obvious way to help ourselves feel better when we’re preoccupied with something troubling. Conventional wisdom suggests that we should put such things out of our minds.
However, since the original white bear experiments, many studies have confirmed that trying to suppress upsetting thoughts has paradoxical effects: the thoughts come to mind more often, and emotional distress gets worse.
In one experiment, smokers trying to quit were asked to sit alone in a room for five minutes. Half were told to avoid all thoughts of smoking. The others were told that they could think about anything that came to mind, including smoking. Those told not to think about smoking reported more smoking-related thoughts (Salkovskis and Reynolds 1994).
Other studies show similar patterns in heavy drinkers trying not to think about alcohol (Palfai et al. 1997) and in people trying to suppress memories of stressful or traumatic events (Shipherd and Beck 2005).
The pattern is clear: for people with troubling thoughts, trying to get rid of the thoughts can make matters worse.
Sometimes we try to avoid uncomfortable thoughts and feelings by staying away from the people, places and activities that bring them up. This has appealing short-term benefits: we feel better if we don’t put ourselves in awkward or stressful situations.
In the long run, however, problems get worse and life becomes less satisfying and meaningful. It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that avoidance behavior is helpful. We tell ourselves something that sounds convincing: “I need to stay away from social activities until I get control of my anxiety,” “My children need to be independent about doing their homework,” or “My reports need to be as good as I can possibly make them.” If we act in accordance with these thoughts, we feel better in the short term. In the long run, problems get worse.
The same behavior can be constructive or avoidant, depending on the motivation. Doing the laundry so the children have clean clothes is constructive. Doing the laundry to avoid helping the children with their homework is problematic. Taking the stairs to get more exercise strengthens your body. Taking the stairs to avoid coworkers in the elevator contributes to loneliness.
The same behavior might be constructive and avoidant at the same time. For example, you might go to a friend’s birthday party to make your friend happy and to avoid an assignment for work or school. If this is true, then a non-avoidant approach might require a compromise, such as going to the party for an hour and then working on your assignment.
Everyone engages in avoidance now and then. We try to suppress our thoughts and feelings, or we stay away from uncomfortable situations or activities. If it doesn’t happen often or persist for long periods, it probably won’t do much harm.
If avoidance is so harmful, why do we do it? There are several good reasons (Hayes 2005):
1. Avoidance is useful in many situations.
Avoiding dark streets in dangerous parts of town reduces the chance of being robbed. Avoiding a colleague who comes to work with the flu reduces the likelihood of getting sick. Vicious dogs, tornadoes, hot stoves—many things should be avoided. It’s part of human nature to feel fear, anxiety, nervousness, or reluctance in situations that might be dangerous. These feelings motivate us to stay away from harm.
2. Short-term distraction is sometimes helpful.
How do you feel about dental work? If you have an appointment coming up in a few days, would you rather not think about it? Computer games, books, TV, and other absorbing activities may keep your mind occupied temporarily. In this case, avoidance has short-term benefits (less anxiety about the dental work) but probably no significant long-term harm. What about when you’re watching a scary movie or having blood drawn—do you cover your eyes or look away? If so, you’re avoiding short-term discomfort. In the long run, you won’t adapt to these experiences, but this may not be a problem. Your quality of life probably won’t suffer.
3. We think we should be able to get rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
As children, we may have been told not to worry, not to cry, or not to be sad, angry, or nervous, even when these were normal reactions to situations. Such directives from adults are often well-intentioned, but they lead children to believe that mature people have their thoughts and feelings under complete and voluntary control. This assumption may persist into adulthood. It’s an illusion. Many people who look calm and happy on the outside are struggling on the inside. Even the happiest, most well-adjusted people can’t completely control their thoughts and feelings.
4. We’re susceptible to short-term effects of our own behavior.
It’s part of human nature to be strongly influenced by the immediate effects of our behavior. When avoidance reduces distress and makes us more comfortable, we’re encouraged to keep using it, even when it’s inconsistent with important long-term goals, stops us from solving our problems, or makes us feel worse over time.
Avoidance of unpleasant thoughts and feelings often backfires. But ruminating on them is no good either. So if we shouldn’t avoid them and shouldn’t dwell on them, what can we do?
Mindfulness of thoughts and feelings is the healthy path between avoidance and rumination. The Passengers on the Bus metaphor (Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson 1999) is an alternative to the Guest House metaphor. It provides another way of understanding the mindful approach to thoughts and feelings.
Imagine that you’re a shy, lonely person and your goal is to have more friends and a satisfying social life. To work toward this goal, you’re trying to be more sociable: initiating conversations, going to parties, and inviting people to lunch and the movies. It’s difficult because of the thoughts and feelings that come up. Socializing makes you feel sweaty, tense, and anxious.
Your thoughts are like intimidating people in your head. “You’re an awkward misfit,” they say. “You’re the type who never fits in. This won’t work. People don’t want to spend time with you.”
Now picture yourself driving a bus. Your destination is A Better Social Life, and you’re steering in this direction. Imagine that your thoughts and feelings are the passengers on the bus. They sit in the back, shouting at you. “Turn around,” they say. “There’s no point in going this way. You’ll never have friends.” They’re loud and persistent.
You have a sinking feeling that the passengers might be right, but you’re determined to try. “I have to do something about these nasty passengers”, you say to yourself. “I’ll never get anywhere with them interfering like this. They’re dragging me down.” So you stop the bus and walk to the back.
“You have to be quiet,” you say to the passengers. “This is important to me. To have any hope of improving my social life, I need to stay calm. I can’t have you shouting at me.” But the passengers are stubborn and won’t be quiet or change their minds. “Well if that’s your attitude, you can’t ride on my bus,” you say. “Out you go.” But they won’t leave, and they’re too heavy to push out the door.
You realize that your bus isn’t going anywhere.
“Okay,” you say in frustration. “What will you do to me if I keep driving toward my goal?” “We’ll tell you where you should go,” they reply. “But what if I don’t?” you ask. They stare at you blankly.
You realize an important fact about the passengers. They have loud, ugly voices and discouraging things to say, but they can’t literally hurt you. You don’t have to believe them or follow their orders. With this new insight in mind, you return to the driver’s seat and resume driving the bus in your chosen direction.
The passengers continue to talk. They tell you why you’ll never succeed and shouldn’t try. It’s unpleasant and you wish you could be rid of them. With practice, however, you become more skillful at driving in the direction you want to go, despite what the passengers say. Their voices begin to fade. You find them less upsetting.
You begin to understand: your passengers are the voices of previous experiences that can’t be changed. You develop nonjudgmental acceptance of your passengers and allow them to be who they are. And you don’t let them drive the bus.
It’s important to also notice what you’re not doing when you take this mindful attitude toward your unpleasant thoughts and feelings. You’re not suppressing or avoiding them. You’re allowing them to ride on your bus. You’re not ruminating about them. You can hear them, but most of your attention is devoted to driving in your chosen direction. You’re not trying to change them. You’re accepting them for what they are. You’re not allowing them to control your behavior. You’re deciding for yourself where to drive.
Here are a few steps to follow to work with your patterns of avoidance:
1. When you catch yourself trying to avoid your thoughts and feelings, remind yourself that they’re passengers on your bus.
2. See if you can find a way to drive your bus in the direction you’d like to go: toward something that’s consistent with your important long-term goals. This may require that you allow the passengers to be themselves, rather than fighting with them.
3. Be kind to yourself about the unpleasant passengers on your bus. Everyone has them. They’re part of being alive.
4. Continue working with this book. Later chapters will provide more mindfulness exercises that can help decrease suppression and avoidance. Even skillful drivers find that strong emotions occasionally take control and send the bus off course. This is emotion-driven behavior. It’s another trap; and, in the next chapter, we’ll look at how mindfulness skills can lead us out of it.
Avoidance of difficult situations or activities reduces anxiety temporarily, but in the long run it interferes with progress toward important goals. Mindful observation of our avoidance patterns helps us stay out of this trap.
Through mindfulness practice, we learn to recognize when we’re tempted to avoid something and can instead make a wise decision about how to proceed.
When pursuing important goals requires that we do something uncomfortable, like socialize when feeling shy and nervous, mindfulness reminds us that our thoughts and feelings don’t have to control our behavior. Like passengers on a bus, they might be unpleasant and unkind, but we don’t have to obey them.
We can allow them to come and go while continuing with behavior that’s consistent with our goals.
Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson 1999
Salkovskis and Reynolds 1994
Palfai et al. 1997
Shipherd and Beck 2005
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Karissa Kneeland / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Save the Artic