Why Is the Content of Intrusive Thoughts so Awful? Part 2


I'll start with a quick review of the last newsletter and recap three simple facts about the way your brain works--(1) everyone has passing intrusive thoughts, (2) consciousness is broadband, but we are only aware of just a few elements, and (3) we focus on things that seem dangerous or "violate" our expectancy. All three facts lay the groundwork for the content of Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts.

Now, imagine you love chocolate, and you have the fleeting intrusive thought, "Chocolate is no good." That would seem odd, and it would violate your sense of yourself (at least with regard to chocolate). You might start to wonder, "Does that mean I don't really like chocolate?", "Is my unconscious mind telling me that I have to keep away from chocolate because I might gain too much weight?", or "Is any other message behind that intrusive thought?" You would then put that thought on your "watch list." After all, you love chocolate, and would want to make sure you don't have any more thoughts suggesting you should keep away from it.

Why are you putting the thought on your "watch list?" It's not because you want to have more thoughts like that. It's exactly the opposite. You are hoping that thoughts like "chocolate is no good" do not cross your mind again. And, of course, as soon as you try NOT to have a thought, it will get stuck in your mind no matter what you do.

A psychologist named Daniel Wegner studied this in the 1980's and the 1990's. He called it the Ironic effect. It's simple. Try this experiment. For the next two minutes, try not to think of pink elephants. You can think of any other type of animal, and any other thought of any kind, but you must keep pink elephants out of your mind. Set a timer for two minutes. Get ready, get set, go.

How did you do? Most people find that they are unable to keep pink elephants out of their mind. The lesson learned: Trying to keep a thought out of your mind actually makes it more likely to get stuck in your mind. Effort works backwards.

Suppose you are a peace-loving, kind, gentle person, and you have the passing intrusive thought, "I could push that person into the ditch." That thought would violate your sense of who you are. If you reacted to that thought like the chocolate lover reacted to "chocolate is no good," you would put that thought on your watch list. You would try to keep another thought like that from coming into your awareness. And--guess what?--the thought would soon get stuck.

So the content of your intrusive thoughts--horrible as they might be--are the opposite of who you are, and the opposite of how you see yourself. They violate your sense of yourself.

Sometimes your best efforts work backwards. The key isn't trying harder. I'm sure you try very hard. The key is to try in a different way.


Martin N. Seif, Ph.D., ABPP