The white bear problem
“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.”
The more you try to suppress thoughts, the more they are likely to appear in your mind!
Here’s a simple thought exercise for you: Try going an entire minute without thinking of a white bear.
Close your eyes and empty your mind. Ready. Set. Go.
How did you do? Did you go the entire minute without thinking of a white bear? Or did the words “white bear” – or an image of a “white bear” – pop up into your consciousness at some point throughout the exercise?
The “white bear problem” was first studied by social psychologist Daniel Wegner in the late 1980s. He discovered that when people try to suppress or resist certain thoughts it can often backfire and lead to higher rates of that thought intruding into your mind.
For example, smokers who try to not think of cigarettes at all often find it harder to give up, and people who suppress thoughts that cause anxiety are more likely to think about their triggers and thus feel more anxious. Wegner called this an “ironic thought process,” and it’s effect is often greater the more a person is feeling stressed.
According to Wegner, when you forcefully try not to think of something, one part of your mind is suppressing the forbidden thought, but another part of your mind “checks in” every so often to make sure the thought is not coming up – therefore, ironically, bringing it to mind.
It’s like going into a job interview and thinking to yourself, “Okay don’t mess up saying your name, and don’t mess up giving a handshake, and don’t mess up telling about your work background.” You’re trying to suppress negative ways of thinking, but you’re also simultaneously bringing them into your mind and subtly planting the idea in yourself.
For this reason, many say “the brain can’t process negatives,” because every time you try to NOT think about something, you’re bringing it into your mind and actively thinking about it.
So now that you understand the “white bear problem,” you’re probably wondering: what are the best ways to actually manage negative and unhelpful thoughts?
Overcoming the White Bear Problem: Strategies for Managing Your Thoughts
When you have any negative thought, there are many strategies available to you – at any given moment – that can help you to better accept it, manage it, and/or release it. Here are a few of the main “cognitive strategies” I’ve discovered over the years that work best.
- Acceptance – One core strategy for better managing your thoughts is to learn how to accept them without getting attached to them.
- Reframing – Another core strategy for better managing your thoughts is to learn the power of reframing or what Cognitive Behavioural Therapists call Cognitive Restructuring. This is the practice of taking an existing thought that is unhealthy and destructive, then re-wording it or re-framing it in a way that makes it more healthy and motivating to you. Our beliefs are more flexible than we realize (and everything is subject to multiple interpretations), so one of the best ways to manage negative thinking is to learn how to replace it with types of thinking that better serve you. Even just using different words to describe the same belief can change its meaning and connotation. This is one of the most common tools used in “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.”
- Writing – Writing down your thoughts can also be a successful strategy to help you accept them, express them, and release them, all at once. When we begin to articulate our thoughts on paper, they start to make more sense, become more clear and organized, and overall become easier for our minds to digest. One common exercise I recommend to people is the brain drain exercise which is a completely free-flow writing exercise where you take 10 minutes to write down everything that pops up in your mind, 100% unfiltered and uncensored.
- Mental Games – Playing “mental games” is another way to keep your mind occupied and thereby distance yourself from negative thoughts. While this could technically be considered a type of “thought suppression,” I think of it more as a re-focusing of my attention on new and different things. For example, one version of the alphabet game, (where your goal is to identify one thing you are grateful for with each letter of the alphabet), has been shown to be an effective strategy for derailing negative thoughts and moving your mind in a new direction.
- Creativity – Creative hobbies like drawing, music, photography, dancing, fashion, filmmaking or design are all great ways to accept ourselves and express ourselves in ways that often can’t be achieved using just words. Having a creative hobby is important for improving your mental health, managing your emotions, and minimizing stress and anxiety. And often negative thinking is caused by first being in a negative mood, so by focusing on your emotional well-being more you’ll be able to tackle your negative thinking at a much deeper, abstract, and nonverbal level.
- Visualization – Visualization can also be a great strategy for managing your negative thoughts in imaginative ways. You can take a negative thought and visualize it as an object or person, and then use your imagination (and symbolism) to make it easier to let go of the negative thought. One tool used by psychologists is the mind bus technique where clients imagine their negative thoughts as passengers on a bus, and then visualize themselves as the driver of the bus, dropping each passenger off at their destination. The only limit is your imagination. You could visualize a negative thought as a boulder blocking your path, then visualize yourself using dynamite to blow it up. By using your imagination, you can often communicate with your mind in creative and unique ways – which makes it a very powerful tool for any type of self-change.
As you can see, there are many different tools, techniques, and exercises available to us that can help us to better manage our negative and destructive thought patterns.
The key lesson is that we don’t need to suppress our negative thoughts – we shouldn’t try avoiding the thought of the “white bear” – but instead we can accept these thoughts, embrace these thoughts, and release these thoughts without letting them have complete power and control over us.