Imagine this scenario. Your boss chose you to make a vital presentation at a very important client meeting on Zoom. You’ve prepared for this meeting – did your research, created your slides, wrote your notes, and ensured the stability of your internet connection.
But as the time for the meeting approaches, you become so nervous that the sound of your rapid heartbeat drowns your thoughts. You tell yourself not to be nervous in an effort to calm yourself.
What do you think happens next?
More likely than not, you’ve been in similar situations before. You’d know that no matter how hard you suppress your nervousness, the feeling remains. In fact, the more you tamp it down, the more anxious you get.
Why is that? Why is it hard to get a thought out of your head once it’s made its way in?
This dilemma is called the “white bear problem.”
Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote in 1863: “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.”
This quote became the basis of the ironic process theory, also known as the “white bear problem.” It states that the harder you clamp down a thought, the more frequently and the more intensely this thought will come up in your mind. Social psychologist and Harvard professor Daniel Wegner developed this theory.
According to Dr. Wegner, when you tell yourself to avoid thinking of something, a part of your mind does comply. But, at the same time, another part of your mind checks that you’re not thinking of this forbidden thought and will do so continually.
This constant checking ironically forces you to think the thought you wanted to drive away in the first place.
You can overcome your “white bear” with these strategies.
Having white bears pop up in your head every now and then can be frustrating and irritating. It can also lead you to make decisions you may come to regret.
So, how do you get rid of these white bears once and for all? Dr. Wegner offered a few strategies:
Focus on something else.
You can get rid of your white bears by distracting yourself with a more entertaining or gratifying thought. In the example above, instead of zeroing in on how nervous you are, you can focus on how grateful you are that your boss chose you to make the presentation.
You’re more likely to have unwanted thoughts drifting in your mind when you’re mentally bogged down. So, try to relax whenever you can. Watch TV, read a book, work on your hobbies, have fun. Better yet, seek help or delegate a task when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Put it off.
Sometimes, an unwanted thought simply won’t go away. In that case, schedule a time for thinking this thought as much as your mind wants to. Make sure you set a time limit for it, say, 15 or 30 minutes. Then your white bear won’t pop up as much throughout the day.
Mindfulness practices like meditation can strengthen your mind and give you better control over your thoughts.
Unwanted thoughts can float into your brain whether you like it or not. But no matter how big or intense your white bear problem is, you can always make it go away.
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