Every one of us knows what it's like to be plagued by an unpleasant or unwanted thought. It could be a nagging self-doubt, a disturbing story from the evening news, the humiliation of being recently rejected by a potential love interest. Try as you might to block it out, the image or feeling pops up over and over again. It makes you miserable, and leaves you feeling very much a virtual prisoner of your own cruel mind.
Most people believe that there really isn't much you can do about it - that on some level, these thoughts must need to happen, and that trying to block them out is pointless. The good news is, most people are wrong. You absolutely can block out painful, unwanted, or counterproductive thoughts, if you are armed with the right strategies. And I got a chance to put them to the test once again just last week, when I shut the bathroom door on the index finger of my four-year old daughter, Annika.
It was very, very bad. Her finger had been near the hinge where the force was greatest, so the tip was fractured and, the surgeon told me later, nearly severed. Immediately after it happened, I scooped up my shoeless daughter and her 1-year old brother, still in his pajamas, and ran out into the New York City streets frantically in search of a cab. We spent the next four hours in the ER.
By the time we got back to our apartment, Annika was once again all smiles and sunshine. Her surgeon had assured us that she would heal quickly and that there would be no lasting damage. Remarkably, she wasn't even in any pain. Once she was settled in on the sofa with her dad and brother and a big bowl of ice cream, I took the dog for a long walk in the park, and bawled my eyes out. (Thank goodness New Yorkers avoid eye contact. Maybe nobody noticed.)
As terrible as it is as a parent to cope with any injury to your child, there's a very special kind of anguish in knowing that you were the one who caused it.
Now, I knew perfectly well that it was an accident, and that accidents happen to everyone (even neurotically safety-obsessed moms like me). I knew that there was really nothing to be gained from dwelling on what happened. But the next day, even though Annika was playful and pain-free, I still felt awful. From moment to moment, I cycled through the hit parade of negative emotions: guilt, anxiety, depression, self-loathing. I couldn't enjoy playing with my children, I couldn't concentrate on anything. I couldn't even feel the joy and relief that you'd have thought I would feel knowing that my daughter was happy and on the mend.
The problem was that memories of what happened kept popping up in my mind. I would see the terror in her eyes, remember my own panic and struggle to stay calm, relive the moment where I had started to close the door and wish I had just looked down to see her standing there. I knew that I was going to continue to feel terrible unless I could rid myself of these unwanted, painful thoughts. Fortunately, I knew just what to do.
Blocking out (or "suppressing") a thought is challenging, because a blocked thought tends to rebound - in other words, it can come back later with a vengeance once you've let your guard down. The most well-known account of why rebounding happens comes from ironic monitoring theory. The idea is that, while you are blocking out a thought (for instance, trying to rid yourself of thoughts of "white bears"), part of your brain is actively searching for any thoughts of white bears so it can immediately shut them down.
That active search creates an ironic effect - it makes white bear thoughts more accessible, so that once you let your guard down and stop blocking, the thoughts come rushing back. Now all you can think about is white bears.
For a long time, psychologists believed that allowing yourself to go ahead and think about white bears was the only solution - eventually, since your brain wasn't on the lookout for these thoughts and actively trying to block them anymore, they would fade. But thoughts can be blocked, without rebounding. To do this, there are two things you need to know.
1) First, remember that blocking a thought is always a bit difficult, no matter what the thought is. But just because it's hard, that does not mean that, on some level, you need to think that particular thought. Your brain doesn't necessarily have a hidden agenda. The real irony is that believing that it does is actually what creates rebound! In other words, you will continue to be haunted by a thought if you give the difficulty you have blocking it out more meaning and importance than it deserves.
In fact, in a series of studies, psychologists Jens Foerster and Nira Liberman found that if they explained to people in advance, before they blocked out a thought, that it is always difficult to block any thought, there was no rebounding whatsoever. Blocked thoughts actually stayed blocked. The white bears never returned.
So the first step to blocking an unwanted thought is really embracing the idea that you don't really need to think it.
2) Second, you need a strategy for handling the thought when it does come. A good if-then plan is just what the doctor ordered for coping with unwanted thoughts and disruptive feelings (see my previous post, Be Careful What You Plan For, for more on planning).
The key is to plan out, in advance what you will do when the thought pops up in your mind. It can be as simple as saying to yourself, "If the thought comes, then I will ignore it." Some may prefer to replace the unwanted thought or feeling with a more positive one. In one study, tennis players who were plagued by pre-match anxiety and self-doubt conquered these thoughts with the plan "If I doubt myself, then I will remember all the times I've won in the past."
For me, the plan "If I think about the accident, then I will picture Annika's smiling face when it was all over," was amazingly effective. As I practiced it over and over again throughout the day, whenever those terrible visions paid a visit, I felt their power over me melting away. Their visitations grew less and less frequent. I was able to feel happy again, and to see that my little girl had long since forgiven me for what had happened. It finally felt okay to start forgiving myself, too.
Now, I am not saying that we should go around blocking out all the unpleasant thoughts that come our way. There are times when we do truly need to reflect on the bad things that happen to us, to understand their significance, to come to terms with our feelings, and to learn and grow from our experiences. But when there really isn't anything to be gained from reflection - when a thought simply prolongs pain - it's good to know that there really is a way to rid yourself of it and move on.
J. Foerster & N. Liberman (2001) The role of attribution in producing postsuppressional rebound. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 377-390.
S. Koole & A. van Knippenberg (2007) Controlling your mind without ironic consequences: Self-affirmation eliminates rebound effects after thought suppression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 671-677.