By Kat McGowan, published on January 1, 2004 - last reviewed on January 18, 2013
Ever notice that the harder you try to stop thinking about something, the harder it is to forget? That cruel thing your teenage son said this morning, that worrisome test result the doctor mentioned, that donut in the office kitchen—banish the thought! Except that unfortunately, it seems that the more effort you put into avoiding that thought, the faster it pops right back up in your consciousness.
You're not the only one who feels that way, says Harvard University psychologist Daniel Wegner, author of White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control. His research has shown that trying very hard not to think about something almost guarantees that we will think about it.
It seems paradoxical, but in fact it makes sense. When you are actively avoiding a thought, one part of your brain is busily working to keep the upsetting thought at bay. It's searching out distractors—something else to focus on that will protect you from the idea you're trying to avoid.
At the same time, another part of the mental machinery has to keep checking to make sure that the job's being done properly. Inadvertently, this monitoring process calls attention to the unwanted thought, and makes you more vulnerable to the very ideas you're fleeing from.
"The funny thing is that when you're trying not to think about things, you have to remember what it is you aren't thinking about," says Wegner. "That memory, that part of your mind that's trying to keep it fresh, in a way is going to then activate thought."
In a sense, vigilantly struggling not to think about something or someone forces part of your brain to be on guard for that thought. Holding it there, even subconsciously, keeps the thought alive, and sometimes it escapes out of the prison it's being kept in and erupts into your active thoughts. This is mostly likely to happen when you're under stress, mentally overwhelmed or just plain exhausted.
"People have the intuition that you shouldn't think about a secret in front of the people you're trying to keep it secret from, because you might blurt it out. But keeping it a secret keeps it on the front burner of your mind," says Wegner.
It's a lot like trying to fall asleep, or forcing yourself to relax. The harder you try to nod off, the more likely it is you'll stay wide awake. If you try too hard to relax, you may get more anxious and wound up. The same problem crops up with concentration—trying to focus on something just makes distractions like your sneezing officemate or that annoying fluorescent light—fixture hum even more frustrating. In these cases, struggling for control only makes it worse.
"There are a whole range of cases when we become desperate to control our minds," he says. "The more we try to control them, the more they do what they want."
The answer: don't try so hard to control your thoughts! Instead, see if you can't get your secret preoccupation out in the open. Find a confidante to whom you can confess the idea—or perhaps write about it. Probably, says Wegner, you'll get bored of it fairly quickly, and the pesky thought will die away of its own accord.
Or, instead of following the impulse to get rid of it, says Wegner, just go with it. If you have a song in your head, trying to get rid of it is a great way to make sure it comes back. In this paradoxical therapy, you do the opposite of the thing you want to do. And that, he says, is what ends up being the cure.