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The Pink Elephant Problem

Don't make this common thinking mistake.

Key points

  • If you try not to think about something, you're going to think about it more.
  • Instead, address the thought with three key techniques: flipping it, disarming it, or conquering it.
  • Recognize that thoughts are thoughts, not facts.

No Revisions/Unsplash
Source: No Revisions/Unsplash

Don't think about a pink elephant.

Whatever you do, don't think about a pink elephant. Don't picture a pink elephant in your mind. Just don't do it.

Now, what are you thinking of? If I were to wager, I'd bet you're thinking of a pink elephant.

Does this sound familiar? Do you often think about the things you're trying to avoid? Don't fall. Don't be awkward. Stop worrying. You'd better not miss.

When you tell yourself "not" to do something, your brain just hears the directive. This means you spend lots of time and energy focusing on what you want to avoid, making it more likely you'll do the very thing you don't want to do.

If your brain likes pink elephants, it might be time to try something different.

Pink Elephant Alternatives

1. Flip it

When I work with athletes, the pink elephant example comes up a lot. The first solution we try is to flip the thought. Instead of thinking about what you don't want to do, tell your body exactly what you want it to do. For a volleyball athlete who wants to "not miss" a serve, think "elbow up, push." Tell yourself the instructions to complete the movement successfully. You don't have to be overly detailed about the mechanics (in fact, that can hurt performance). You can even use simple cue words that represent what you'd like to do, such as thinking "confidence" during a speech (e.g., the word "confidence" representing open posture, head up, eye contact, speaking clearly). Flipping the thought allows us to focus on the process, rather than the end result. Paradoxically, by executing the process well, you're more likely to get the end result you want.

This is different than thinking positively. It's thinking instructionally. It is a road map to your end goal.

2. Disarm it

Another technique is to give the thought less power. Do this by accepting that you're going to have negative thoughts; having negative thoughts is what brains do! But the mere existence of negative thoughts does not make them true.

A thought is just a thought. It's not fact. Just because you have a thought that you're a failure, doesn't mean you are a failure, and it doesn't cause you to become a failure. Thoughts are nothing but electrical impulses in our brain, but people run into trouble when they unequivocally believe thoughts as true statements.

Disarm the thoughts by acknowledging they are thoughts. It may sound silly, but it makes a big difference to say, "I'm noticing I'm having the thought that I'm a failure" rather than saying "I'm a failure" over and over. You can even treat your thoughts like internet pop-up ads.

Do you ever watch a scary movie, feeling scared the whole time, and then once the movie reveals what the monster looks like you don't feel so scared anymore? It's like, "Oh, I thought they would make the monster scarier," or "Oh, that's it?" Sometimes when you acknowledge the thought (or look directly at the "monster"), those negative thoughts don't feel so scary after all.

3. Conquer it

The more people try to squash thoughts, the more intense and frequent they become. When you worry so much about avoiding a feared outcome, it becomes worse and worse in your mind until it feels like the most horrible thing that could ever happen.

What if instead, you imagined what would happen after the scary thing? What happens if you actually make that error? You might lose the match and feel disappointed, sad, or angry. You might not reach a goal you've wished for. But would it be as bad as you're making it out to be in your mind? Would you die? Or would it be really hard for a while, and then you'd find a way to cope with it and try again?

Most of the time, expectations are scarier than reality. Conquer the thought by imagining yourself coping gracefully if things don't go your way. See yourself bouncing back from the mistake, or sharing feelings with a friend and receiving support. Imagine yourself feeling disappointed, then moving on to your next goal. While you do this, use a relaxation technique to soothe your body.


Pink elephants are pesky. The more you try to suppress thoughts, the bigger and more intense they become. Stop fighting the thoughts. Flip the thought by telling yourself and your body exactly what you want to do. Disarm the thought by recognizing it is just a thought, not a cause or a fact. Finally, conquer the thought by seeing yourself as "okay" if the worst happens. Most likely, the pink elephant isn't as scary as you think.

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