You can’t make a bad thought go away by trying not to think about it.
Pushing away a thought works, but for a little while. Short-term relief is often worse than no relief, sometimes exacerbating the very emotions you’re hoping to veer off.
Most crutches of choice (drugs, alcohol, tobacco, barbiturates, shopping, or high-carbohydrate foods) offer transitory comfort. The immediate pleasure often gives way to long-term despair, which causes repeated use of the same agent. The consequence is addiction. The same is valid for thought suppression.
Studies have revealed that the more you suppress a thought, the stronger its recoil. For instance, smokers suppressing the thought of cigarettes report that the appeal of smoking comes rushing back with even greater power when they let their guard down. Holding back your thoughts will actually make you think about them more once the period of active suppression is over. In other words, suppressing a thought increases your attachment to it.
Persistence creates resistance; the more you try to push thoughts out, the bigger they get. Further, the fleeting relief of thought suppression pushes you away from more effective and lasting approaches, such as gratitude, acceptance, and forgiveness.
Idea for Impact: Suppress Your Thoughts about Suppression
In a world obsessed with positive thinking, many of us have been conditioned to be so averse to “negative emotions” that we don’t recognize them, much less acknowledge them, or give ourselves permission to feel and process them. Thought suppression causes more stress and anxiety than if you confront what you’re trying to forget.
- Replace unwanted thoughts with thoughts that focus on your goals (e.g., “It feels better to eat a delicious fruit than it does to wolf down a s’more topped with melted chocolate.”)
- Create an if-then to help you not block unwanted thoughts out but instead plan what you really need to do to act on temptations. Your plans can disrupt the connection between the thought and giving in to temptation. Over time, the thoughts will fade on their own.