“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.” ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky
I, for one, can get really trapped with my mind, by my mind, and in my mind sometimes. Even that sentence alone puts my head into a bit of a spin. When I first came across Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) over a decade ago I was somewhat shocked to discover that I seemed to spend the majority of my time in one of these two common thinking traps. I’d like to share these two common traps with you now.
One of the things we know from psychological research is that we remember relatively little of what we hear and see. However, we remember consistently more of what we do. So if this is something you’re truly interested in and you would like to remember so you can apply this in your life- I’d like to invite you to do something to illustrate what I’m talking about. Put your hands in front of you and imagine that these hands represent a thought that you get hooked by. Most of us have some version of the “I’m not good enough” thought. I know that I, personally, have many versions of this thought at various times. I’m not smart/attractive/slim/reliable/accomplished enough.
So imagine that your hands represent whatever thought you’d like to work with and gradually start bringing your hands closer and closer to your eyes. Until your hands, representing this thought, are completely covering your eyes. Simply notice what this feels like. Try to look around the room. Notice what you can and can’t see. Check in to see if this in any way resembles physically what it feels like for you psychologically when you get completely hooked by your thoughts? This is the first thinking trap, which is known as “thought fusion”- essentially I look at the world through the lens of this thought.
What kinds of things are you more or less likely to do when you relate to your thoughts in this way? Do you move closer towards or further away from who and where you want to be? The vast majority of us, myself included, end up moving further away from who and where we want to be when we get completely hooked by unhelpful thoughts. It’s useful to recognize that this is part of being human. Absolutely every single one of us makes mistakes. And as Brene Brown would put it- we are all still worthy of connection.
Now let’s take a look at the second thinking trap, which the quote that opens this post alludes to. Try not to think about a yellow jeep. Try not to think of you having a yellow jeep. Try not to think of me having a yellow jeep. Try not to think of a yellow jeep being the next mode of transport you see. And just become aware that even if you’re having the thought “I’m doing well, I’m not thinking about the yellow jeep.” How did you know that?
Okay, so it’s probably not going to have any major impact on our lives whether we think about a yellow jeep. However, what if the thought was “don’t think you’re depressed/anxious” or “don’t think about your deceased loved one/ex-partner”. Can you see the potential pitfalls? We end up getting more and more entrenched in a cycle that we were essentially trying to avoid in the first place.
Here is a link to an audio file where I summarize the main two thinking traps that we can fall into.
In my next blog post, Overcoming Thinking Traps, I will give you strategies that have been supported by psychological research to help you to unhook from unhelpful thoughts.