What You Resist Persists.
Ignoring Negative Thoughts and Painful Feelings Makes Them Stronger.
What are the Costs of Avoiding a Negative Thought?
As a therapist who practices Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), I know full well the costs of avoiding a negative thought. Now you’re probably asking yourself, what’s wrong with avoiding bad thoughts or feelings? Good question. Let me show you why accepting your thoughts is better than avoiding them.
I’m going to ask you to participate in a small thought experiment with me. An experiment that I was also taught while training in how to accept “bad” thoughts and feelings. I’m going to be a little more creative here, so bear with me. I promise, it’s fun.
Find a Quiet Place.
I want you find a place where you can sit down and relax for a couple minutes. You there? Okay. Next, I want you to close your eyes for one minute and do everything in your power not to think of a blue unicorn. Take the whole entire minute to not think about that blue unicorn.
You done? How’d you do? Were you able to not think about the blue unicorn? I’m going to go out on a limb and say you imagined a blue unicorn.
Now imagine that that blue unicorn is a negative thought or feeling. What happens when we try to avoid thinking about it? When we resist it? It sticks around, doesn’t it. We think about more! This is the unfortunate paradox of avoiding or altering experiences. Who knew?
You’re now probably wondering..”well what do I do with all these negative thoughts I’m no longer pushing away?” The great and surprising news is, accepting your negative thoughts can actually help you experience them less.
Develop a New Relationship with your Thoughts.
Let me explain. When you accept all your thoughts, not just the good ones, you begin to develop a relationship with them. You accept that they’re there, thus not having to spend so much time pretending that they’re not.
Here, I have another great example.
I want you to close your eyes and imagine you are in a pool. A nice, cool, refreshing swimming pool. I want you to think of a negative thought/feeling/experience/memory that you’ve been trying to get rid of. Got it? Great. Now I want you to imagine this thought/feeling/experience/memory as a giant beach ball. I want you to try to keep the ball underwater. Hold it down. Okay, you get the picture here? What happens? A few scenarios.
You get tired of holding the ball down. You struggle to keep the ball under water. The ball pops back up in your face. You get the deal. There is an alternative and a much better solution.
Imagine that instead of struggling to keep the ball underwater you just let it float around in the pool with you?
Result: You Feel Better.
Doesn’t that feel so much better? Think about all the other fun pool toys you can play with now. “Other fun toys” being pleasant thoughts/feelings/experiences/memories. They're all there for you too.
So next time you try to avoid an uncomfortable thought, take a break, relax and let the “ball” float around in the pool. I promise, it works.
Lindsay Melka, LPC Empathic Counseling and Therapy