I need you to do one thing: Don’t think about a pink elephant. Whatever you do, don’t think about a pink elephant. You’re picturing it aren’t you?! Why! I TOLD you to ignore it! This is exactly what happens when we try to downplay, ignore or otherwise suppress our negative thoughts. In this video, I’ll give you a better strategy to help you tame those pink elephant thoughts that you simply don’t want to be thinking.
I have spent years working with some of the most accomplished CEOs and leaders across the world, to help them better manage their negative thoughts and stories. When I ask what they’ve tried to do in order to quiet negative thoughts or emotions I typically hear responses like, Ignore them, stuff them down, get busy with something else, distract myself, try to think of something positive instead.
All advice that is no doubt well intended. The problem with this, as pointed out by Dr. Dan Sigel, the researcher who coined the phrase name it to tame it, is that trying to ignore those strong emotions only makes them rear up even stronger (like that pink elephant you’re still trying not to think about).
Once we acknowledge that we are in a state of high alert, we can move the emotion out of our reactive limbic system and into our more executive frontal lobe by choosing words to describe the emotion, which allows the limbic brain to settle down. Once we label a feeling, we stop being consumed by it because we recognize that we are separate from the emotion itself.
When we can put language to what we’re feeling we create some distance between the emotion and our higher selves. We are the observer of that emotion or experiencing that state, but we aren’t the emotion itself. It’s the difference between I’m anxious, which doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for any other part of you to be anything but in the emotion – versus – I’m experiencing restlessness and stress that makes me feel anxious. Very different than BEING the emotion itself. Often people that describe themselves as being anxious then get anxious about the fact that they are anxious and they can’t stop the pink elephant of anxiety from reappearing. The harder they try to suppress it, the more the elephant appears. I know the difference seems subtle but language is important to how our mind can serve to help or hinder our responses to emotions.
As a human you’ll likely never be in a place where you don’t have any negative thoughts. But you do have the ability to accept and acknowledge them – name them. And then separate yourself from their power by not defining yourself as infused with the emotion, but rather as a separate entity experiencing the emotion.
When we try to eliminate our emotions we only serve to make them stronger. As the Buddhist saying goes: “What you resist will persist.”
Here’s the better way: Name it. Tame it. Separate yourself from identifying with it.
And know that feeling those emotions is 100% HUMAN. Don’t be afraid of those harder emotions. It’s the acknowledgement of those lows that allows us experience the good stuff as true highs.
Until next time, live more, fear(less).