As we spend the next few weeks in Mental Health Awareness Month, I invite you to consider how you can change your relationship with the thoughts inside your mind. While many of us would like to delete some of our thought content from time to time, it turns out that trying to not think about something or trying to suppress it may have the paradoxical effect of increasing the thought.(1)
That Song in Your Head
I like to think of this idea as having a song in your head that you don’t want in your head. I bet you’ve had one, annoyingly looping around your thoughts. Maybe it’s a jingle from a commercial, the echoes of your kids’ favorite program, or just a song from a random space in time that plays in the background of your mind much longer than you want. How do you get rid of it? Can you just tell your mind, “Stop thinking about that song”? Can you grit your teeth, plug your ears, and force it out? Or maybe you try to give it away and tell your buddy, “Hey, remember that annoying song?” Now you’ve just doubled the pain. You might try to listen to another song...and then, it dubs its way into the original song!
So how do you get rid of that song in your head? The more we pay attention to the song, the louder, stronger, faster it may present itself and the more likely we are to experience the urgency of wanting to do something about it. The answer is that you change your relationship to it and stop attending to it or trying to force yourself not to have it. You accept that it is there and that it is annoying, and you go about your day. Once it’s gone, you may realize you got rid of it — and there it is again!
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Now, I’d like you to think about the song in your head as similar to the thoughts you may have about yourself that are hurtful or painful. Maybe you have a thought that you are “too much” or “not enough.” Or that you will never succeed or that things are hopeless. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) teaches us to just notice those thoughts or stories about ourselves, to make some space for them to just be thoughts without necessarily being the definition of who we are and what is important to us.
Debating with yourself and others about whether they are true or not may paradoxically increase the feeling that they are. The more airplay you give to the thought, the more you will be spending time with it, and the louder and stronger it may seem. There is also no need to shame yourself for having a thought you don’t want. We don’t blame ourselves about a song being there, right? Judging ourselves for having thoughts we don’t want is adding pain on top of pain — what ACT calls “dirty pain.”
So for a mental reset in this month of mental health awareness, I encourage you to notice a thought that cycles around like a song in your head and just let it be that: a song that will fade away as you attend to other things. Change your relationship from trying to fight with it to giving it some space to be there and drift away without judging yourself for having it. As Steven Hayes, the founder of ACT, shares in his TEDx talk, this approach will allow you to make space to focus in the direction of who and what is important to you and how you can bring what you love and joy into the world and share it with others.
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1 Wegner, Daniel M.,Schneider, David J.,Carter, Samuel R.,White, Teri L. Paradoxical effects of thought suppression.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 53(1), Jul 1987, 5-13