By David Joel Miller.
For the balance of the time you are reading this blog – please do not think about any elephants.
I know this may be difficult for some of you but whatever you do – do not think about the elephants.
No cheating now.
Do not think about African elephants.
Please do not think about those big gray Indian elephants.
It would be especially important to not think about circus elephants or pink elephants or even cartoon elephants like Dumbo.
So how did you do? Did you think about even one little elephant?
Most of you did think about an elephant, didn’t you?
This short exercise illustrates how difficult it is for a person who has a problem, any problem, to avoid the problem by not thinking about it. The very effort to not think about the problem immediately makes us think of – the thing we were trying to avoid.
Lots of people try to solve their other problems the same way. Let’s not think about them. Substance abusers who try to not think about their drug of choice spend all their day with the thoughts of that drug running through their head. Dieters have the same problem, the more they try to think about not overeating the more food intrudes on their thoughts.
So what should you do?
You can’t just sit and think about your problems either that is called brooding. The more you ruminate the more depressed and anxious you will become.
There are two approaches to solving the problem about constant unwanted thoughts.
Do something. Many problems grow the longer you avoid them. Sometimes this is described as – while you are inside hiding from the problem the difficulty is outside doing push-ups. The longer you avoid the trouble the large it looms. Financial problems and unhealthy lifestyles are the most likely to grow. The sooner you take action to cut spending, raise your income, take a second job or just accept that your dream house or toy is really out of reach the sooner you can begin making progress towards solving the problem.
The other approach, the one especially recommended for addictions and other habits that seem to own you is stop trying to not think about the bad habit and begin to focus wholeheartedly on positive things. What would your life be like without that elephant you have allowed to live in your living room? Focus on the new pattern or activity you want to replace the unwanted tendency.
How do you decide which method will be most successful?
If you do nothing will the issue you are avoiding eventually destroy you? Addictions will, mounting debt will. Unhealthy lifestyles, like smoking, will eventually shorten or end your life. Doing nothing should never be an option.
Unhealthy habits like addictions can never be overcome by sitting passively and resisting the urges. As a counselor, I don’t try to take an unhealthy behavior away from someone, which leaves them empty and hurting. Instead, we try to find something desirable, worthy and uplifting to replace the burden the client is trying to put down.
So, in the end, the best successes for changing your life and improving the self, comes not from struggling to avoid something but from finding a new positive goal to move towards.
As many a twelve-stepper will tell you, the greatest progress towards recovery comes in the times when we seek to do something for someone else. Trying to be of services to others, thinking of how we might help them always takes us further away from our own defects of character.
Here is wishing you a happy journey towards whatever happy life goal you decide to pursue.
P. S. The picture is from Wikimedia commons.
For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog, there is also a Facebook authors page, in its infancy, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. Thanks to all who read this blog.
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