We become what we think about

Have you ever tried not to think? Even better, tried not to think about something specific – like white bears or noisy chickens? Once we become aware of something, consciously trying to avoid it often encourages the mind to keep checking in, to make sure we’re not thinking about it – and so, repeatedly thinking about it.

This phenomenon was tested formally in the late 1980s by psychologist Wegner and colleagues, leading to the theory of ironic mental processes of thought suppression, or the white bear phenomenon. It appears anytime we use thinking to try and stop thinking. For example, when we try not to think of unpleasant things or use thinking to try and create something that requires us not to think – consider ‘forcing’ ourselves to fall asleep or choking in sport.

Now consider how we learn. In short, to consciously learn something, we focus on it or engage in it repeatedly over time. And eventually, our brain creates more persistent neural networks that we see as skills or understanding.

This learning process isn’t just about external skills like driving or gardening; it’s everything, including how we think. If we repeatedly think in specific ways, we get better at automatically thinking in those ways. If we’re always self-critical, we get better at being critical, and if we’re always supportive, we get better at that too.

We get better at doing what we repeat. Which you might word as: we become what we think about most.

At what would you like to better? When I’m asked variations on this question, my initial response is often that I want to ‘stop’ doing x or y, stop criticising my children’s behaviour, stop spending so much time on Facebook, stop…

Unfortunately, this ‘stop doing’ thinking pattern, supported by ironic mental processes, can have the opposite effect in the long run (even if there’s an initial reduction). So, what might we do?

You probably already know. It’s the what can I start doing approach. For example:

  • What can I do?
  • How will I behave when…?
  • How can I help?
  • What is a wise way to respond?
  • What would support my wellbeing here?
  • What response would support the wellbeing of others?

To help unseat persistent unhelpful (or ‘negative’) thinking, we might also start writing about the situations or the thinking itself to see it a little more objectively. The process of noticing our thinking patterns rather than trying to ‘stop’ them can cultivate a lighter emotional approach, which both reduces their unpleasant impact and allows us to start choosing how to respond or what to start doing.

Mindfulness isn’t the only approach here, but it is a comprehensive one (though mindfulness isn’t about stopping your mind from thinking).  And we can combine it with other methods for resilience, leading to more proactive ways of choosing who and how we become.  So, when you find yourself saying ‘oh, it’s just how I am‘ remember, you’ve practised yourself into how you are now AND you can practice your way out.

Wear a mask – because you care

A few years back I was running some training in Japan.  I was excited to be there, and for the first time in my life finding myself feeling like a foreigner – not just because of the unfamiliar language and writing, but because of my western hemisphere looks!  I’d been to many different countries, but this was the first time I felt I looked so different from everyone around me (and perhaps how South-East Asian visitors feel when they visit the UK).

On arrival, I caught a train into Tokyo centre near to my hotel.  Just as expected, the train was comfortable, fast and running perfectly to schedule.  I also noticed the occasional person wearing a face mask.

After work was done, I had a couple of days for some site seeing.  After some brilliant help from one of the hotel staff, I had the confidence to use the Tokyo Subway to make way through the list of must-see places.  In the subway station, there were people handing out face masks to anyone that seemed to want one.  Were people afraid of catching something?  There were only a small number of people wearing masks, but it was curious.

That evening I was fortunate to have been invited to dinner by my contact at the company I’d done the training for.  She bought a colleague with her, who was wearing a mask!  Finally, I was going to be able to ask… what is it with the mask-wearing?

The answer humbled me.  I’d not been quite forward enough to ask the person wearing the mask why he was wearing it, so in an opportune moment, I asked my host.  She explained simply, ‘he thinks he has a cold coming, and he doesn’t want us to catch it.’  After a little further discussion, I realised that those people wearing masks are doing so to protect their fellow commuters, friends and colleagues.  With my individualistic culture upbringing, I’d assumed the masks were about the protection of the wearer – and although that may have been sometimes true, the thought that this was a selfless act had highlighted my self-oriented thinking, but had also given me a good feeling about all those mask wearers.

I now wear a mask when I visit the supermarket.  I don’t have any reason to think I have a virus to share, but on principle, feel a duty to give those around me some comfort.  Though, at least as I write this, it seems to be a rare thing.  In our culture, we don’t do masks, and many of those wearing them are doing so because they want to protect themselves.

We should be responsible for protecting ourselves, of course.  But we also bear some responsibility for our impact on those around us, and that’s a great reason to wear a mask – or, more broadly a face-cover.  So, wear a face-cover because you care, just one more thing we can do to help us all get safely through this, now, not quite so odd, time.  For a more detailed discussion of masks and why wear them, The Conversation has a helpful recent article Does your face mask protect you, or other people?

Live well,

Prioritising your wellbeing or work?

How are you looking after yourself?  I know some of us have been able to focus on wellbeing – eating well, exercising, managing their sleep… and for others, it’s not been quite so easy.

If you’re in the latter category then perhaps taking a leaf out of the Tiny Habits process that Prof. BJ Fogg identified might help.  If we want to exercise more, it’s easy to go with a vision of exercise that’s a long way from where we are now – running 5k or cycling to work every day.  Trying to achieve those things too quickly might be so unpleasant that all of our instinct tells us to stop!

So, start tiny.  Perhaps every time you climb the stairs, go back down and back up again (or even just go back a few steps).  That’s a much easier target, and doing it helps encourage further steps.

The NHS Choices Couch to 5k programme aims to help people reach the fitness level to run 5k by slowly increasing the difficulty over 9 weeks – I did this programme a few years back, and it was really helpful in getting back into running – though I did visit a physiotherapist towards the end of the 9 weeks (she was very helpful)… perhaps I should have combined it with 5 weeks NHS Choices Strength and Flexibility plan.  I do still run though, so it worked well for me.

The point is to start small and work up slowly.  Make one change to your food preparation, increase how much you move a little, turn off the light at night 10 minutes earlier.

But, it’s not just diet, exercise, and sleep that support our wellbeing.  What do you do that you enjoy?  Read a book, take a bath, dance, sing, …  I often share an exercise I call the ‘play list’.  In short: write down everything you can think of that you enjoy.  Keep adding to it, build the list.  And, here comes the intervention: regularly do things from your play list, particularly if you are struggling.

It’s not that we should become hedonists… but do mix play into the non-play stuff to help us recover as a part of our wellbeing habits.  What’s on your play list?

Of course – I’d also strongly suggest you start, restart or continue in mindfulness practice!  Start with 1-minute if you need to.  Prioritising your wellbeing is an investment that pays dividend long into the future.

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