It’s the second week of your new diet, and you’re about to walk into the grocery store to grab the makings for a great salad and that roasted chicken and mushroom dish that’s on your menu for tonight. You’re filled with good intentions. It’s been a tough day at work with demanding clients and a crabby boss, and you’re tired. But you’ll just run in, grab what you need and get out.
As you enter the store, the fragrance of freshly baked bread greets you, smelling like heaven. You realize you skipped lunch and hear your tummy rumbling. But you’ve made up your mind: No junk food! Just the things I need for my diet, and nothing more.
A pretty store clerk smiles at you and offers you a tiny sample of the cheese that’s on sale, accompanied by one small cracker. You’re really famished, so you take it, thinking it will tide you over until you get home and keep you from temptation as you shop.
You know what happens, right? You’re doomed. Before you even brush the cracker crumbs from the corner of your mouth, you spot the buy-one-get-one sale on cookies and toss a couple packages in the cart—for the kids’ lunches, you say.
As you go deeper into the store, your brain starts screaming at you “fresh donuts in the bakery,” “chips on sale in aisle three,” “special on gooey chocolate treats.” And by the time you check out, you’ve successfully rationalized about two bags of off-limits goodies.
You feel so guilty about buying them, that you soothe yourself with half a dozen cookies on the way home.
What happened? Are you hopelessly weak? Totally lacking in will-power?
No. The deck was just stacked against you.
When Good Intentions Go Bad
A lot of negative elements were at play in the scenario above—and we’ll look at some of them in depth over the next couple of articles here. But right now, let’s focus on the one called “Ironic Rebound,” a key factor that’s at play when good intentions go bad.
Ironic Rebound is what happens when you tell yourself you won’t do something. You won’t think about chocolate; you won’t get lost playing computer games or spending time on Twitter; you won’t lose your temper when a driver cuts you off in traffic; you won’t buy any more lottery tickets. You’re determined. But before you know it, you’re doing exactly the thing you swore you wouldn’t do. Ironically, it bounces back at you like a boomerang.
Why Ironic Rebound Happens
Here’s the way Stanford University instructor Dr. Kelly McGonigal explains it in her book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.
When you tell yourself not to do something, the message goes to two different parts of your brain. The first part plays the role of The Operator. This is the one that takes note of your goals and works to keep you on track. It’s a hard worker. But it only has so much energy and that energy gets depleted as the day wears on. It has a lot of things to pay attention to.
It had to remember to be polite to your clients even when they were complaining, for example, and not to cuss out your boss. It had to keep your mind on that report you had to get done, even when it meant missing lunch. It had to remember that you couldn’t overspend at the grocery store and that you need to get to the kids’ school meeting after dinner.
The other part plays the role of The Monitor. It watches out for threats and dangers—to the things you’re trying to avoid. And McGonigal says it’s like the Energizer Bunny. It just keeps going and going and going.
So by the time you got to the grocery store, your Operator was pretty well used up. But the Monitor was still going strong. It’s who was calling your attention to the cookies and chips and chocolate in every aisle. It was letting you know these dangers were right there, right around the corner. As an academic article on ironic rebound at Psychlopedia, once the Operator is distracted or worn out, we’re more sensitive to the voice of the monitor.
To make matters worse, McGonigal says, we’re hard wired to give priority attention to thoughts that repeat themselves. We assume they’re urgent, or true. The suppressed thoughts take on more importance.
How to Fight Back
What are we supposed to do, then, if telling ourselves what not to do or think or feel is going to make the unwanted thought come back even stronger?
Well, it turns out we can help ourselves resist temptation in a lot of ways.
One of the most powerful things you can do to build your resistance to unwanted thoughts is to learn to practice mindfulness. Spending as little as ten minutes a day relaxing and paying attention to your breath. Just sit easily with your eyes closed and focus on your breathing. When you notice that thoughts have distracted you, easily and gently let the thoughts go and return your attention to your breath.
After a bit of consistent practice, you’ll begin to get the knack of letting go of a thought. You’ll start to recognize thoughts as nothing more than the brain’s processing, something it does on automatic pilot. Then, when the Energizer Bunny pops in to tempt you with another round of that computer game or a dish of ice cream, you can recognize that the temptation is nothing more than a thought.
We can’t control the thoughts or emotions that flow into our awareness, but we can control our responses to them.
Remind yourself that your negative thought or feeling is common to a lot of people. You aren’t alone in the struggle; it’s a natural part of being human. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel tempted. Temptation itself doesn’t make you weak or bad.
Self-compassion, says Dr. Kristen Neff, means accepting with sympathy and kindness that none of us can always be or get exactly what we want. When we exercise self-compassion, it empowers us to do whatever we need to do to improve our situation.
Remember Your Strengths
Positivity broadens your view so you’re not as tightly focused on the rebounding thought. Look around and ask yourself what’s good in your environment right now. Feeling good about yourself curbs the effects of ironic rebound, too. When you need to ignore an unwanted impulse, remind yourself of your positive attributes, personal strengths, or past accomplishments.
As psychologist Carl Jung said, “What we resist persists.” Instead of trying to wrestle with the unwanted thought or impulse or to violently push it away, take time to recognize and accept it. “Oh, there’s that thought again.”
All it wants is your attention. Some people find it helpful to give the unwanted thought or emotion a pet name: “There’s Angry Andy,” or “Traumatic Trudy,” or “Ravenous Rachel.” Then actually say “Hello” to it and ask it if you can sit with it for awhile. Imagine it sitting in a chair across from you
You may even want to try asking it if it has a message for you, or if there’s something it wants you to know. Then just acknowledge whatever it tells you. Don’t argue with it, or try to reason with it or change it. Just thank it for telling you its concerns and sit there with it.
This will do two things. First, it will give you a little distance from the impulse; it will put some space around it. Secondly, it will take away some of its insistence.
Surf the Mood
In her audio program, The Neuroscience of Change: A Compassion-Based Program for Personal Transformation, McGonigal explains how tempting urges tend to leap at us with great strength and urgency—especially if they’re about an ingrained habit or addiction. And we mistakenly think the discomfort of their urgency will last forever if we don’t respond to them immediately.
But like everything else, disturbing thoughts or impulses have a lifespan. They come, maybe they increase a little in intensity, and then they fade away. So if you can just accept them and sit with them for a while, they’ll fade away of their own accord.
Try focusing on your breathing while you allow yourself to sit with them.
McGonigal also suggests picturing the thought or feeling as a cloud floating in the sky and dissolving as you watch it.
Visualize Your Goal
Remember why you wanted to suppress the unwanted thought or emotion in the first place. What do you want instead? What was your positive intention? Why is it important to you? See if you can vividly imagine how your life will be different, better, more satisfying or more joyful once you achieve your goal.
If you’re sitting in conversation with the intruding thought or urge, you can even tell it the story of what you want, letting it know that you appreciate that it is trying to take care of other needs for you, and that you just want it to understand why you can’t take action on its suggestion now.
Spending time visualizing your goals for five minutes a day will bolster your Operator, too, and help it be clear about your real priorities.
According to an article at www.spring.org.uk, practice helps. It’s becomes easier to suppress emotions or thoughts about a particular topic the more we do it. So keep on keeping on. Change always takes effort. But you’re worth it.