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Outsmarting a White Bear

Aug 30, 2022

by Aubrey Patterson

 

Do white bears sometimes show up to ruin a perfectly good evening or keep you up at night?

Ironic process theory, or the white bear problem, says that attempts to suppress a particular thought will only increase its frequency and intensity. This idea from Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner is derived from an essay by a Russian writer well over a century ago:

Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute. (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

A white bear might be an upcoming contentious meeting, a very busy week ahead, or any foreboding task that needs to be completed. The more we try to push the worries down, the greater they feel. 

So, how do we get our brains to cut us a break and fend off the white bear?

There are a number of strategies to do this, like replacing the thought, going for a walk, or allowing ourselves to dive more deeply into the moment. But none of these are helpful when we're trying to be present at a family event or get to sleep.

Stop Feeding the Bears

One practical tip is to get the event or task into our calendar. There is comfort in knowing we have time set aside to work on the thing that is worrying us.

Parcelling time later in the week to prepare for that difficult meeting or write a speech to deliver in front of a huge crowd sends an internal I've got this message from our logical brain to our emotional brain. 

If we can't get to sleep because there's a tough meeting in the morning and our calendar isn't readily available, simply writing an opening phrase or a few warm phrases on a piece of paper can help shoo that white bear away. 

Our key defence involves getting the idea out of our head and into a system, so that we can tell ourselves, 'Yeah, it's not going to be easy, but I'm going to stay true to myself, be compassionate, and do my best.'

Peace begins with a smile. (Mother Teresa)

We need to stop trying to outwrestle bears and be prepared to outsmart them. 

 


Want more strategies to eliminate overwhelm and truly lead as a warm demander?

Click on Warm U below or any of our courses ⇢ 

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