Why Thoughts Become Obsessive

Psychologist Daniel Wenger (1994) studied what he called an ironic thought process. Another psychologist, Lee Baer (2001), called this process “the demon of the mind”, referring to the story of Edgar Allan PoE “the Devil of contradiction”. This phenomenon is that when you try not to think about something, you start to think about it even more. This is ironic: your mind can behave like a real demon! Here’s a simple way to experience it firsthand.

Exercise “Observing your own ironic thought process»

The task will take less than ten minutes to complete and consists of two parts.

  1. Set the timer for two minutes. Sit comfortably, close your eyes and pay attention to what you think, feel, hear and smell. You can think about anything, but don’t think about carrots. Neither the word “carrot” nor the carrot smell or taste of carrots should appear. Nothing to do with carrots: no carrot cakes, no salads, and certainly no bugs Bunny [1]! Perhaps you should also not think about orange. So, turn on the timer and try not to think about carrots.

When the time comes, ask yourself how well you managed to cope with the task. Most people will have to admit that they have suffered a complete defeat, trying to distract from the thoughts of carrots. The more you try to get rid of these thoughts, the more they resist. The effort itself is doomed to failure. The more you strive to banish the thoughts of carrots from your mind, the more persistent they become. So trying not to think about carrots is kind of a way to think about it.

  1. In this part of the exercise, set a timer for five minutes. The task will be to completely not think about carrots for five minutes. As in the first part of the exercise, you need to sit back and allow yourself to think about anything but carrots. Start the timer, and each time you think about carrots, put it back on for five minutes. Don’t cheat! On your mark, get set, go!

Now look at what happened. Most people report that they start thinking about carrots after only a few seconds and they have to restart the timer. However, the situation repeats, and the timer has to be restarted again. After some time, the task begins to seem impossible. You feel frustrated, irritated, even angry. In addition, each time the thought appears earlier and earlier. Almost no one can hold out for five minutes, so you have to finish the exercise while the timer is still ticking.

But let’s look at what you’ve done. You’ve created an obsession! The content of thought – carrots, that is as straightforward and neutral, but this idea seemed to have stuck in your mind. You can’t stop thinking about carrots, no matter how hard you try. It was trying to do the job and created all these thoughts about carrots. Your attempt to control the mind is counterproductive. The truth is that what you resist usually takes root. This is a fundamental paradox – an ironic process – in the work of turning obsessive thoughts into permanent ones. Thoughts get stuck because of the energy you spend fighting them. Your task was to fight the thoughts, but they did not give up!

Restless voice: Carrot makes me think about sex. It’s because of her uniform. What kind of person am I? It’s disgusting!

The voice of false peace: on the whole, it’s a neutral topic. Think of something neutral.

Restless voice: I can’t help it! A voice of false calm: Just focus on something else. Think about something else. A troubled voice: You know, I am having these thoughts. Maybe I am a disgusting person.

Voice of false calm: What the hell is going on? Why don’t you all shut up and listen to me?!

The voice of false calm would like the Restless voice to simply stop prompting obsessive thoughts. He tries to help the Restless voice stop, but it doesn’t work. The voice of false calm objects to every such thought. However, the Restless voice does not control the direction of consciousness.

Thoughts get stuck because of the energy you spend fighting them.

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