Don’t think of an elephant! You’re thinking of an elephant, right? And no matter how hard you try not to think of an elephant, that elephant is still there, isn’t it? What if Bob Newhart shouted, “Stop thinking of an elephant or I’ll bury you alive with an elephant!” Didn’t work, did it?
What would I rather not think about? It’s a long list. But I’ll go with the most recent: I finally was going to see Morrissey in concert, and well, golly but he cancelled. I knew there was a chance he would, so I suppressed my anxiety and excitement. When he cancelled, I felt this rush of rage, and almost relief. I’m not in the depths of despair over all this. But I am a bit sad. That concert had been the elephant I was trying not to think of.
We all have those elephants we don’t want to think of. That big party to host. That phone call. Bills. That elephant grows in your mind until you pay attention to it. When we stop struggling to not think of it and give in, pay attention to it, and do what we need to, the elephant disappears.
Carl Jung, a pioneer of psychology and psychiatry, thought that we all had a conscious self and a shadow self that was the opposite of our conscious self. He encouraged his patients to find that shadow that drove them to unhealthy thoughts and behaviors, and let it out to play a little, so to speak. He used art, exercise, hallucinogens, dance etc to help his patients explore what their shadow was trying to tell them. So in a safe, relaxing, and supervised setting they paid attention to that elephant they didn’t want to think of, before it took over their lives. Enough of his patients successfully recovered through these methods that we still use them.
Sometimes the elephants were are trying not to think of are like the shadow selves of Jung’s patients. They can be terrifying, deeply sad, lonely, or enraging thoughts. But when we try to push them away, they only grow until you can barely not think of them. They are taking over.
What if you just made a little space for your elephant, shadow, thoughts and feelings? If you could calm yourself down, relax, and begin to feel safe around your elephant, what do you think could happen? Bad feelings are reminders to us to pay attention, just like good feelings are then our rewards.
The past, the future are the same in that they do not exist. The thoughts we have about them are like air. They cannot hurt us. Our brains are spitting up these thoughts because it really wants us to pay attention to them. Not by resisting, but by feeling calm and safe in the present enough to allow them to just be, do we win. The way to stop thinking about the elephant is by letting ourselves think of the elephant for a moment.
So, going back to my disappointment about the concert, my stressball of sadness had to be reckoned with. Little ticked. Mellow has been harshed. But I am not going to stop listening to my favorite singer/songwriter or his band. It’s some of my favorite music. So I put on my Smiths/Morrissey playlist, and did some Molly Ringwald dancing. I felt sad with the sad songs. And was grateful someone sang these dramatic lyrics about everyday troubles with that swooning voice. I was happy. The elephant was gone.
That’s obviously a minor example. But if we truly learn to calm down, feel safe and in the present enough that we can make a little room for our big elephants. Then we can heal. Then we can entertain them for a moment, but then show them the door.
Namasté you legends.
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