Have you ever been at a party and spied someone you absolutely did not want to have a conversation with?
You likely felt agitated and avoided making eye contact. You stuck to the other side of the room. Maybe you even left the party early or avoided future parties out of fear they’d be present.
And yet, even though your whole goal was to avoid them – you actually spent the whole time thinking about them.
That’s because when you’re avoiding someone – or even something – your entire experience becomes about them.
It’s not a powerful position to be in, and it likely makes the thing you’re avoiding seem even scarier and more powerful.
The same is true of thoughts.
When you try to avoid a thought, you actually make it more powerful.
You probably have several thoughts that you are currently avoiding. You don’t want to think them. They may be thoughts you are actively working on changing, or thoughts you are just hoping will magically go away.
And yet they don’t.
What you don’t realize is that your attempts to avoid the thought are actually making it stronger.
Because when we are desperate to change a thought, we try to run away from it before it’s even fully formed in our brains.
With thought avoidance, you start thinking a thought you don’t like and before your brain even finishes it, you try to drown it out with a new thought.
Often this will feel urgent or frantic because you’re afraid to have the thought. You fear how upset you’ll be if you allow it.
You are resisting your thought.
You believe it has some power over you.
That it’s dangerous to you.
You give it this power.
But of course, it’s just a thought.
Just a sentence in your mind.
Thoughts are only powerful when you believe them and act on them.
Just having a thought float through your mind isn’t dangerous.
It’s not a problem unless you decide it is a problem, and go into thought avoidance mode.
When you avoid a thought, you make it a problem.
You give it unconscious power, and that makes it impossible to change it.
Think of a conversation you’ve had when someone is talking to you and you interrupt them before they can finish the sentence or even the first word. Is that an effective way of changing someone’s mind?
It doesn’t work on other people, and it won’t work on yourself either.
Thought avoidance is when you are so afraid of or resistant to a thought that you try to run away from thinking it even in your own brain.
This might look like trying to drown it out with another thought, or distracting yourself with something in your environment, or even just mentally skittering away in your own brain.
So what should you do if you notice yourself avoiding a thought?
You have to remind yourself that your thoughts aren’t dangerous to you.
They’re just sentences in your mind.
Thoughts aren’t circumstances, feelings, actions, realities, objective truths, or reports from the outside world.
You can only truly change your thoughts when you acknowledge and internalize that a thought is merely a sentence in your mind – and really just an electrical signal in your brain.
When you tell yourself it’s a problem to think a certain thought – that you shouldn’t think it or it’s bad to think it or dangerous to think it or you don’t want to think it – then you go into thought avoidance.
And that means you will never look it squarely in the eye, which means you can never change it.
Just like with anything else you’d like to change or fix in your life, in order to change a thought, you have to see it for what it is and accept it.
If your fridge were broken, you’d have to look at it to figure out what was wrong and take steps to fix it.
What do you think would happen if you just averted your eyes and ignored the problem?
Your milk would spoil, your veggies would wilt, your ice cream would melt into the floor.
Your fridge would remain broken until you saw the problem and confronted it head-on.
And you’d have a much bigger mess on your hands than if you’d dealt with it at the first sign of the problem.
The same is true for your thoughts.
In order to change them, you have to see them – which means you have to allow them to exist in your mind and look straight at them.
If you go into thought avoidance mode, you aren’t present with the thought. You don’t allow it to be present, and so you give it power over you.
You make it something dangerous you have to avoid – which is the opposite of seeing the truth: that thoughts are totally harmless.
Unlike your broken fridge, thoughts can’t give you salmonella!
You can’t avoid your thoughts. You have to allow them.
Allow them to be in your brain. Notice them. Observe them.
Only then will you be able to start to shift them for good.