Don’t think of the white bear.
If you’re like most people, you are now probably sitting in front of your computer screen or phone doing exactly what you were just instructed not to do — thinking of a white bear. In fact, you are probably fixating on the white bear. Certainly, if you weren’t thinking of the white bear before, you are now.
This laser-like focus on the exact idea I instructed you to block out results from what researchers refer to as the ironic process theory, or more simply, the white bear effect. In a seminal research study, participants were asked to verbalize their stream of consciousness and not think about a white bear. Despite these explicit instructions, not only did participants have difficulty suppressing thoughts of the forbidden white bear, but the white bear surfaced with an unusually high frequency.1 This idea relates to relationships as well. After breaking up with a significant other, you may make a conscious effort to avoid thinking about him/her. However, in doing that, you wind up focusing on your ex, which is exactly what you intended not to do in the first place.
A breakup can be an incredibly painful experience. Even if you are emotionally detached from your partner by the time you break up, you loved him/her at one point, and ending the relationship will typically cause you to experience a sense of loss. Importantly, there are many variables than can affect the amount of emotional distress you experience due to this loss, such as the quality and length of the newly ended relationship, as well as how you perceived that relationship.2 For example, if you two were friends before becoming romantically involved, the loss of the relationship will be much more difficult to deal with.
So how can we forget about our ex and why do we care about white bears?
Basically, do not force yourself to avoid thinking about your ex, lest you fall prey to the classic white bear effect. While it is easy to get rid of tangible items, such as a gift or his/her sweatshirt, thoughts are more challenging to remove. If you make the conscious decision to not think about your ex, your former significant other is likely to invade your thoughts. It is best to keep busy and naturally distract yourself with other, more pleasant thoughts. More concretely, Wegner suggests several therapeutic ideas for “setting the bears free” 3 which are listed below, many of which may come in handy as you work on recovering from that prior relationship you just can’t seem to forget about (no matter how hard you try). Some of the recommendations are contradictory to one another, because the techniques that work best vary from person to person.
- Focused distraction – Think of something else, such as a hobby or activity that you enjoy doing when your ex comes to mind. This will help by shifting focus to areas that may enable you cope with the break-up.
- Stress and load avoidance – Stress hinders your ability to suppress the unwanted thoughts. Try to avoid stressful situations if at all possible, especially situations in which your ex is likely to be present.
- Thought postponement – It is easier to put off thinking about something on a temporary basis. Being overly ambitious and permanently suppressing a thought is likely to lead to failure.3 So focus on avoiding your ex’s social media accounts for a few days at a time, rather than permanently. This is much more manageable.
- Acceptance and commitment – This approach offers “…strategies for reducing the emotional impact of the thought by changing perspectives or adopting special approaches to the thought in the attempt to neutralize its affective charge.”3 Here, you don’t force yourself to not think about your ex, but rather train yourself to handle these thoughts in a more effective way.
1Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S., & White, L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5–13.
2Sprecher, S., Felmlee, D., Metts, S., Fehr, B., & Vanni, D. (1998). Factors associated with distress following the breakup of a close relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15(6), 791-809.
3Wegner, D.M. (2011). Setting free the bears: Escape from thought suppression. American Psychologist, 66(8), 671-680.
Dr. Marisa Cohen
Marisa, along with a colleague at St. Francis College, founded the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab (SABL) in Fall 2014. Research has focused on the development of relationships throughout the life span, including factors influencing mate choice and peoples’ perceptions of what makes relationships survive and thrive. Her specific focus is on how various relationship configurations impact the satisfaction derived from them.