What’s your white bear?
In psychology, the “white bear” problem (also known as the “pink elephant paradox,” or more officially as ironic process theory), says that attempts to suppress certain thoughts can actually increase their frequency. The idea was developed by Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner in the late 1980s, and refers to a quote in an essay by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky from 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.”
As you can see, the suppressed thought comes back with a vengeance—often increasing its emotional charge. For example, your white bear could be the idea to make a purchase you can’t really afford. But the more you try to push it down, the more you want it. Or maybe you go into a meeting with the consistent thought “Don’t be nervous”—which of course, only makes your anxiety worse.
So, how do you conquer your white bears?
You need a blue dolphin.
(The “blue dolphin rule” is part of my free emotional intelligence course—which includes six more rules to help you develop your emotional intelligence.)
How to control negative thoughts with the Blue Dolphin
An important part of emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage emotions, involves learning how to conquer your white bears. And the first key to doing that is to recognize this: While you don’t have control over the thoughts that enter your mind, you do have control over how long you dwell on those thoughts.
But how do you get the white bear out of your head?
Wegner shared a number of strategies over the years. But the one I’ve found most successful involves finding a different point of concentration, something that distracts you from focusing on the white bear.
I like to call this “the blue dolphin.”
A blue dolphin is a replacement thought. It’s a “go-to”; if your white bear (unwanted thought) comes to mind, you can immediately switch focus to your blue dolphin (more desirable thought). In this way, you’re not focused on “don’t think this”; rather, your telling yourself, “think about this.”
The Blue Dolphin Rule works by leveraging the power of self talk, the inner dialogue in your head that can influence the way you think, feel, and act. Decades of academic research indicate that by learning to direct your self talk—making it positive, instructional, and motivational, instead of negative or critical—can improve your performance and ability to handle adversity.
Let’s go back to our initial examples. If your white bear is making a purchase you can’t afford, like a new car that’s way out of your price range, things may start innocently enough. It begins with you looking at the car online. Then you start watching reviews on YouTube. Finally, you convince yourself to go for a test drive—just for fun, you say.
Before you know it, you’ve made a purchase you’re likely to regret.
But what if, instead, you planned ahead? The next time you get the thought to look up that car online, you immediately start researching something else instead. Your replacement has to be something just as fun or enjoyable but that fits your budget. Maybe it’s a trip you want to take, or another car that’s more affordable.
Or, in the meeting example, whenever the thought “Don’t get nervous” enters your mind, you immediately tell yourself: “I’m so excited. This is going to go great.” Now, you’re harnessing a potential negative—your nervous energy—and transforming it into a positive.
Remember, you won’t be able to keep your white bears from appearing. But your blue dolphin will make sure he doesn’t stick around for long.
And that will help you make thoughts and emotions work for you, instead of against you.
A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.