Don’t think about an elephant.
Stop thinking about the elephant.
You’re not thinking about the elephant, are you?
You’re a bad person if you think about the elephant.
Right now, the chances are pretty high you’re picturing an elephant in your mind.
When we tell ourselves repeatedly not to do something, our human nature sneaks in, and we can’t help ourselves.
Sure, thinking about an elephant is harmless. But what happens when we apply this approach to a more serious thought process?
Tom is a successful banker and father to three teenage boys. After years of working 50-60 hour weeks, Tom trained himself to “relax” in the fastest way possible when he got home – by having a glass of whiskey. Over time, this glass turned into two glasses, then three, and now a bottle is often emptied by the end of the night.
Tom’s wife and children have voiced their concerns to Tom, and he’s been trying to cut back. All day while he’s at work, his Monkey Mind is repeating, “Don’t drink when you get home. Don’t drink when you get home.”
He even started to go to 12-step meetings after work. Throughout the meeting, as he’s repeatedly proclaiming to be an alcoholic, his mind replays, “You’re an alcoholic – but you can’t drink. If you drink, you’re a failure. DON’T. DRINK.”
By the time Tom gets home, his nerves are frayed. He’s short with his wife when she asks about his day, and he barely says anything while the boys chat about school during dinner. The only thing he can hear is that little voice in his head saying, “Don’t drink. Man, remember how good a glass of whiskey tastes with pork chops? But DON’T DRINK.”
After dinner, Tom is exhausted. He slips away to his den to mindlessly watch sports recaps from the day. Tom tries to fight it, but he soon pulls out the flask he had hidden away in the bookshelf.
He goes to bed feeling miserable.
Week after week, Tom continues this pattern. He’s committed to not drinking – and tells himself this all day. Sometimes he stays strong and doesn’t drink. But more often than not, he can’t stop himself.
After noticing his suspicious behavior (and subsequent lies), Tom’s wife starts sleeping in the spare bedroom. Tom responds by isolating himself even more and distancing himself from his family.
Then, this unbalance overflows into his work. He’s not prepared for a conference call. He comes to work hungover.
Tom is losing his grip on his life.
Why is this happening to Tom? Because he doesn’t understand that he’s not addressing the root of the problem. He tells himself, “Don’t drink. Don’t drink.” over and over, yet he’s not looking at what drove him to drink in the first place.
Tom was never taught how to recognize these deeper issues at play. He isn’t aware that there’s a near-constant tension in his body. He doesn’t understand how his Monkey Mind and the programming he received growing up built up this tension in his body. Tom has no idea how much anger he’s built up over the years that has contorted itself into self-criticism and self-doubt. He doesn’t realize how much internal chaos is at play within his own mind and body.
Instead of trying to resolve any one of these deeper issues, Tom focuses on one thing: not drinking.
In addiction treatment, so many of us focus on the behavior we don’t want to do. Actually, we obsess over it.
Is repeating to yourself “I can’t drink. I can’t drink.” really the way to create a sustainable life of sobriety?
When we start to dive into these issues, we can resolve the problem at the source.