If you recall my article on vulnerability, you may remember me talking about how opening up emotionally wound up being a gradual process. When I tried to just instantly be a completely open person it had the opposite effect. I became very closed off and found myself battling my own discomfort even more than before.
This is actually a common occurrence with personal growth. Sometimes when you try to change a personal behavior you instead regress and the behavior gets even worse. An example of this would be somebody with a goal to be less angry. You set your goal to not get angry at every little annoying thing that tends to set you off. You possibly succeed for a while, then inevitably you slip and lose your cool. You then realize that you slipped and the get mad at yourself for getting angry. This makes you even more angry which then frustrates you even further, and you get angrier and angrier. This traveling in an emotional loop is what I like to call “The Pink Elephant Scenario”, because of the fact that it’s like trying to not think of a pink elephant. The more you try not to the worse it gets.
In my experience, Pink Elephant Scenarios happen most often when you are trying to overcome a behavior that serves a purpose of making you emotionally secure. My fear of opening up made me feel safe. Being vulnerable with others is scary and when I was closed off I didn’t have to worry about it. Likewise, anger can make you feel safe by forcing others to back off and give you space. It can discourage others from doing behaviors that make you uncomfortable. When you start trying to change behaviors like these, you lose a sense of security and your fears become more active resulting in those behaviors getting worse instead of better.
How to stop thinking about pink elephants
The hardest part about Pink Elephant Scenarios is that they are counterintuitive. As I said before, trying to stop the behavior in question is like trying to not think about elephants– the harder you try, the worse it gets, but there is a trick to it.
If you take the time to consider it, you don’t always sit and think about pink elephants. In fact, you probably almost never think about pink elephants. This right here should be a big hint to you, because it implies there is clearly a way you can stop a behavior even if it isn’t intuitive to do so.
The answer is that you stop thinking about elephants when you stop trying to force yourself to stop thinking. In otherwords, it’s acceptance. When you accept that you’ll think about an elephant, you let go of it.
While this is not a perfect analogy to changing a problematic behavior, it is helpful. Most behaviors get worse because you are violently trying to shove yourself way out of your own comfort zone, far beyond where you feel safe to be. The best way to address these behaviors is start by accepting that they make you feel safe and that you are in no way ready to let go of them yet.
Instead of heavily changing the behavior, you find very small changes you can make. In my case, it was finding small ways to open up to people such as being slightly more proactive with giving/getting hugs or sharing slightly more about myself when given the chance. Likewise with anger, you might find small cases where you can let a situation slide without losing your cool or lash out less when somebody sets you off. This allows you grow your comfort zone gradually, making you less and less dependent on a given behavior for emotional security.
Image provided by D. Sharon Pruitt