Ironic process theory and why your brain will never do what you tell it to
“Don’t think of a white bear” is a common example of how our minds don’t do what we tell them to do. Sometimes the example is a purple elephant or pizza, but the result is the same: telling your brain not to do something is the surest way to get your brain to definitely do that thing. So while it’s a fun little experiment, there is value in understanding why it’s happening and how to use it to our advantage.
Ironic Process Theory is a psychological phenomenon whereby the attempt to suppress something produces the opposite result. While it’s easily shown in the white bear example, it’s more readily ignored in everyday life as we attempt to handle complicated feelings, sleep problems, habit changes, anxiety, depression, and anything under the sun that we want to come closer or get further away.
You’re not thinking that horrible thing, right? How about now? And now?
We have already touched on the idea that most (potentially all) of our decision-making is happening in some part at a subconscious level that we’re almost never aware of. The complicated interplay between your conscious and subconscious mind is a marvel of the human brain. Too many tasks require attention, so a lot of it is offloaded to systems that don’t require your input. The subconscious mind is working away (tirelessly) in the background, helping you along with whatever you need.
Sometimes that line between helpful and unhelpful gets a bit fuzzy, though. Like any programmer telling a computer what to do, the computer occasionally receives unclear instructions and behaves unexpectedly. Such is the case when we give our brain a specific task. Of course, it wants to help, but how it goes about helping ends up causing more damage than intended.
When you ask your brain to do something (e.g. Stop thinking about pizza), you activate several brain regions involved in self-regulation, most notably the prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula. Don’t worry about their names; I only list them in a fruitless attempt to achieve the intellectual respect I so desperately crave from you that will never arrive.
So, much like a computer command, you’ve created something of a task for the brain. It now has a job: don’t think about pizza. But much like creating a command for a computer, it strains the available memory. Asking something of your brain creates what is known as “monitoring load.” Put simply, your brain doesn’t have a singular task to tend to, but rather a constant one.
We think of it as one request when the internal dialogue in your mind is closer to:
“So nobody is allowed to think about pizza, right? Ok good. No pizza here. Absolutely no pizza. No sir. Not up in here. Hey… just want to check in real quick and make sure nobody is thinking about pizza. Because that would be super bad. Pizza, I mean. Not pizza itself, of course, that’s wonderful, but thinking about it? Lord Jesus we can’t be doing that. Hey? Did you just think about it?”
And round and round it goes. The task of not thinking about a thing creates an internal dialogue (conscious or otherwise) that never shuts the hell up.
Substantially more serious than pizza
What’s interesting is for all we know about Ironic Process Theory, when the chips are down, and shit truly goes sideways, most of our behaviour goes haywire. It’s easy to see what’s happening in a brain and formulate a way forward when it’s imaginary bears and Italian food, but quite another when a nervous-looking spouse tells you, “We need to talk.”
It’s the same process, just drastically different stakes. The hot tips we might use to stop thinking about the bear are the same as the tragic moments in life, but putting them into practice for the latter is a steeper challenge.
The Ironic Process Theory is a massive player in depression, anxiety, and other severe problems. After all, those nightmares are typically a collection of horrific thought loops that we would really like to eliminate—a demand that becomes fuel in the fire.
Strategies to use Ironic Process Theory to your advantage
Once we know how it works, we can formulate a plan. The two big tools we will use in the fight against intrusive thinking are framing and mindfulness. Mindfulness will help us understand how the computer operates, and framing will change the command we’re giving the computer.
At the heart of mindfulness is non-judgemental observation of thoughts. This can prove an unexpectedly difficult task because we don’t readily realize how often we go to war with our thoughts. They’re often labelled bad, dangerous, foolish, stupid, or shameful.
And yet, to address Ironic Process Theory, we must learn to permit the thoughts to tire themselves out. Negative labels do not allow that, as each becomes a chokehold on an angry badger. The harder you squeeze, the less likely you are to succeed. So, in a particular way, mindfulness (via meditation) is the machine by which Ironic Process Theory is managed. Meditation is how you can get from recognizing the path to walking it.
If nothing else, meditation is an incredible way to prove to yourself several vital lessons that help with Ironic Process Theory:
- You aren’t in control of your thoughts, therefore;
- Controlling thoughts is a fruitless endeavour
- The nature of thoughts is to come and go
For beginner meditators, one of the most common reasons they stop is that they realize how messy their mind is. It’s a loud place when you stop to pay attention, and that can be uncomfortable for many. Abandoning the practice because of this is unfortunate, as it’s a beautiful lesson to learn. Ignore it or not; that noise is always happening, and it gets a big say in how you behave.
Just beyond the realization that your mind is a total swamp is the realization that the thoughts that bombard you throughout the day aren’t coming from “you” at all. As you try to block them, they become stronger. As you try to ignore them, they present topics of increasing strangeness. This is a profoundly odd experience, but they eventually become helpful when you find yourself in a thought loop wondering, “Why the hell can’t I stop thinking about this?”
Because you will have a reference point. You’ve seen the thoughts arrive spontaneously without an invite. You’ve recognized hundreds (or thousands) of times before that you didn’t bring them into existence. This relationship with thoughts can become highly valuable as you begin to spar with more complex thoughts that may drive life’s most uncomfortable states and potentially damaging behaviours. Thoughts of worthlessness or panic won’t stop coming, but how you view their genesis may help you manage them. Most importantly, you may be able to appreciate that certain thoughts aren’t rooted in truth; they’re only as real as the thousands of stupid things that popped into your mind when you were focusing on your breath.
You can’t control the thoughts you don’t create, so suddenly trying to do so seems relatively silly. If they arrive all day without your input, what good would your input be anyways? Go ahead and try to control them, but there’s no evidence that you’ve been able to up to now, so perhaps your energy is best served elsewhere.
Perhaps the most critical factor in all this is to recognize that the thoughts arrive and leave in the same manner–that is to say–without your involvement. This creation and unravelling is easy to see on simple random thoughts of zero consequence but extremely difficult in life’s more challenging events. So, like anything difficult, practicing on the low-stakes stuff is good.
This coming and going of thoughts is critical to understand because a great deal of suffering is related to wanting something to either stick around forever (beautiful things) or go away immediately (horrific things). Proving to yourself thousands of times that nothing (good or bad) lasts forever can be incredibly freeing. It can allow us to let go of the tension and enjoy a nice moment for what it is, and it can enable us to settle into discomfort during a challenging moment and remain calm in the understanding that everything has a half-life.
When it comes to the problem of persistent thinking, this is how we become comfortable in letting thoughts have room to play. Take the chokehold off the badger and let him wander around, allowing him to become bored and leave. The badger can’t hurt you (well, metaphorical ones at least); he’s just a pattern of energy in your brain, firing off like a solar flare.
The name of the game is to decrease that monitoring load. For example, when we say, “I can’t eat chips this week,” we immediately create a monitoring load in the brain, leaving us thinking about chips every waking moment. If, instead, we adjust the command to the brain and make the statement, “I am a person who makes healthy choices regarding food,” something odd begins to happen.
When it comes to adjusting habits, we often turn to forceful thinking. There is a better way, though. Habits are more manageable when they’re part of your identity. Perhaps you have a thing that you do that others find challenging. For example, maybe you don’t smoke. This may astound somebody who’s been trying for decades to quit, but it’s not a big deal for you because you’re not playing the same game. You’re not a smoker, so the most challenging thing some people will ever do (quit smoking) is something you’ve never even thought about. We can use this to our advantage when we want to change something about ourselves.
In James Clear’s Atomic Habits, he weaponizes this idea to help people develop healthy habits instead of unhealthy ones. Rather than brute-forcing a habitual change (like most of us do), one of his recommendations is to adjust the command and make the habit not an item on a checklist but a part of who you are. Items on a checklist become heavy and overwhelming, whereas things that align with your view of yourself tend to happen automatically. For example, does brushing your teeth require a lot of cognitive energy? Probably not. It’s likely just a thing you do because you care about dental hygiene, not smelling gross, or both.
Reframing a habit in this way can help you move from a mindset of extrinsic motivation (doing something because you feel like you have to) to intrinsic motivation (doing something because it’s aligned with your values and sense of identity). When a habit is part of your identity, you’re more likely to stick with it even when it’s challenging or uncomfortable because it’s not just a task you’re trying to check off your list–it’s a reflection of who you are.
It seems stupid that something as simple as wording can make a big difference, yet the argument for reframing is strong. Remember the role of the subconscious mind. Of course we discount its power; we don’t see the damn thing working. And yet, time and time again, we scientifically prove its strength.
When it comes to the psychology olympics, the marshmallow study probably takes the gold. It’s been cited probably three million times and anybody who’s taken an intro psychology class becomes visibly exhausted whenever it gets explained. So if you’re too cool go ahead and skip the next paragraph, but come back because I have a fun new fact about the study that most people gloss over.
The marshmallow study involved placing kids in a room and leaving them alone with a marshmallow. They were told if they could wait until the researcher returned, they’d get a second marshmallow. Some ate it, some did not, but everybody was followed through their school careers and it was said that those who had the ability to delay their satisfaction and wait for the second marshmallow were more successful.
Of course the study is kinda shit. Some kids were hungrier than others, some didn’t really care for marshmallows, some were clever and realized without knowing when the researcher was returning that waiting may not have been worth it. It’s treated as this high-bar of human behavioural science, when in reality there’s tons of holes in it.
Except there’s one aspect of this study that I love. I’ve only ever seen it cited once, but I find it far more interesting. Ready? Have I built it up too much? Certainly I have, but I don’t care here we go: in some variations of the study kids were asked to think of the marshmallow differently. Some were asked to imagine it’s a cloud, while others were asked to imagine it’s a picture of a marshmallow. The results? Those kids held out and were able to wait longer before deciding to eat the marshmallow (or not eat it at all). This means the very simple act of asking somebody to view a thing differently (even when it’s obviously not different at all) can make a huge difference in how we interact with it.
Reframing how we think about things and presenting our subconscious minds with a slightly different task can dramatically impact how we behave. So while it may seem incredibly silly, a thought such as “Just go for a walk, you lazy fool” won’t produce the desired results as well as “I am a person who walks.”
Some real-world examples of ironic process theory
We can turn Ironic Process Theory on its head by using its tricks in the opposite way. A word of caution before we begin: if you’re dealing with severe trauma and find yourself triggered by specific memories, it would be best to start with a therapist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder. Letting our feelings have their space is critical to processing them, but when it comes to deep trauma, there are steps to take to ensure the sufferer feels completely safe, which must be done first.
Should you find yourself with chronic worry that awakens you in the middle of every night, consider scheduling some time to have a little freakout. Block 30 minutes in your calendar to sit down and let all the fear and uncertainty have their say. Should they begin to show themselves out, kindly request they return and keep speaking. You made 30 whole minutes for them; they need to respect that. Note: They will not respect that.
Unable to fall asleep in the first place? Notice how hard you are on yourself as you stare at the clock. Watch for phrases like “I should be asleep by now” or “What’s wrong with me?” Those statements only amp you up and increase resistance, which will awaken you further. Instead, try a different tactic, such as keeping your eyes open. Don’t let them get heavy; if they begin to close on their own, catch them and demand they open again. Remember, you’re the one with the thumbs and cortex; they need to respect you! Note: They will not respect you.
Dieting is an excellent example of Ironic Process Theory because so many diets involve hard restrictions on calories or entire food groups. These tactics always work for a time until the bodymind (the impossibly complex, ever-interacting singular unit that is your body and mind) taps out, unable to sustain the outrageous focus required. Diets have such low success rates for several factors, but the monitoring load they add is undoubtedly one of the bigger ones. This is why many diets include some manner of “cheat day,” so the pressure doesn’t build to the point of total disaster. Even with some indulgence, though, the load is often too high.
The diets showing lasting success rates are sustainable for years and involve variable options. Again, framing can play a massive role here if you swap out restrictive messages such as “I’m not allowed carbs” for additive ones such as “I am a person who eats food that makes me feel stronger.”
Ironic Process Theory states that what resists persists. Therefore, the harder you try to control thoughts or feelings, the more out of control those thoughts or feelings will become. This is problematic, as life is little more than groups of thoughts and feelings we inherently want to boss around.
We can’t successfully repress a thought or feeling because by asking the mind to get rid of something, we inadvertently create a task for it. It must persistently check in on this task to ensure that everything is going according to plan, which ensures nothing else can be focused on.
We can decrease this monitoring load on our brains by reframing how we ask the mind to do things and through meditation which will help us understand how the brain works. Through reframing, we can harness the power of intrinsic motivation (doing things because they reflect who we are) and stay away from extrinsic motivation (doing something because you feel like you have to). Meditation, meanwhile, can give us a front-row seat to watch the monkey mind at work. We can appreciate how it functions without input, isn’t controllable, and how the natural state of all things is to arrive and leave on their own.
Ultimately, the lessons of Ironic Process Theory are no different than the ancient wisdom of mindfulness: just let things be. It’s not an easy lesson, nor is it a natural reaction when life leaves you feeling broken, but when the alternative is to control the uncontrollable, we aren’t left with too many options. You’ve tried to control it all before, and we all know how that went. Your badger wants to fight. Don’t give him the satisfaction.