Help! I’m Being Repressed!

You can’t help but think of a…

10 points if you can name the movie where the title comes from!

If you’ve ever been on a diet, you probably have suffered through the hunger pangs associated with the caloric reduction your stomach is experiencing.

“FEED ME!” your stomach (and Monkey Brain) yell at you.

By the way, Monkey Brain is what I call the limbic system. To learn more about it and why I call it Monkey Brain, as well as to receive a free e-book, you can sign up here.

What is your gut response (hah!) to this double-sided attack?

Stop thinking about food! Just stop it! The hunger will go away! Just don’t think about it!

But, does this approach work? And will it help you when you’re tempted to spend money spuriously on things you know you don’t need?

Dr. James Erskine from the University of London and his team conducted research on smokers to answer the question of what effects thought suppression had on the smoking behavior of participants in the experiments. They broke the experiment into three weeks. In the first and third weeks, participants were told to live their lives and smoke like normal, to establish a baseline of behavior. In the second week, though, participants were told to either think more about smoking, try to think less about it, or carry on normally.

Can You Squash Those Useless Thoughts?

Erskine’s team discovered that in the short term, thought repression worked.

People were particularly vigilant because they were thinking about not thinking about smoking.

However, it came at a price. Those participants who suppressed their thoughts reported significantly higher amounts of stress than the other two groups.

During week 3, when they stopped trying to control their thoughts, the thought suppression group suffered what is called a rebound effect – the behaviors that they were trying to stop increased compared to the baseline in week 1.

Much like the Knights who say “Ni” wound up saying “it” because they were aware that they said “it…”
when we actively suppress thoughts, we’re making ourselves more aware of the thing that we are trying to avoid.

As we saw in “Monkey Brain is a Lip Reader,” one of the psychological channels by which we become more comfortable with an activity or an item is how easily our brains can access that information. By thinking about not thinking about doing something, we, paradoxically, make it easier to think about doing the same thing later because, in reality, we are thinking about it.

Furthermore, by fighting to not think about something, we are wearing our minds out, and, as we saw in “How Ego Depletion Allows Monkey Brain to Buy Junk,” if you keep saying “no,” you will eventually say “yes,” and you are more likely to say “yes” to something that you really did not want to (like smoking).

Try this phrase instead

A couple of years ago, I came across this article by James Altucher. I was the type who would get incensed at the person who cut me off in traffic.

It was not useful.

So, instead of trying to suppress those thoughts, I simply told Monkey Brain that those thoughts were “not useful.”

Just as my dog stops random whining if we ignore him, Monkey Brain learned that I was going to ignore him when he had useless thoughts.

I’m a much calmer, saner driver now because of the power of that one little phrase.

Next time you’re tempted to break that diet or go on a bout of retail therapy, instead of trying to suppress those thoughts, use Altucher’s much simpler approach. You may find yourself more successful at not giving in, and much less stressed.

How do you fight urges? Have you tried Altucher’s approach? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

Published by

Jason Hull, CFP®, was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

4 thoughts on “Help! I’m Being Repressed!

  1. Good points, all.

    Personally, rather than thinking about not doing something, I focus on the positive of what I want the outcome to be. e.g. rather than focus on not eating, I focus on eating right and what that will do for my health.

    It’s hard, but focusing on the positive, and the outcome, helps build the mental imagery you need to change your thinking and over time that will change your behavior.

    1. Yes, Jack – a great approach! I think focusing on the positive and using “not useful” go hand in hand. Focus on the positive, and when you think about negatives, remind yourself that it’s not useful.

  2. Jason-just discovered your site-nice job.
    Wife and I are “pre-re”-pre retired, doing what we want when we want. (We own 3 paid-off rentals, and have 2 part time businesses).
    Last winter (spent at our place in FL-paid off also) we looked back over our 27 years of buying rentals, and houses to flip. We thought about all the weekends we spent fixing up properties while our friends were out having fun, spending money. (Many of whom thought we were crazy at the time). We now know it was all worth it. My 30 something sons each own a couple of rentals. I have shared this story with them-but of course, they are watching and already know.
    To your readers who need encouragement-keep your heads down and keep moving forward. It will all be worth it.

    1. Hi Bruce–

      Thanks for the kind words!

      I’m glad that you were able to create the retirement that you and your wife want and have created a legacy for your sons to follow.

      Isn’t it nice knowing that they’ll never be boomerang kids! 🙂 My wife and I joke that not being boomerang kids is the best gift we could give our parents!

Leave a Reply