Conversation 1: Language creates Conflict

Suppressing & Noticing Thoughts

Listen to this section as audio, or read below.

Suppressing and Noticing Thoughts – a recording of Julian McNally (14:16 min) 

(“Suppressing and Noticing Thoughts” by RMIT Counselling and Psychological Services, Six ACT* Conversations, RMIT University is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

The next two exercises are modelled on those in Steve HayesACT self-help book, Get Out Of Your Mind and Into Your Life.

Exercise 4: Thought suppression

For these exercises you will need a watch, a sheet of paper and a pencil or pen.

Think about a red tennis ball. See it in your mind. See the lines around it, and the red fuzzy surface.

Now, write down how many times in the last two days you had thoughts about a red tennis ball.

Now, using the watch to keep time, sit for three minutes and don’t think about a red tennis ball. Do your best to make sure you don’t have even one thought about a red tennis ball. Start now.

[PAUSE – 3 minutes]

Okay that’s three minutes. Now write down as accurately as you can, the number of times you had a thought about a red tennis ball during that 3-minute period.

Okay. Now spend three minutes just thinking about whatever comes to mind. Just let your thoughts flow in an unforced manner. Start now.

[PAUSE – 3 minutes].

Now write down the number of thoughts you had about a red tennis ball in that 3-minute period.

Compare the three numbers. In non-numeric terms, most people’s responses for the three sampling periods are “none at all“, then “lots, I couldn’t stop thinking about that damn ball“, and lastly “a few” or “lots at first, but then it got less“.

So what’s the point of this exercise? Just this – you cannot control your thoughts.

And if one of your strategies for solving your problems has been to try really, really hard to control your thoughts or feelings, it’s not your fault that you’ve failed. It’s not that you’re not smart enough or creative enough or hard working enough.

Could it be that the strategy simply doesn’t work for this kind of problem?

If you’re still having the thought that controlling your thoughts will help with the problem, you can try this exercise – it’s similar to the thought suppression exercise.

Exercise 4.5: Thought Suppression in Action

First think of a thought that comes up a lot when you’re dealing with the barrier or obstacle you’ve chosen.

Write that thought down – or at least a word or prompt to remind you of it.

Estimate how many times you have had that thought in the last two days, and write that too.

Now, spend 3 minutes doing your best to avoid having that thought. Start now.

[PAUSE 3 minutes].

Okay – write down how many times you had that thought over those 3 minutes.

Now take another 3 minutes, and just let yourself think about anything else. Start now.

[PAUSE 3 minutes].

Write down how many times you had the thought in that 3 minutes.

Did you find as you tried not thinking about the thought that it became less important, lighter and less central?

Or did it become more significant, more compelling, perhaps even more frightening or unwelcome?

Many people find that the thoughts that are most strongly associated with their problems are the ones they are usually trying hardest to suppress.

Understandably of course, because the thought usually reminds them of unpleasant experiences with the problem.

Occasionally they’re successful at getting rid of the thought, temporarily at least, but strangely the problem is never actually solved.

Later, in Conversation 3: Acceptance & Willingness, we’ll look closely at an alternative to suppression and avoidance, but next in Conversation 2: Action & Experience versus Thought & Emotion, we’ll provide you with something you can do with the thoughts and feelings you have been trying to control, suppress or avoid.



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