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Negative Thoughts and the Mental Control Paradox

Difficulty overcoming emotional distress may be caused by too much effort.

Yuriy Golub/Shutterstock
Source: Yuriy Golub/Shutterstock

Have you ever “choked under pressure?” Maybe it was a sport, musical performance, a contest, job interview, or an exam, and you really wanted to do your very best. Possibly there was an audience, or even if not, a good performance was critical to your self-esteem. You may have spent a long time preparing for this moment. You reminded yourself over and over that you had to do your best. You could feel the intense pressure; all your attention and energy was channeled into your performance. With great effort and determination, you stepped forward, but then disaster struck. You blew it! You messed up and experienced one of the most shameful moments in your life.

I’m sure you can relate to this experience. There are several times in my life when I “choked under pressure.” We can easily understand mistakes or failures due to lack of effort, inadequate preparation, or carelessness. It’s much harder to understand failure because of over-preparation, excessive effort and a strong desire to do our best. But this is exactly what happens in “choking under pressure.” We try too hard to control every aspect of our behavior, we put too much effort into achieving the desired outcome, and what happens? We flop!

The answer? Let go of control, stop trying so hard, relax, and perform more naturally without effortful thought or direction.

The Paradox of Mental Control

You might be wondering what “choking under pressure” has to do with emotional problems like depression, anxiety, guilt, and anger. Unwanted negative thinking drives emotional distress—a basic idea in cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT). This means that control over our thoughts and behavior is central to recovery from emotional distress. We need to think about behavior in ways that promote our personal well-being and inhibit actions and thinking that are unhealthy. This requires that the brain exercise conscious, effortful control over our thoughts and behavior so we can attain our desired goals. In all our actions, we are telling ourselves “do or think this but don’t do or think that.” And when we’re emotionally distressed, we also tell ourselves: “don’t be so negative, think more positively."

It can be hard to exercise control when we’re emotionally distressed. We know we need to switch off our negative thoughts, but the harder we try the worse it gets. Could this be an example of “choking under pressure” with our thoughts instead of behavior? Does this sound familiar? Have you been trying hard to stop your negative thinking but found that it’s backfiring and the negativity seems to be getting worse rather than better? If so, your problem may not be weak willpower or poor mental control. It may be just the opposite: you’re falling victim to the “mental control paradox.”[1]

White Bears and Other Obnoxious Intrusions

If more effort to control our unwanted negative thoughts often results in less success, why do we keep trying? One reason is our unrealistic expectations about our ability to “not think” (i.e., inhibit) unwanted thoughts. Research has shown that mental control is fragile. Our ability to generate thoughts is better than our ability to prevent or suppress unwanted thoughts.[2]

If you question this finding, try doing the white bear experiment. Find a quiet place, sit comfortably, close your eyes and for two minutes THINK INTENTLY about a white bear. Concentrate your mind on the bear to the best of your ability. If another thought pops into your mind, use a blank sheet of paper to note the interruption (make a checkmark) and then go back to thinking about the bear. At the end of two minutes stop the experiment. Now repeat the experiment, but this time DON’T THINK about the white bear. Make a checkmark each time the white bear intrudes into your mind and then go back to thinking about anything but the white bear. At the end of two minutes stop the experiment. Now take a look at your checkmarks. Did you have more checkmarks when trying not to think the white bear thought than when you were trying to think about the bear? Did it take more effort to inhibit the bear thought than to generate the bear thought? Most people find that suppressing a thought is much harder than producing a thought.

What to Do

If you suspect the mental control paradox is driving your emotional distress, there are several ways to deal with this dilemma.

  • Understand that trying harder to stop negative thinking may not be the solution. In fact, it could have the opposite effect, making negative thoughts more rather than less potent.
  • Work on reducing the personal significance of your unwanted negative thoughts. Unwanted thoughts that are considered highly significant or threatening will be more difficult to inhibit.
  • Rather than trying to NOT THINK negatively, shift your attention to more positive or useful distracting thoughts. Remember that generating a thought is much easier than inhibiting an unwanted thought. Your mental control effort will be more successful if it’s directed at generating alternative, more positive thoughts.
  • Remember, your ability to inhibit unwanted thoughts is probably as good as anyone's. Your problem with negative thoughts and feelings is strategic rather than generic; you’re trying too hard to banish negativity from your mind. Isn’t it time to free yourself from the entanglement of the “mental control paradox?"


[1] Clark, D.A. 2018. The Anxious Thoughts Workbook: Skills to Overcome the Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts that Drive Anxiety, Obsessions & Depression. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

[2] Rassin, E. 2005. Thought Suppression. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

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