Don’t think about the elephant!
Close your eyes for the next ten seconds and create an image in your mind of an enormous elephant wearing a pink tutu. Don’t worry if you start laughing. It’s liable to happen.
Okay, now that you have this image firmly ingrained in your mind’s eye, I want you to stop thinking about the elephant. Just get it out of your head.
Don’t you dare think of that elephant! I want you to completely ignore it.
I’m guessing that by now you’re quite frustrated with the fact that the image of this silly elephant is still crystal clear in your mind. What you just experienced is The Law of Resistance. Simply put, the more you resist something, the more it persists. You see, when I asked you not to think about the elephant, I was essentially inviting you to think about it even more.
If you’re a parent, teacher, or coach, I’d like you to consider something. Have you ever noticed that in an effort to squelch various behavior problems, you’ve relied on the quick fix nature of the words “Ignore it?”
Your daughter complains about a sibling who is mistreating her and your response is, “Ignore it.”
One of your students is visibly upset about a mistake they made on a test and your response is, “Ignore it.”
As a former classroom teacher, I uttered these words on more occasions than I care to remember. The most common occurrence was immediately following lunch recess. It was quite customary for a handful of students to approach me with a laundry list of complaints about what others had said to them on the playground. In order to expedite the process and calm the behaviors, I quickly squelched all of the complaining with a simple instruction – “Ignore it.”
Today, those words are not even a part of my vocabulary when I work with students, or with my own children. The reason is quite simple. Instructing another person to ignore something is akin to asking them to stop thinking about the elephant with a pink tutu.
Put yourself in a child’s shoes for a moment. Imagine that you’ve had a difficult day with a classmate and you’re overcome with sadness and despair. As you explain the situation to your parent, coach, or teacher, their only advice is to ignore it. So you do your best, but can’t help but notice that the sadness and despair are still present. Over time, these emotions will obviously change, but the fact remains that you never really dealt with the problem.
I have an alternative approach I’d like to share with you. Instead of encouraging a child to ignore it, ask them to explore it. While ignoring something requires resistance, exploring something requires acceptance.
Below is a scenario which will outline the difference between ignoring and exploring.
Jason is upset about the fact that he hasn’t achieved a perfect score on any of his spelling tests. Conditioned to believe that he’s simply supposed to ignore his frustration, he seeks to find distractions that will keep his mind off of the spelling tests. Much to his disappointment, he finds that nothing is able to rid his mind of the frustration.
After a few days, he courageously approaches his teacher and attempts to describe his feelings about the spelling test scores. Surprisingly, his teacher acknowledges him for practicing self-awareness and says, “Let’s explore this.” Not sure where he’s going with it, Jason nods his head in agreement and the exploration process begins.
After a long discussion, Jason uncovers the realization that his own thinking is what’s preventing him from excelling on the tests. He recognizes that after the first two tests, he made up his mind that something was wrong with him. His own resistance, in the form of his thoughts, is precisely what caused his scores to stay the same. As soon as he changes his inner dialogue, the scores improve.
It is my sincere hope that this blog has given you a new perspective on the counterproductive nature of ignoring something. I invite you to empower the young people in your life by helping them to explore the root of their problems. The end result is a child who seeks to solve problems, not run away from them.
P.S. I apologize if you still have the image of the elephant in your mind. Don’t ignore it, just explore it.