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Self-Critical Thinking and Concentration

elephantLet’s try an exercise. The exercise is: Don’t think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. I’ve never found a client who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes associations. Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on. The word elephant is defined relative to its features and context. When a person tries not to think about an elephant, for example, direct and associated experiences with elephants are likely to come to mind. In short, when you suppress a feeling, you evoke that feeling.

This can be seen in everyday speech when you say, “Don’t worry, Don’t be late, Don’t blame me.” By saying “don’t” you are encouraging yourself to think and feel what you were trying to avoid. The conscious effort made to avoid concentrating on something can, ironically make our attention focus on something more.

Your mind (if it’s like most minds), spends a lot of time criticizing itself. If the thought comes up I’m so ugly, and you start arguing with it, or resisting it, you are just investing more energy in that thought pattern in your brain. If someone came up to you and said ‘You’re a purple elephant’, you would probably not get insulted, because there is no agreement that you have that goes ‘I believe that I might be a purple elephant and that is a bad thing.’

On the other hand, if someone comes up and says You would look better if you lost 15 lbs and got rid of that double-chin you would might get very upset. In fact, you might after reading that feel a little jab like “they’re right, I do have kind of a double-chin, I should really get rid of that.” That’s because somewhere in your mind you have an agreement that (a) you might have a double-chin and (b) having a double-chin is a very bad thing to have. So when someone points that out, or you see an advertisment with a 120-lb model, your mind comes up with “I’m ugly” and you agree with it.

So the key is to stop agreeing with your negative thoughts. This doesn’t mean arguing with them or resisting them though. If someone said “You’re a purple elephant” you wouldn’t argue about how you really aren’t and how even purple elephants have feelings – you would just shrug and say “OK, whatever”. You would have no charge on it. That is the attitude to cultivate with your negative feelings and thoughts – a mental shrug. “Ok, that’s what my mind is doing, whatever.”

Elephant image available from Shutterstock.

Self-Critical Thinking and Concentration

Aaron Karmin

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APA Reference
Karmin, A. (2013). Self-Critical Thinking and Concentration. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Aug 2013
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