Should I suppress the thoughts or ignore them?

What do you do with clouds that you dislike?

Trying to suppress a thought will keep it alive because you’re spending time and energy on it. Trying to ignore it wouldn’t be that different. You’re still trying to get rid of it and in an attempt to ignore it, you might avoid situations that could trigger it, which is putting the thought in charge of your life.

If somebody asked you to try to suppress a cloud in the sky, it would be very difficult and you would have to spend lots of time and energy figuring out a way to get to the cloud and get rid of it and you’d constantly be checking on it or trying not to look at it. Everything would be happening in reaction to the cloud. So it can help to treat thoughts the same way most people treat clouds: they don’t actively spend energy on surpressing them or trying to ignore them. They also don’t spend energy focusing on them or trying to do anything with them. Why bother with them at all?

When somebody is trying to figure out how to suppress or ignore a thought, it’s usually the case that the compulsion they’re actually struggling with is judgment. If you label that thought as bad, horrible, unwanted, etc, that’s going to create anxiety because you’re having a “bad” thought that you don’t want to have. You might be judging yourself for having that thought, afraid of what it means, afraid that people will find out you’re having that thought–and then you really want to get rid of it. So it can help to shift the focus to accepting thoughts, rather than trying to suppress or ignore “bad” thoughts. What’s the use of judging the clouds in the first place? You can put the clouds in the sky in charge of your life and your emotions, but is that going to be useful to you?

As long as you engage in that compulsion to judge your thoughts, you’ll keep putting yourself in the situation of trying to escape the unescapable.

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3 comments On Should I suppress the thoughts or ignore them?

  • Hey, Mark! I would have sent you an e-mail, but I read you prefer to answer in public because there might be people with the same problems as me. So, here it goes:

    My OCD revolves around my relationship. One of the aspects of it is the fact that I keep comparing my girlfriend to other girls. I compare her intelligence, her sense of humor, her appearence etc. Don’t get me wrong: I love my girlfriend and I want to be with her. But sometimes I think it would be great if she was smater or more attractive etc. I’ve been learning to deal with these kind of thoughts by accepting that they exist and by keeping in mind that there’ll be always someone more attractive or funnier etc. After reading your book, I think I’m more prepared to act in better ways towards my goals, but there is one thing that bothers me that I still don’t know how to handle: when I notice attractive women passing by me, I feel a bunch of feelings I don’t like and I think they’re caused by the habit of comparing those girls to my girlfriend. I feel guilty for making the comparisons and I feel like I’m a shitty boyfriend for noticing attractive women all the time. I’ve been trying to change these feelings by feeling gratitude whenever I see an attractive girl. For example, I would see a hot woman and I would say to myself “I’m grateful for having eyes and being able to see. I’m grateful because I’m a healthy human being who can feel sexual attraction towards people” etc. The problem is, I don’t know if that really helps in the long term.

    Would you mind sharing your ideas about things I can do to help me with these issues? I don’t try to supress these thoughts anymore, or to ignore them, but I wish they could go away.

    Thank you so much!

  • Dear Mark,

    Thank you for your posts and videos which are great help for me suffering OCD. My question is regarding the post ‘Should I suppress thoughts or ignore them?”

    When you refer to ‘ignore’ in that post, would it be fair interpretation that ‘ignore’ means ’avoid’?

    After learning about ERP and ACT concepts, I have tried not to engage in compulsions by doing nothing against my OCD thoughts, which I personally consider ‘ignoring’. Thus, the word ‘ignore’ you have used in the post have caused some confusion to me, and that’s why I send this inquiry for clarification.

    Thank you very much!

    • I’d see ignoring as something I’m still actively doing to a thought. If somebody woke up each day and declared that today is the day they’re going to ignore the clouds in the sky! They’re immediately placing a focus on the clouds. The things they’re doing are now in relation to whether they’re ignoring the weather or not. So the clouds are in charge of how they’re spending their time and energy. It’s telling the brain: noticing the clouds is BAD, we should worry about accidentally interacting with the clouds! And then the brain will start helpfully thinking of ways they might engage with clouds and all of the consequences that will cause. And then that person might mistakenly look out a window and see a cloud. And then they’ll be wondering if that means they’ll never recover. And maybe there’s something wrong with them because they can’t stop engaging with clouds… and so on.

      But if the clouds are actually irrelevant, they could just wake up and commit to putting their time and energy into the things they care about. If they want to be the best donut baker in the world but they’ve been struggling with OCD, I think they’d find it more useful to shift the focus to how they can be the best donut baker. There are many things they won’t pay attention to while they put their time and energy into the things they care about but they probably won’t see themselves as actively ignoring that other stuff. If you walk past a tree and don’t stop to fix it, do you tell yourself to ignore it? If a car drives past you while you’re looking at your phone, do you see yourself as ignoring that car? Are you ignoring your clothes right now because you’re not trying to adjust them? When you go to the grocery store, are you ignoring all of the foods you don’t look at or you don’t buy?

      Ignoring the stuff our brains throw up is a useful step. But there’s a next step you can take as well, where that stuff becomes just like so much other stuff we pass by as we focus on living our lives.

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