What's the elephant in your room?
Think of an elephant.
Wrinkly gray skin. Tree-stump legs. Snorty trumpet hooowaaahh sound. Trunk curling into an elegant “S” shape as it grabs a peanut.
OK, now don’t think of an elephant.
Seriously, stop thinking about that big, honking gray elephant stomping around.
DO NOT THINK OF AN ELEPHANT NO MATTER WHAT.
If you’re like most people, that elephant is now etched into your brain like the latest, horribly catchy “earworm” pop song. You can’t get it out, even if you try.
Especially if you try.
The human mind is funny. It has a rebellious streak, kind of like a little kid. The second it’s told to avoid something, it goes right for it.
“Billy! Don’t play in that mud!”
This goes for thoughts, feelings, and the desire for actions.
The more we try to avoid thoughts, feelings, and urges we don’t like, the stronger those thoughts, feelings, and urges may become.
The Great Escape
Uh oh. The boss is on her way to your cubicle. She’s wearing her frowny face. She’s got a copy of your performance review in her hand.
Time for a fast bathroom break!
You duck down behind your wall divider and start to crawl away, hoping the potted plants and filing cabinets will camouflage you.
Maybe the boss will forget about you if you can just hide out in the loo long enough.
Most people naturally want to avoid feeling bad.
They’ll do nearly anything not to feel bad.
They often try to avoid feeling bad by simply… running away.
When we’re confronted with things we don’t like, we regress to simpler instincts.
Our thinking, planning, reflecting brain (who normally plays a mean game of chess and knows how to spell “syzygy”) downshifts to “lizard brain”, fight or flight mode.
We don’t want to think any more. We just want to find a place to hide and make ourselves feel better.
This instinct worked great when our ancestors were escaping from a tiger. See tiger, freak out, run, hide, curl up in cave… perfect.
This instinct is not so helpful when it causes us to avoid dealing with things that we should deal with.
At some point, your boss is going to find you. Now what?
The problem with escape: It makes things worse.
Not only do you have to talk about your performance review, you now have to explain why you’ve spent the last two weeks hiding in a toilet stall.
The more you avoid the situation, the more you think about it.
The more you avoid thinking about the elephant, the bigger the elephant gets.
Eventually, it’s elephants elephants elephants.
In fact, some psychologists argue that it’s not our actual problems that cause us distress — it’s avoiding our problems.
The coping mechanisms we choose to get away from our problems are what make us unhappy.
For instance, if we eat in order to avoid feeling bored at work, the eating becomes more of a problem than feeling bored was.
If you’d just dealt with feeling bored at work, then you wouldn’t have the second problem of eating.
Now, you may be reading this thinking “I’m doing great! I don’t have any problems!” Awesome! Keep on being fantastic!
However, most of you may be nodding in agreement… or desperately trying not to think of elephants.
What’s your elephant?
Almost all of us have elephants we’d rather not think about. That's normal.
But your elephant could be holding you back from making the best possible progress.
Your elephant could be:
Long hours at work.
An extra drink here and there.
A stash of treats in the house… “because the kids like them”.
Skipping your workouts or avoiding the bits you don’t like.
Taking care of everyone else before yourself.
Whatever your elephant, the more you avoid it, the bigger it gets.
The bigger it gets, the more you want to avoid it.
And the more you want to avoid it, the more likely you are to do things that help you forget about it, such as eating, drinking, being “too busy”, and zoning out.
Think about the elephant.
Today, in order to help you do a little more, and a little better, we want you to think about your elephant.
Stop running, turn around, and look ol’ Jumbo in its big brown elephant eyes.
Use your smart, thoughtful human brain (instead of your instinctive lizard brain) to take a good look at that elephant.
Maybe you don’t want to think about the whole elephant today.
That’s OK. Think about ONE very small piece of your elephant.
For instance, think about:
whether you really need to work late on Monday — and how you still get your workout in.
whether you could have one less drink — or maybe a soda water.
whether you could toss out ONE treat today — or find a healthier substitute.
whether you could grit your teeth and do ONE more set, or even just one more rep, of the exercise you hate.
whether you could just say a polite “No thank you” or “Actually, that doesn’t work for me”.
What’s the elephant I’ve been avoiding? In other words, what problems, challenges, or limiting factors have you been avoiding?
How can I confront my elephant today… just a little bit? What’s ONE very small thing you can do today to tackle a tiny piece of your elephant? This will help you today as you work on a little more, a little better.
Tackle that piece.