I will never forget as a teenager meeting my French pen-friend for the first time. Her photos did not reveal the very yellow teeth she had. I ran the mantra in my mind “don’t mention her teeth, don’t mention her teeth” over and over, and what happened? Almost in the first sentence, I talked about yellow teeth. Where did this demon reside within me? This was 30 years ago and the memory is still vivid!
Now I understand that there is a reason this happens – Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner researches “ironic mental processes” – that result from occasional errors in our sophisticated systems of mental control.
It works something like this. If your resolution is to give up chocolate or alcohol, you want to block all thoughts of them. You do this by filling your conscious mind with distracting thoughts - anything but chocolate or your favourite tipple. At the same time, though, your unconscious mind remains alert for any signs of the unwanted thought, almost more than usual as it is alert to help you chase it away. "Some part of the mind has to know what it is we don't want to think about and to monitor for that," says Wegner. So ironically, you have to focus on cigarettes and alcohol in order to block those thoughts!
The old adage “Don’t mention the war” now has new meaning – literally don’t mention it! In order not to think of it, the brain has to create an image of it to then understand it shouldn’t think of it.
So to keep to your resolutions, keep them positive – they are much more easy to control than negative ones. Think health rather than “don’t drink”. The latter will guarantee a conscious search process to understand drinking, giving something specific to the ironic monitoring process making it more likely to act as a trigger for the very behaviour of drinking you are trying to avoid!
And remember, never mention yellow teeth!