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Stressed? Well... don't think about the purple cow!

I recently had a coaching client say, "I'm so stressed out.  I just can't help thinking about all the bad things that might happen at work right now.  I can't get anything done... and I can't stop thinking about work when I get home."

I said, "Don't think about the purple cow."Purple_cow

She was a little rattled.  Then she responded with a weak "what?"

I explained that I once had a high school psychology teacher who tried an experiment with us. 

He started the class by saying, "Today... I have a simple request.  I don't want you to think about purple cows."

I think my response at the time was something close to my coaching client's.  I said, "What?"

He said, "It's simple.  I don't want you to think about purple cows.  I don't want you to think about whether purple cows have horns.  I don't want you to think about whether purple cows have purple spots.  I don't want you to think about purple cows eating grass.  Just don't think about purple cows."

Then... he did the unthinkable.  He started to ask everyone questions about what was on their minds.

"Tim.  What are YOU thinking about?" 

Tim's response, "Purple cows."

He continued already in a huff.  "Margaret.  What are YOU thinking about?"

Margaret's voice cracked as she said "purple cows." 

He said... "But I clearly instructed you to NOT think about purple cows!" 

He continued around the room until he got to Debbie.  Debbie's response finally brought a smile to the teacher's weary face.

What did Debbie say? She simply responded with..."A pink gorilla."

Yup.  Debbie had figured out how to beat the purple cow that was staring everybody else in the face. 

She knew that instead of trying to not think about something... she needed to replace it with something better... something more vivid.  She needed to think of something new that would replace the old.

So, what does this have to do with being stressed out?

Well... my client was trying to not think about her negative thoughts and predictions, but it wasn't working.  She was trying to NOT think about purple cows. 

So... instead, we worked on a set of questions that would help her to replace those negative images with a more positive thoughts.

Some of here favorites were:

  • What's one positive thing that I'm learning right now... that will help me in the future?
  • This might not work, but then again it might.  So, what's one positive thing that could result from this project?
  • What are 5 things that I can be grateful about... right now?

So... what are some questions that you could ask yourself to replace the purple cow with the pink gorilla.  Or in other words... what would help you move from the negative thoughts causing you stress and worry... to more positive thoughts... that free you up to relax... and become solution oriented?

Click "comments" and join in the conversation.  Let me know some of the things you could think about to replace your own purple cows.

Photo credit: juliaf

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Comments

Hi Mitch,
Great article! This is so true... it is as if the brain doesn't hear the NOT in the statement "do not think of a purple cow."

This is why affirmations work best when created in a positive way. For example, if you repeat to yourself - "I do not eat sugar" you will constantly be thinking about eating sugar. If you say "I choose healthy foods," then you will be thinking of the healthy foods. This makes it much easier to change your eating habits.

Thanks for linking to me in such an insightful post!

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