How often do you manage the 'white bears' in your mind?


Today is February 15 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you manage the ‘white bears’ in your mind? The phrase ‘white bear’ stems from an 1863 observation published in "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions" by Fyodor Dostoevsky following his travels in Western Europe when he wrote "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute." In other words, that which you are trying not to think about (and in this case the white bear) becomes the very thing you do think about. In psychology the ‘white bear’ problem is also known as ironic process theory that maintains the belief that attempts to suppress certain thoughts can actually increase their frequency. The idea was developed by Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner in the late 1980s after he inadvertently stumbled upon Dostoevsky’s quote.


Wegner eventually published his research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1987 (Vol. 53, No. 1) and in so doing initiated an entirely new field of study on thought suppression. Over the next decade, Wegner developed his theory of "ironic processes" to explain why it's so hard to tamp down unwanted thoughts. He found evidence that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, but another part "checks in" every so often to make sure the thought is not coming up—therefore, ironically, bringing it to mind. When you are navigating the chaos and translating one dream after another into reality by leveraging your mind, body, and spirit, you will most likely encounter ‘white bears’ along your path. How you manage the ‘white bears’ in your mind can determine how well you navigate the chaos.


To help people better understand how to manage the ‘white bears’ he suggests several strategies to use. In a January 27, 2022, article published in Inc. Magazine Justin Bariso referred to such strategies as the 'blue dolphin rule.’ When you come across the ‘white bear’ use your ‘blue dolphin’ as a means to distract you and help you focus on a more positive thought. One such ‘blue dolphin’ strategy to use is to think the opposite of your current mindset. For example, for those who get nervous in anticipation of public speaking, the ‘white bear’ is the thought “I am so nervous to speak to that group of people tomorrow.” Instead, try the ‘blue dolphin’ approach and say to yourself “I am so excited to speak to that group tomorrow.” Leveraging the ‘blue dolphin’ allows you to channel positive energy into the event instead of the negative ‘white bear’ thought process which produces negative emotions and jeopardizes your ability to navigate the chaos of the situation.


Another ‘blue dolphin’ strategy to use to manage your ‘white bear’ is to select a different point of focus. For example, in one study, Wegner and his colleagues asked participants to think of a red Volkswagen instead of a white bear. They found that giving the participants something else to focus on helped them to avoid the unwanted white bears. Additional ‘blue dolphin’ strategies include meditation and mindfulness that can help strengthen your mental control. By increasing the discipline, you apply to your thinking, you just may be able to help yourself manage those ‘white bear’ thoughts that enter into your head as you navigate the chaos.


It is important to remember that managing your ‘white bears’ is a central part of emotional intelligence. The more you work on your emotional intelligence, the better you will be able to both understand and manage your emotions. Since thoughts and emotions are intertwined, an increase in emotional intelligence can then help you manage your ‘white bears’ by relying on one or more ‘blue dolphins.’ As Bariso noted “people should understand that while they do not have control over their thoughts that enter their mind, they do have control over how long they dwell on those thoughts.

  • Have you recognized any ‘white bears’ in your thoughts lately?

  • How long do those ‘white bears’ stay in your head?

  • Have you used ‘blue dolphins’ to manage your ‘white bears?’ If so, which strategies work better than others?

  • How often do you reflect upon the length in which you dwell on ‘white bears?’ Do you dwell on ‘white bears’ for a few minutes? A few days?

  • Have any ‘white bears’ slowed down your ability to navigate the chaos?

  • Now that you are familiar with the ‘blue dolphin’ approach, which strategy might you attempt to manage your next ‘white bear?’