The White Elephant Says, “Thank You!”

One of my favorite theories in social psychology is the one on reactance. I remember when I first heard of that concept in a lecture several semesters ago, I immediately thought, “Wow, this is so me!”

What exactly is reactance? Basically, it can be defined as an aversive state of tension you feel when you have the impression that your freedom of choice is limited, and this tension leads to overreacting against the limitation to restore your feeling of freedom. In other words: You want to have what you are not to have, and you do not want what you are to have.

Reactance occurs in a variety of situations. A classical example is the “do not think of a white elephant” situation. What do you think you will not be able to not think of if you are told not to think of a white elephant?

~ hmmmmm … ~

It is quite reasonable that other people can elicit reactance in you by telling you what to do in a certain situation, but you can also elicit reactance in yourself by putting a regimen of “shoulds” and “musts” upon yourself. A few common examples (that most of you may know from personal experience) are these.

  • “I will not eat chocolate anymore.”
  • “I have to exercize an hour every day at least.”
  • “I should get some work done.”

What do you think is likely to happen? Well …

  • You will not want anything more than chocolate.
  • You do not even start exercizing because you could never keep it up for an hour anyway.
  • You start cleaning the dishes, doing the laundry, or browsing the internet just to keep yourself from working.

By “shoulding” and “musting” yourself, you can easily undermine your own motivation up to a degree where you feel like you do not get anything done well anymore, and you will end up frustrated and angry with yourself. For this state of being, a friend of mine has made up the wonderful term “reactance victim”. The ironical (and in fact, tragically comical) consequence of this is that the urge to restore your freedom of choice has led to an even greater limitation of choice.

While reactance is not bad in general, it can be very inhibiting when you plan to make some changes for the better in your life. If your plans are expressed in a way that they seem to limitate your freedom, you will make yourself a victim of reactance, and then you can actually forget about your plans. So, what can you do to avoid reactance?

A funny strategy that was derived from reactance theory is counter-intuitive intervention. It goes like this.

  • Tell yourself, “I have to eat that whole bar of chocolate now.” It is likely then that it may not be so appealing anymore to stuff yourself if you “have” to.
  • Tell yourself, “I am not to exercize longer than 10 minutes.” But once you have started, you may get into flow because you do not have to, and feel motivated to go on for some more time.
  • Tell youself, “I am allowed to finish this task, but not to do any more.” Then you may feel that things are getting done easier, and you can go on a little further.

You see, this strategy works via “forcing” yourself to do what you do not want, so you will actually be able to use your own reactance in a productive way, because you build reactance against the state you want to avoid. Another thing that plays a role is that you set such minimal goals that failure is rather unlikely to happen. You may not be able to do a full hour of exercize, but you can do just 10 minutes. You may not be able to stop after a few pieces of chocolate, but you can stop after half of the bar. And even if you cannot, you have not failed actually, because you just did what you told yourself to do. It is a win-win strategy.

~ this would be you – in any case! ~

If you do not want to motivate change in yourself, but in another person, the worst thing you can do – according to reactance theory – is to tell that person what he or she should do. You will get the opposite of what you want and just summon stubbornness and conflict. However, if you regard for reactance, you could offer opportunities instead of giving instructions, and be a role model to let the other person see the positive outcomes of the change he or she could benefit from.

Without knowing it, this is exactly what several of you have done for me – by leaving kind comments on my blog, making suggestions without pushing me, and just living your lives and thus somewhat becoming role models for me in the one or other respect.

I started this blog exactly seven months ago, in September 2010. Seven months of being a member of this wonderful and inspiring blogging community do not leave even the most desperate reactance victim unaffected! Several of you told me that you could relate to how I felt, that you liked my style, and that you enjoyed what I wrote. You cheered me up when I was struggling, or made suggestions what I could try out to find something that works better for me. Many of you have been so kind, supportive, and benevolent to me that it just blew me away. At the same time, you allowed me to partake in your own lives by reading your blogs and exchanging with you, and you have brought an amount of happiness and inspiration into my life I had never imagined. Gradually, this led to building up an honest motivation to let go of my unhealthy obsessions and make a change for the better. I am not yet finished at all, but I have achieved quite a lot in the past months, and compared to one year ago (and the years before), it is a difference like the one between night and day.

So, it is time for a thank-you round! (The following assortment is not at all sufficient, I just grabbed some of you to make a beginning …)

S (Extreme Balance) – You have been my best blogging friend from very early on. Since the time we had this endlessly long comment conversation on my recipe page, you had a place in my heart. Some of my favorite S moments … (There are many more!)

Andrew (ajhblog) – At first, I did not think we had so much in common: You love to ride your bike and go for a good run, while I am not into exercizing at all (so far at least – I want to change that). But I was wrong, there are a lot of things we share: Being thoughtful about how we live our lives, and trying to be kind to the people who live with us. I am truly happy that I have “met” you (on the internet), and you have become quite a role model for me! I really, really want to get into exercize like you did (perhaps not that much, but a little at least!) and I must admit that I truly admire what you have achieved!

Christine (Merf in Progress) – With you, I feel that I have met a like mind! And I so much appreciate how you try to live well not only for yourself, but also for your family! Your post about when you tried to feed good food to your little one made me laugh so much! And I love how you adjusted exercizing to your individual needs! You are really a friend to me by now!

Jos (Delightful Taste Buds) – You are, for sure, my greatest inspiration when it comes to cooking! Your dishes look so incredibly delicious – like your baked ginger and garlic whole chicken, your roasted chicken with caramelized shallots and Chinese steamed fish, or your baked salmon with chimichurri sauce – and they have inspired me to try things myself I would never have dared to make otherwise. Thank you so much!

Lindsay (Cotter Crunch) – I love your optimism and positive energy, and your  posts about the benefits of challenging the focus have gradually got me into rethinking some of my habits, and made me want to change them for the better! I think this worked out so well because you are such a source of inspiration for me! And I also love your wonderful recipes!

Kristina (Spabettie) – Food-wise, your blog is definitely “hard” for me to visit! (You know I am always in serious danger to screw up my laptop by drooling into my keyboard too much. ) However, there are a lot of other things I love about you (besides the fact that you make wonderful dishes and incredibly green smoothies), like your kindness, wit, and humor. And not to forget Basil! *wag wag*

Ameena (Fancy That … Fancy This) – Your comments always show such a kind and compassionate heart! What makes it even better is that you have that incredibly ironic humor on top of it! The wire folder or the Louboutin Barbie shall never be forgotten! And nobody else makes post tags like, “a good mom doesn’t fiddle around with a camera when her daughter is in the bathtub“. You always make me smile.

Heather (Heather Eats Almond Butter) – I know you do not read my blog, but I have read around yours quite a lot, and your story about how you found the diet that works for you has inspired me a lot! Thank you so much for sharing this! It really helped me to understand the importance of sufficient healthy fats in my diet.

There are more wonderful people I should mention here in detail … too many for just a single post, indeed. So I will just refer to my blogroll, there you can find them! Please check out their blogs, if you have not done so yet!

In the following days, I will come up with some goals I want to (not “should” ) tackle next. And new recipes. And more music. And pictures. And thoughts. And Smileys, of course! So stay tuned!

Which goals are you tackling at the moment, or would you love to tackle? And what do you think of reactance theory? Are you maybe a reactance victim yourself?


Filed under Kath's Stuff, Motivation, Psychology

41 responses to “The White Elephant Says, “Thank You!”

  1. Kind of like this, eh? Great post :)

  2. wow, what an unexpected surprise at the end! <3 <3 right now my heart feels like Basil must when he is in a Full Body Wag – so happy to know you and be able to converse and connect in this way! thank you SO much for your kind words, and there are some on this list I love as well, and others I will be hopping over to visit…

    and as a sociology major – I dig this topic! it is CLASSIC and a crazy conundrum… I am definitely being reactant (?) in a couple areas in life right now… and even though deep down I know it, I didn't outwardly realize it… so… thank you for the nudge I need! :)

    XXO Basil sends love as well !

    • Kath (My Funny Little Life)

      A Full Body Wag! :D :D :D

      The tragical (and very funny) thing is that, as a psychology major, I know quite well about these things, and in fact I often observe how they occur with me, and then I think, “Oh, this is reactance again”, but it still happens nevertheless … *sigh* At least I know the theory behind it. ;)

      Love to Basil! :)

  3. oh, and… WONDERFUL song choice today… love Love LOVE !

  4. I’m reading. :)

    What a wonderful post. This is so me: You start cleaning the dishes, doing the laundry, or browsing the internet just to keep yourself from working, and I love the counter-intuitive intervention tips. Must try those on myself soon.

    I also love your tribute at the end of this post, and I am honored to be included. Oh my gosh, Ameena is hilarious, and Linsday is one of my favorite bloggers. I also love S and Kristina as they both seem really down to earth and always leave the nicest comments. Thanks for the reminder to offer opportunities to others and to lead by example rather than just telling them what they should do. So good for me to hear. :)

    • Kath (My Funny Little Life)

      Thank you so much, Heather! I really didn’t knew you were. :) I’m happy that you liked what I wrote above! And I hope you can use some of it for yourself! :)

  5. Kath, thank you so much for starting your blog! Your wonderful insight, recipes, psyhological views, art, music, and so much more has allowed me to not only read but digest the day to day inspiration you leave me.
    Cheers to you!

  6. ajh

    Kath, I want you to know that your comments here today and on my blog yesterday, nearly had me in tears (of joy). As you know, i’ve been a little low recently and what you’ve said has really lifted me up.

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments about how at first it didn’t seem we had much in common, but I soon felt a very strong bond, and your blog quickly became one of my favorites. Now, I have to say if it is in my reader as a new post, it is the first I open.

    Your blog just seems to lift my spirits (must be all those little smileys). Thank you!

    I love the pysch theory too, it is an interesting area of study that so often applies to our everyday lives.

    And yes, I do have a few white elephants.

    • Kath (My Funny Little Life)

      Wow, thank you so, so much, Andrew! :D I totally feel the same about your blog – it’s one of the handful I read daily, and I always look forward to it! :)

      I love psychology because it so often applies to everyday experiences – that’s what psychology is about ;) – at least the part I’m interested in: social and personality of “normal” people. (The whole clinical section that deals with pathology isn’t so much my cup of tea, but perhaps that’s what most people associate first when they hear about psychology. In great parts, though, psychology is about normal functioning, and of course statistics. :D)

      I know you’ve been a little low in the past days, and that was part of, but not the only reason why I mentioned you. I’d have included you anyway. :)

  7. kim

    What a thoughtful and insightful message. I also agree on taking ‘baby steps’. Making too big of a leap might lead to disappointment (if failed) and repercussion. I believe in making smaller goals and achieving them step by step. Not only you would feel a greater sense of accomplishment, but you see thee results much faster, too!

  8. Kath = superstar.

    Enough said. And thanks, my friend: I’ll post very soon and ask the community for help—you’ve made some excellent points here. :)

    In closing, I’ll leave it to the Voldemort gods to sum it all up: “I am glad to be a visitant of this everlasting web site! , appreciate it for this rare info ! .”

    • Kath (My Funny Little Life)

      S = soul mate.

      I hope you’ll post again soon! With all the trouble you’ve recently had, and you not updating, I was a little worried about whether you’re well. Thinking of you! And thank you for the Voldemort! ;)

  9. You are too kind for mentioning my blog. I’m so glad you like it and think it worthy enough for others to read.

    I am completely on board with what you said in this post…the “musts” and the “shoulds” need to go! The white elephant is always in my room, every room I’m in actually, and I totally think I need to do away with him once and for all.

    This is exactly why I love reading your blog – I can relate to the amazingly diverse topics you write about. I love it!

    • Kath (My Funny Little Life)

      Thank you so much, Ameena! It makes me happy that there are people like you who seem to be of the same kind as I am. Shows me that there’s life out there! ;)

      I love your blog because it’s so special and different from all the others, and I definitely think it’s worth reading! You write things nobody else nobody else dares to say, and have such a winking perspective on the hassles of daily life. So refreshing to read! :D

  10. This is such an uplifting post, thank you Kath! The blogging community has done so much for my self-belief and faith in humanity over the past 16 months, and it always makes me happy to hear it does the same for other people. I also never knew there was a technical term for reactance! My pschologist used that as an example of why mindfulness is importance – that you can’t stop yourself from thinking about something just by wanting to, but you can focus your mind on something else.

    • Kath (My Funny Little Life)

      You’re absolutely right, the support is amazing! I know you also got a lot of it recently, and I’m so happy for you!

      I like how you connect reactance theory to mindfulness – I’ve never thought about that in detail, but you’re absolutely right! :)

  11. I am often a victim of reactance as well! That’s why eventually I decided to try to “just say no” to doing things through willpower. Instead I aim to figure out why I am being resistant and if I really want to do the thing. I think your analysis and tips are really good! :)

    • Kath (My Funny Little Life)

      I really like your “anti willpower” approach! :D I think the way you do it – trying to figure out why you’re being resistant – is much better! :)

  12. In psychology, I’ve always found reactance interesting because it does not relate to me. (Hey, theories are not supported 100% of the time, right?) When I tell myself I will/will not do something, I am very disciplined about doing or not doing that thing. Hmm, maybe that’s not a good thing? Haha who knows!

    Whether we think of the white elephant or not, I think “shoulding all over ourselves” (say it out loud, you’ll get it!) is one of the worst things for our health. It just feels yucky and what good ever comes from it? I think it’s a great goal to have to live life as we want to instead of how we feel we “should”. Love it!

    PS – have you heard of self-discrepancy theory? This kind of reminds me of that and WHY it feels so bad when we are living “the should life”.

    • Kath (My Funny Little Life)

      Lucky you! :D

      I know self-discrepancy theory. All those theories about the self I find very interesting, and the whole topic of personal identity (and its individual and social aspects) totally fascinates me. I’d love to make that one of my areas of research one day. :)

  13. Aw, Kath, I’m so glad to have found you <3
    These are my favorite posts of yours. The ones that make me think and rethink how I live my life, and what I can do to make myself mentally stronger. My mind is a very disorganized place, perhaps even worse than my office.

    • Kath (My Funny Little Life)

      Thank you Christine! I totally feel the same about you! :) I’m happy that you can derive seomthing from my posts for yourself – this is why I write them. Having readers like you makes my blog fulfill this purpose. :)

  14. Jos

    Wow Kath, thanks for all the shout outs..geez..I’m blushing’re too sweet with all your complements..really appreciate it!! :)

    I love this psychology post, and learning something new about reactance, which I could totally relate! Yesterday I almost wanted to skip the short workout challenge because it was almost dinner time and I was tired. But then I remembered the psychological effect of saying “It’s only 30 reps each side, and last time I did it in 8 minutes- so just 8 minutes max or if I’m lucky, I could even beat that old time and even shorter!” vs “I have to do this workout or else I’ll punish myself…etc etc”

    And in the end I did that short workout challenge and even beat my old time by 2 minutes…got good sweat and felt great!

    Oh well sorry for writing an essay on your comment..haha..just wanna share something that relates to your post. Have a great day/night!

    • Kath (My Funny Little Life)

      That’s a perfect examples for reactance, Jos! And great how you handled it! :D It’s amazing how much better (or worse) such small things can make you feel!

  15. Dee

    oh my gosh. this is TOTALLY me! I am so a reactance victim. Wow. It’s not even funny.

    I must say chica – this post is wonderful. You hit on some very interesting points. I’m going to have to bookmark it and read it more thoroughly when I’m not at work. ;)

    • Kath (My Funny Little Life)

      Thank you so much, Dee! I think a lot of people can relate to these things, and they’re so powerful because large parts of them happen beyond awareness. But by understanding them and what they do with you, you can learn to act about them in a more productive way. That’s why I love psychology so much! ;)

  16. Definitely an interesting and true theory…I have major problems with the “shoulds” in my life so I can definitely relate. Congrats on 7 months of blogging!

    • Kath (My Funny Little Life)

      Thank you Jess, and also for visiting me! Reducing the “shoulds” is important to be happy, I believe. Still working on that myself! ;)

  17. Allie

    What a precious soul you are.

  18. What an interesting post. I have not really heard of this concept before but maybe I should have! My current goals are to complete my ebook, to submit a children’s book that I have finished to a publisher and to get in better shape. I can use your advice on accomplishing.

    • Kath (My Funny Little Life)

      That are some awesome goals, Tammy! What’s your book going to be about? (Exciting! :D) I’d also love to see your children’s book! Regarding getting into better shape, that’s also one of my goals! :)

  19. I am incredibly happy that I found your blog, too. You put so much of yourself, ups and downs – everything, in the posts that it’s just lovely to get to know you better through each post and it’s great that the blog has helped you to grow, too. To many more years to come!

  20. Oh wow, what a sweet post, Kath!! I’ve been blogging over 2 years now, and certainly have met some gems in the blog world.

    And this post is deep, and seemingly complex, yet about the very simplistic human nature to want to rebel against pressures. haha! Funny story that relates: I used to HATE studying with a passion, esp bc my parents always nagged at me to. Then one day they stopped nagging…and now I work hard on my schoolwork despite my parents telling me not to!

    My goal RIGHT now is to pray more. My goal in the future is to run a marathon, write a book, win the Pulitzer Prize, build an ED-busting team…uh, maybe I should stop now.

  21. I have to say from almost every post of yours I get to know new things. Thanks for sharing these with us.
    I am totally a reactance victim, but I doubt how the counter intuitive approach will work for me may I’ll end eating the entire chocolate bar :)

    A very interesting post indeed.

  22. Pingback: Blubb Blubb, Moderation, Blubb Blubb | My Funny Little Life

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