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The elephant and the rider

February 18th, 2012 | Posted by Brian Pearson in Emotions | Stress

Most of us can relate to the idea that our brain has two independent systems – the emotional one and the rational one. If you have ever overslept, overworked, eaten too much, skipped your exercise (or not started your exercise program at all), become angry and said something you later regretted, become depressed because your best friend said something very small but negative about you, tried to quit drinking and failed, or experienced any one of a million such scenarios, you have experienced a war of the rational and emotional systems (and lost to the emotional side). Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychologist, aptly names these two aspects the Elephant and the Rider.

To understand better what this analogy implies, visualize what Haidt describes as a 6-ton elephant, with a tiny rider sitting on top holding the reins and trying to guide the elephant. The rider tries to direct the elephant, but if the elephant decides otherwise, the battle is easily lost. On the other hand, if the elephant and rider agree on a direction, it makes for a very smooth ride. The elephant does indeed have strengths, often motivating and providing the energy needed to move in a certain direction. The question is, how does one keep the elephant from going off the path, or worse yet, completely taking over the rider.

“Clocky” is a tongue-in-cheek solution that an enterprising MIT student came up with – a clock that has wheels and runs away from you after the alarm goes off in the mornings, forcing you to run after it in order to turn it off. The elephant (your desire to sleep) is tamed by a tiny device (the clock) because it forces you to climb out of bed, waking yourself up in the process! Now the rider has a fighting chance to be in charge for the rest of your morning. Many of us, however, don’t have or can’t afford a clocky (at 50 bucks apiece) and have to come up with other creative devices to deal with our inner elephants.

A simple (not necessarily easy) way is to practicing taming your ANT’s (Automatic Negative Thoughts). Imagine for instance, that you have started feeling a pain in your tooth. One way the elephant takes over is for you to start going, “oh my gosh, there must be something wrong, I must have a cavity, I’m going to need a filling or maybe a root canal…oh my GOSH…THAT”S GOING TO HURT, and HOW MUCH IS THAT GOING TO COST.” The pain gets worse, of course! Suddenly (in all of 2 seconds) your rider has fallen off, and he elephant has taken over. Contrast this with taking a second to observe…”hmmm.. my tooth hurts…wonder what that could be…” You may still conclude that you have a cavity, but in those few moments of self observation and non-reactivity, you have given your rider a fighting chance. Perhaps a new series of thoughts will emerge (I could take something for the pain and then call the dentist), or perhaps the pain will subside in a few minutes… and you can go on with the rest of your day. It takes practice, but yes, taming an ANT can help tame an Elephant.

More to come on Elephant and Rider scenarios and fixes…

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