How to deal with the ‘junk mail’ in your head

In the last in our series of Mental Health Awareness blogs, Chartered Clinical Psychologist Dr Ilan Ben-Zion tells us how we can deal with the unhelpful thoughts that enter our mind.

We’ve all experienced it. That little voice in our heads which pops up from time to time, “I’m not good enough”, “They’re not going to like me”, “I can’t do this”. These kind of thoughts can not only impact on our professional lives, but our personal ones too. So, what can we do with these thoughts and how does this all relate to junk mail? Well, this is where I’m going to share a simple technique with you that might help.

Now a small change of tack, and bear with me here. I’d like you to think about the postal service for a moment. Imagine that we classify mail within three categories; good, necessary and junk. The good mail is the material that comes through our door that we like, the birthday cards, the online orders that have finally arrived, or the rarely seen tax refund from HMRC. The necessary mail are the bills we have to pay, that doctors appointment we’ve been putting off or the form we need to complete. Finally, the junk mail. It’s bright, enticing and asks us to open it. You’ve won a million pounds it screams, just open me up! We’re intrigued and may open it up to look a little closer, but inevitably we realise it’s junk and have wasted our time.

So how does this all relate to the way that I think and how can it help me? Well, we can think of our thoughts like the mail that comes through our letterbox. We have good thoughts, “I’m a great son”, “I did really well today”, “I’m good at my job”. We then have necessary thoughts, “I need to go to work today”, “that bill needs to be paid”, “I have to get some food for dinner”. Finally, there are the junk thoughts, “I’m a bad father”, “they hate me”, “I can’t do anything right”.

Just like the junk mail that comes through our door, we all experience thoughts like these from time to time. We may put a sign up outside our door saying “NO JUNK MAIL”, yet it still arrives through our letterboxes. We may try and control our thoughts, but this proves an impossible task. Here’s an example. Try not to think of a pink elephant sitting in front of you right now. Do whatever you can to not think about a pink elephant in front of you. You’re thinking of a pink elephant aren’t you?

So what’s the answer? Well, firstly awareness. Just knowing this system helps us to start to classify our thoughts in different ways. We no longer accept that thoughts are facts. Just like we don’t believe that we’ve won £1 million, we start to doubt the junk that gets delivered in our head such as “you’re not good enough”. Knowing this technique helps us to sort our thoughts, just like mail. If we split the mail that comes through our door into piles of good, necessary and junk, it means that we can pay more attention to opening the mail we want or need and throw the junk away. Being aware of what is junk helps us to prioritise our time and focus on what we care about.

The next comment I usually hear is, “this doesn’t fix my junk mail problem.. it’s still coming through the door”. You’re right, it doesn’t stop the junk mail coming through the door, just like we can’t stop unhelpful thoughts from coming into our heads. Remember the pink elephant from earlier? The point is that we can’t control our thoughts. What we can do is have an awareness of those which are junk, or using a different word…unhelpful. We can choose not to open them and take away the power they have over us by classifying them as what they are, junk. So, what if I’m not sure whether a thought is necessary mail or junk? The simple answer is, if it’s not helpful, then it’s junk.

This is a very simple technique to try and one that every single one of us can use. Next time one of those junk mail thoughts enters your head, see it for what it is, junk. Notice what happens to the thought and after a while you’ll notice less and less junk gets delivered. It may not stop, but just because it’s being delivered, doesn’t mean we have to open it.

About Dr Ilan Ben-Zion

Hi, I’m Ilan. I’m a Chartered Clinical Psychologist for the NHS and Director of The Oak Tree Practice in London.

I feel very privileged to be able to say I love what I do and always have, ever since I started working for ChildLine in 2007. I studied BSc Psychology at the University of Birmingham before going on to achieve an MSc in Mental Health Studies and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. I’ve had experience working with a wide variety of clients from children, to older adults and military personnel. Having attained expertise in a variety of different therapies, I am able to provide tailor made therapy, using the most effective methods to support individuals to overcome their difficulties.

Aside from my work, I’m an avid sports fan. I love to play and watch a variety of sports, and employ many of the skills I help others develop whilst watching my frustrating team, Arsenal, play football.

The information in this blog is for general informational purposes only and not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult a qualified healthcare provider for personalised guidance. The author(s) and publisher(s) are not liable for errors or omissions, and reliance on the content is at your own risk.

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