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How Do I Shove Thee?, Pouter Struggle 

You can’t hold two thoughts in mind or say two things at once

How Do I Shove Thee?

I'm a 31-year-old gay man. I have these intrusive lusty thoughts about my ex, like daily. I'm extremely physically attracted to him, but we just don't work as a couple and never will. Despite knowing this, I'm having a hard time stopping myself from thinking about him. It's more of a mental habit than anything else, but I just don't know how to break it.

—Tormented

We are selective forgetters, readily deleting from memory the things we really, really need to remember. This can be amusing in retrospect like, after we go all Israelites 2.0: wandering for 40 years around the Mall of America parking garage or until we file a false report that our car's been stolen, whichever comes first.

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The things we long to evict from our thoughts like your recurring waking sex dreams of your unsuitable Donny Adonis — squat in our mental attic like codependent ghosts. It doesn't help that you can't just decide to find him sexually repellant. We have a mental template for what we find hot shaped by evolution, genetics, and individual experience. There's no little cartoon trash can you can drag it into because you're hyperventilating over the wrong himbo.

Adding to the fun, social psychologist Daniel Wegner finds that "thought suppression" trying to forget, ignore, or shove away thoughts makes those thoughts come back with a vengeance. Wegner and his team instructed research participants, "Try not to think of a white bear." This is a big fail right from the start, because the mind sweeps around to check whether you're thinking of a white bear — which means you're thinking of the damn bear.

There does seem to be a way out using two obsession-reducing steps from psychologists Jens Forster and Nira Liberman. First, admit that it's hard to keep from thinking about him, which alleviates the pressure to succeed at it. And my take: It might also help to find the funny in it when your hottieloop goes on repeat: "Really, Self? Again with the futility TV?"

Second, crowd out thoughts of him with substitute thoughts. Say the alphabet backward or read a book aloud. Repeatedly, if necessary. (The underlying principle: You can't hold two thoughts in mind or say two things at once.) Keep this up, and you should eventually (mostly) extract yourself from this mental torture loop — without the obvious downsides of your next best option: a bathroom mirror DIY lobotomy.

Pouter Struggle

My girlfriend will say she's okay with things when she really isn't. But then she spends days pouting and making cutting remarks, never saying what the real issue is — like that she really wanted Chinese, not Thai. Is our relationship doomed, or can I get her to be more direct?

—Beaten Down

Telling people what you want is necessary under certain circumstances, like when a woman at the diner says, "Hi, I'm Madge, and I'll be your waitress," and not, "Hi, I'm a mindreader, here to guess what you want for lunch."

As Mick Jagger points out, "You can't always get what you want" but asking for it is a major start. Your girlfriend, however, has what clinical psychologist Randy Paterson describes as a "passive" style of communication. It's driven by fear (often "a profound fear of being rejected") that leads a person to keep their needs on mute. In contrast with healthy assertiveness explaining "Here's what I'd like" in a timely way your girlfriend's approach is basically: "I'm a woman with needs!...but I won't tell you what they are, and then I'll go all funeralface for a week because you didn't meet them."

Her passive style is relationship poison. You can't really know her when she's always hiding who she is and what she wants. And because needs that go unexpressed are needs that can't be addressed, she's probably filled with anger and resentment including sexual resentment from expecting you to be all "Fifty Shades of 'Guess!'"

Had your girlfriend written me to ask how she might change — that is, start asserting herself I'd offer her advice on how to do that (and why she should). Your issue is different: inspiring her to want to change. Present this not as her problem but a relationship issue: You love her and want to make her happy, but that takes knowing what she wants. Ask her to go to couples therapy with you. (Chances are she'll go whether she actually wants to or not!)

This could be the beginning of a beautifully healthy relationship possibly with her, if she'll do the work to risk being honest with you. Of course, the first step is being honest with herself when answering the question, "Why does he always ignore what I want?!": "Um, because I communicate in a language used by ferns."

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