When you see unhelpful thoughts for what they are, only thoughts, they lose some of their punch! Image courtesy of iosphere at freedigitalphotos.net
How many times do we take the thoughts inside our heads as being the literal truth of reality? For example, I sometimes think “ people don’t like me”. However, since I have been practicing the Acceptance Commitment Therapy techniques of ##Cognitive Defusion## I am beginning to see the thoughts in my head for what they are – just thoughts. This may be easy from an outsider’s perspective, but to some degree, we may be able to all relate on some level to the feeling that “I am thinking this, so it must be true.”
However, in reality, thoughts are nothing more than words inside our heads. (Page 47, “The Happiness Trap Pocketbook by Russ Harris & Bev Aisbett).
This becomes relevant to our quality of life when we consider that thoughts are things we often treat as the literal truth, what we must obey, what we should avoid and so on.
Suppose we have the thought “I am no good at meeting new people”. This is a belief we could have held for many years. And because may have thought it thousands of times we don’t see it for what it actually is anymore – a string of words inside our head!
Thoughts have a powerful impact upon our life. They are self-directing and self-judging.
It can also be a powerful “storytelling” machine! They may tell us:“I’m not good enough” or “I can’t” or “I’d be happy if...”
Cognitive Fusion occurs when a thought demands our full attention because we see it as the literal truth and an accurate reflection of reality. That is we fuse with our thoughts.
Thoughts don’t actually have a negative impact upon our lives if we take them for what they are – only thoughts. We may have the thought “I don’t have enough self-confidence to apply for that job”. However, if we fuse with that thought, take it as the literal truth and see it as something that must be obeyed, it can be problematic. This can stop us enjoying a quality meaningful life if it happens regularly.
Here’s an exercise that demonstrates this.
1. Write down a negative thought on a piece of paper. Carry it around with you. Now imagine trying to involve yourself in a meaningful activity while holding onto that piece of paper right in front of you, (This represents cognitively fusing with the thought, or becoming dominated by it, or it demanding our full focus.)
Can you enjoy a walk, work or study/enjoy quality time with a loved one when you are holding that piece of paper right in front of you? No - there's no room for it!
Now tuck that piece of paper containing your negative thought under your arm . It’s still there, but notice that now you can engage yourself with those meaningful activities.
You have just practiced what is known in Acceptance Commitment Therapy as cognitive defusion.
When we practice this technique, we can
see thoughts for what they are, just thoughts which we may or may not believe in
not necessarily important or deserving of your full attention
you don’t have to obey them
They become less threatening
2.Here’s another technique to practice cognitive defusion.
Pick a negative self-judgement or thought. For example “Things will turn out badly.” Say it aloud.
Now, in front of the statement, insert “I’m having the thought". That is “I am having the thought that things will turn out badly.” Notice it loses some of its ‘punch’, it decreases its cognitive impact.(You have to try it to feel the difference, that is the lessened impact of the thought).
After this, say aloud “I notice I’m having the thought that things will turn out badly.” You hopefully will notice an even greater lessening of influence the negative thought has on you.
You can do carry out this cognitive defusion technique to lessen the influence any negative thought has over you.
3.A third cognitive defusion technique. Sing the negative thought to the tune of “Happy Birthday”. For example, I had the negative thought this morning “I’m not going to have a good day”. Then I said the words in a sing-song kind of voice to the tune of “Happy Birthday”. They immediately has less impact on me.
4. A fourth cognitive defusion strategy. Name the story. For example, when I think “it’s all too much/I have had enough” I can call it the “I can’t cope story”. I say it with a smile. It’s not until you practice it that you realise this really does work. Your negative evaluations may not disappear, but I inevitably discover they lose a lot of their ‘punch’.
These techniques all need to be actively practiced regularly for you to benefit from them.
Of course, life is not all rosy and sometimes thoughts do have truth in them. How to deal with them using the ACT approach will be dealt with in Part 5.