Cognitive Defusion 102 - A better way to handle your thoughts.
Updated: Sep 19, 2021
And learning how to tell your mind "KTHKSBYE".
Have you ever considered this: How true are your thoughts?
Suppose for a second that I'm about thirty kilos overweight. The flab on my belly jiggles when I walk, while many of my older clothes don't quite fit me anymore. Some of my less nicer friends have even started making fun of me, telling me that I'm past my prime and entering uncle-hood.
As I look into the mirror, I can't help but think "I'm so darn fat and ugly!".
Given all the above facts, you and I might suppose that this thought rings pretty true.
However, there's always another side of the argument. I can argue that, you know, maybe it's just a phase I'm going through because of stress at work, or aiya, this is just a little extra weight that I can shed off in a week... well, just not starting today.
There are so many ways we can argue about whether a thought is true or false. We can waste a whole lot of our time debating internally to see if it reflects who I really am, or whether we are lying to ourselves, and so on.
It can and often is an endless debate, since there is usually no clear distinction between right or wrong.
What this turn out to be, is nothing but an immense waste of our energy. This has been the reason we've been dwelling on our thoughts, ruminating and feeling lousier and lousier by the minute.
If you and I really wanted to effectively handle our thoughts and emotions, we should forget about whether a thought is true or false, and instead determine if the thought is helpful or harmful.
Does your thoughts spur motivation and action, or are they critical and demoralising?
If the thought of being fat and ugly inspired me to start eating healthily, exercise more regularly, and overall start to feel good about myself in general, then clearly that's a helpful thought.
It makes sense for me to pay close attention to it, since this thought spurred me to create a life I truly value.
On the other hand, this same thought can easily be self-critical and judgmental in nature. The thought of being fat might instead make me feel guilty, sad, frustrated, irritated or ashamed of myself. Furthermore, it doesn't motivate me to do anything about it, other than to continue to suffer.
That's a pretty darn harmful thought right there.
If you experience an eating disorder, you know exactly how harmful these Body-shaming thoughts can be. They are self-critical and almost always negative, creating all sorts of lousy emotions. The struggle with such thoughts actually cause people with weight problems to eat even more, or cause people experiencing anorexia to keep starving themselves.
Unhelpful thoughts People with Eating Disorders face.
Deciding whether a thought is helpful or harmful.
When I was experiencing Depression, one rather pesky thought that came up again and again was that "I was such a lousy Husband".
Just like in the above example, this could very well be true.
I wasn't the most pleasant husband around my wife on depressive days. In fact, some days were down right terrible. On the other hand, it's also false, because I have many other redeeming qualities that make me a good Husband.
Putting the futile true or false debate aside, one thing's for sure. This thought was one hundred percent cancerous.
While it might have motivated me to be extra alert for my wife when I going into a depressive episode, that wasn't how it operated. As it is, self-critical and judgmental thoughts very, very seldom do.
Instead, it sent me on a guilt-trip down memory lane, bringing up all the times I let my wife down because of me. Even worse, it made me choose to withdraw more from my wife, thinking that I didn't want to affect her by being around her.
I hope you notice a pattern through the series. This is yet another example of how avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings leads to a vicious cycle. Experiential avoidance always takes us away from the things we value the most.
Likewise, whenever a troublesome thought pops into your head, ask yourself whether it's helpful or harmful.
Do get acquainted with what makes a thought helpful. Below are some questions you can ask yourself:
Does this thought help you become the person you want to be?
Does it help with your relationships?
Are they along the lines with what you really value?
What would I get from believing in this thought?
Does it make me want to improve my life?
If the answers to most of the above questions is a No, then you my friend have a harmful thought in your hands. You can try out the first Cognitive Defusion activity we talked about:
"I'm having the thought that...I'm a lousy husband"
Otherwise, here's a second defusion technique for you practice.
Cognitive Defusion exercise 2: Thanking your mind.
This is another simple and effective defusion technique. Whenever a harmful thought enters your mind, simply learn to thank it. You can whisper to yourself (though try not to do this too much in public) or simply reply in your head something like the below:
"Thank you mind! What an interesting thought"
"Oh thanks for that one!"
"Thanks again, buddy."
When thanking your mind, it's important to not do it sarcastically or dismissively. Otherwise, this practice ends up being just another way to fight with your thoughts. Do it with warmth and humour. Be sincere, you might even want to add:
"I really get that you are trying to be of use, Mind, so thank you for that. But I've got this covered."
You see, your mind isn't issuing you all these thoughts to hurt or harm you on purpose. It's really an outcome of your very personal experience, with your mind trained to be always-on, defending you and protecting you.
However, what's happened is that some of the solutions your mind brings, though having worked in the past, don't work for you anymore.
In the case of my thoughts about being a lousy husband, my mind wasn't trying to hurt me. These were important signals, warning me that I had to stop causing my wife to suffer because of my Depression. The intent was good, but the method of delivery was poor, issuing all amounts of negative signals, i.e. with guilt and shame and hurt, that weren't helpful.
So, just like above what I do is:
My Mind: "You're such a lousy husband! Quickly snap out of it now!".
Me: "Thank you mind for that little thought. I'm aware of it and got this covered now :)"
Cognitive Defusion exercise 3: Giving your mind a name.
Just like when you listen to somebody else talk, you can decide for yourself if you choose to agree with what what your thoughts say or not. Since our minds can be very argumentative and overbearing when it wants to, arguing with them can be pretty pointless. Instead, it's best to simply listen, give a nod, and then decide for yourself what's in your best interest.
This third exercise helps to create further separation from you and your thoughts. Steven Hayes, the originator of the therapy, recommends giving your mind a name.
He calls his mind George (BTW I just call mine, Mind).
Feel free to give your mind whatever name you wish, be it Bob, Jane, or Mr. or Mrs. Mind. Again, it's not about being sarcastic or funny, but it's about being genuine. Be kind to your mind for all that it has done for you, even when lately it hasn't been that good at all.
Practice this with the above thanking technique, and the next time a harmful thought comes to your awareness, say:
"Hey Bob, thanks for that. Now let me carry on with living my life".
You might notice a similarity between the cognitive defusion practices - they are all about creating some distance between you and the your thoughts. It's about taking a different perspective to your thoughts, viewing them from the perspective of an observer, rather than a part of yourself.
Remember, the point of defusion is not to get rid of these nasty thoughts and feelings. It's about learning to let go of the internal struggle, and free up your time, energy and attention to do more meaningful things, instead of dwelling and ruminating uselessly on our thoughts.
Do know that you won't have to spend your whole life thanking your mind or calling it by name. These methods are all stepping stones leading to the skill of being able to defuse from your thoughts almost instantly.
Practice makes perfect though, and this is the starting point. How fast you learn depends on how often you practice, so keep at it for now.
It's really also about finding the techniques that resonate with you most - skip the ones that put you off, but do keep the ones that you find helpful :)
When you're ready, move on to the next chapter, where we will be learning how to handle a particularly pesky type of thought, our self-stories. Thanks for reading Kaya Toast for the Soul.