D is for Defusion
Updated: Nov 6, 2021
“Defusion is relating to your thoughts in a new way, so they have much less impact and influence over you. As you learn to defuse painful and unpleasant thoughts, they will lose their ability to frighten, disturb, worry, stress or depress you. And as you learn to defuse unhelpful thoughts, such as self-limiting beliefs and harsh self-criticisms, they will have much less influence over your behaviour.” P39 Russ Harris ‘The Happiness Trap’
Cognitive defusion is also known as Cognitive distancing or de-literalisation and is the first of the six principles used in ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) to help people relate to uncomfortable or unhelpful thoughts and feelings in a different way.
“A = Accept your thoughts and feelings and be present. C = Connect with your values. T = Take effective action.” Russ Harris
Cognitive defusion involves creating space between ourselves and our thoughts/ feelings so that they have less of a hold over us and we are not ‘fused’ or ‘entangled’ and don’t blindly accept them as reality. Thoughts are just thoughts, they have no more meaning or power than we give them.
“People become attached to their burdens sometimes more than the burdens are attached to them.” George Bernard Shaw
By creating space it enables us to realise that just because we think something it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true; thoughts and feelings are just ‘stories’ or narratives we are telling ourselves. Furthermore, these stories are not orders and we don’t need to react immediately or automatically follow their suggestions, we can take time to consider whether they may or may not be important or helpful.
Defusion is the antidote to fusion and its aim is to enable us to face a thought and see it for what it is, so we can make an informed decision as to whether we are going to give it any more of our time and energy. We can ask ourselves whether these thoughts are helping us towards living a rich, meaningful life of value or are they causing us needless pain and suffering?
“The mind loves telling stories; in fact, it never stops. All day, every day, it tells you stories about what you should be doing with your life, what other people think of you, what will happen in the future, what went wrong in the past, and so on. It’s like a radio that never stop broadcasting”. Russ Harris
Our mind is continuously bombarded with thoughts and we often invest too much of our time and energy pondering on them particularly the sort of thoughts that start with “What if...” , “I wonder if I should have....”
Our thoughts can vary tremendously, some are distinctly negative (I’m useless...I can’t) others can be positive (I’m going to beat this, reach my goal etc) while other thoughts are more ‘neutral’ (I wonder what I should have for breakfast?!…) Whatever the type of thought, they are usually based upon the past or the future and can become overwhelming and have a profound impact on our mental health and overall wellbeing if we allow our attention to be held captive to every stray thought.
Once we have seen our meandering thoughts for what they are, the next step is to decide which to respond to and which to ignore. The C of ACT is concerned with connecting and acting in accordance with our life values. Values are important because they guide and motivate us more effectively through situations than if we rely on our feelings, because by relying solely on our feelings, it might cause us to act against our own values. It is essential therefore that we make the time to consider what is important to us and what our values are. By spending time reflecting we will be able to become more self-aware.
“The closer you come to knowing that you alone create the world of your experience, the more vital it becomes for you to discover just who is doing the creating.” Eric Michael Leventhal
The concept of cognitive defusion can be seen clearly if you hold both of your hands immediately in front of your face. In this position all you can see are your hands. If you now create some space between your face and your hands by moving your hands further away from your face, your view is enlarged. You can still see your hands, but now you can also see everything else around you. In the same way we need to create space and gain perspective so we can see our thoughts for what they are and decide on their relevance and therefore the attention and energy we are going to give them.
“In ACT, our main interest in a thought is not whether it’s true or false, but whether it’s helpful; that is, if we pay attention to this thought, will it help us create the life we want?” Russ Harris
The final step of ACT is to 'Take effective action' which will improve our quality of life. When we take action based on our values and what we know “works” rather than being pressured and directed by automatic thoughts it allows us to build a life that is based on solid principles that are not swayed by the gamut of emotions that we experience.
By removing the sense of fear or urgency we become more calm in the face of difficult sensations and more open to new experiences thereby developing psychological flexibility. It also allows us to stay in the present moment and in ‘real life’ rather than in an imaginary world in our head.
“We create with our consciousness. What we think about, pay attention to, focus on, and choose to believe...whatever goes on in our mind, is what becomes our reality.”
Anthon St. Maarten
Some questions to think about/or discuss below:
Do you accept all your thoughts as being reality?
Do you wrestle with your thoughts, seek to repress or replace them or do you seek to accept them and de-fuse them?
What thoughts do you have that don’t help you create the life you want?
What practices can you set up to reduce or eliminate their impact on you?
What thoughts do you have that do help you create the meaningful life you want?
How can you encourage more of these positive thoughts?
How much time do you spend on self-reflection and clarifying your values?
How do you ‘create space’ for your thoughts and practise staying in the present moment?
If you want to explore this subject further, here are a few links to get you started:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.” Extract from The Serenity Prayer