I often talk in sessions about FUSION, and how our problem-solving minds can very quickly and easily get ‘hooked’ on an extremely painful and upsetting thoughts and beliefs.

  • “My boss/colleague doesn’t like me. They’ve got it in for me.”
  • “I’m going to get fired.”
  • “My husband/wife has lost interest in me. They’re going to leave me.”

Whatever the thought or belief is, if it’s part of our Not-Good-Enough Script, it basically boils down to “I’m Not Good Enough for this Person/Job/Task, and for this reason I’m going to be hurt in some way (fired, abandoned, betrayed, dismissed, criticised).”

But cognitive fusion (becoming so fused with our thoughts that we cannot see beyond them, behind them, or experience the thought from any other perspective) is so fundamental to how our minds sometimes work when stressed, that it pops up all over the place.

HOW COGNITIVELY FUSED ARE YOU AT THE MOMENT?

It’s good to start by getting a basic assessment of the degree to which fusion with negative thoughts may be causing you distress.

The first step is to take the following quick assessment, called the Cognitive Fusion Questionnaire.

COGNITIVE FUSION QUESTIONNAIRE:

Below you will find a list of statements. Please rate how true each statement is for you by circling a number next to it.

Use the scale below to make your choice. 1: never true 2: very seldom true 3: seldom true 4: sometimes true 5: frequently true 6: almost always true 7: always true

In the last week, my thoughts have caused me distress or emotional pain
1   2    3   4    5   6   7
In the last week, I have got so caught up in my thoughts that I was unable to do the things that I most want to do
1   2    3   4    5   6   7
In the last week, I would sometimes/often overanalyze situations to the point where it was unhelpful to me
1   2    3   4    5   6   7
In the last week, I have really struggled with my thoughts
1   2    3   4    5   6   7
In the last week, I have got upset with myself for having certain thoughts
1   2    3   4    5   6   7
In the last week, I have got quite entangled in my thoughts
1   2    3   4    5   6   7
It’s such a struggle to let go of upsetting thoughts, even when I know that letting go would be helpful
1   2    3   4    5   6   7

Now add up the numbers for an overall score. There is no strict correspondence of score to the degree of cognitive fusion, but a rough guideline is that if you score below 20, you are able to think reasonably flexibly. As your score moves into the mid to upper 20s and 30s, fusion is becoming more dominant, and the methods introduced in this article will be helpful to you in getting needed distance from your thoughts.

Even if your thinking is defused and flexible, however, it is worthwhile to practice defusion methods, for the same reason it is worthwhile to engage in physical exercise even if you are strong. The practice will keep your flexibility of mind in good shape. Over time, our new awareness of our thought process helps us become more attuned to when we’re slipping into fusion. The key signs to keep in mind are as follows: Your thoughts seem predictable. You’ve had them plenty of times before, so much so that they seem to be part of who you are. Make a note of these thoughts, actually writing them down, and you can practice defusing from them over time. You have a sense of waking up from a reverie. This means that you have disappeared into your thoughts for a time. You may even discover that a good deal of time has gone by and you’re now late doing something you were supposed to get done.

When this happens, as in the leaves-on-a-stream exercise (see below), try to back up your thoughts and identify the moment you disappeared. That will help with recognizing triggers. Your thoughts become highly comparative and evaluative and begin wandering.

I’m going to share some methods with you that come from Russ Harris’s book The Confidence Gap, and Steve Hayes’ Liberated Mind

As with any of these techniques, give them a go, even if your Cynical Mind, reading them says “That’ll never work!” Fair warning: some of these exercises may seem odd, even silly. No worry; humour is in fact called for here (we are funny creatures!). Just work through them with a sense of self-compassion.

Or perhaps have a conversation with your Cynical Mind and ask it what have you got to lose? Five minutes of your time, ten? Even if doing these for 5 minutes a day takes you off that suffering hook of that painful thought or belief for 5 minutes, that’s a worthy break in the day for your mind. Russ gives a handful of AMAZING defusers below, but there are literally hundreds of great de-fusion techniques out there. So if these don’t float your boat, we can always talk about others and try out others in a session together.

It can also sometimes help to see these “in action” or “modelled” in some way. It’s a bit like doing some exercise at home watching a video on YouTube versus doing it in a gym or a yoga studio with other people around you: often the effects can feel very different. So even if they don’t work when you do them  by yourself, we might still give one or two of them a try the next time we meet and see if maybe doing them together can get for you the unhooking/defusion results we both want.

I’m now going to hand you over to Russ.

OK. I’m now going to take you through a whole stack of different defusion techniques so you can discover which ones best help you to unhook. Some of them may seem a bit weird or wacky, but please give them a go and see what happens. In each case, I’ll ask you first to fuse with the thought (i.e. buy into it, give it all your attention, believe it as much as you can), so you can get yourself well and truly hooked. Then I’ll help you to unhook again.

Before we embark, a word of caution: there’s no technique in the whole of psychology that always achieves the desired result. While most people find these techniques help them to detach, separate, or get some distance from their thoughts, occasionally the opposite may occur: you may find that the thought starts reeling you in! So adopt an attitude of curiosity towards these exercises; let go of your expectations and just see what happens. Notice whether the technique helps you to separate from the thought (defusion) or whether it seems to draw you in even closer (fusion).

(Note: fusion isn’t likely to happen with these exercises; I’m just warning you about it on the off-chance that it does. If it does, please regard it as a learning opportunity: a chance for you to notice what it’s like to get hooked. Then move on to the next exercise.)

For each exercise, read the instructions through first, then give it a go. And if a particular technique does not work for you, or you simply can’t do it, then move on to the next.

EXERCISE 1: IF YOUR HANDS WERE YOUR THOUGHTS

Many people misunderstand the point of defusion. They either think it’s a way to get rid of negative thoughts, or a way to control your feelings. But it’s neither. Here’s an exercise to clarify what it’s for.

  •  Imagine writing down your thought on the palm of your hand (you don’t have to actually write it as long as you know it is there).
  • Then bring your hand close to your face. In that posture, it is hard to see anything else—even your hand and the thought written on it in imagination are hard to see. This is a physical metaphor for fusion: thought dominating over your awareness.
  • Now move your hand with the thought still on it straight out away from your face. It is a bit easier to see other things in addition to your hand.
  • Now move your hand with the thought on it just a little to the side so you can focus on it if you need to but you can also see ahead clearly.
  • These actions simulate the stance you want to establish toward your thoughts. Whenever you catch yourself being dominated by a thought, note how close to you it is. Is it like that hand in your face, or off to the side? If it is in your face, see if you can move it off to the side. Note that you do not get rid of the thought this way—in fact, you see it as a thought even more clearly. But in this posture you can do many other things as well, which is the core point of defusion.

So here you see the two main purposes of defusion. Firstly, it enables us to ‘be present’: to connect with the world around us, and engage in whatever we are doing. Secondly, it enables us to take effective action. Obviously if our thoughts are helpful, we will make use of them. But if they’re not, we’ll just give them plenty of space and let them be.

To develop genuine confidence, we need to be fully present and engaged in whatever we are doing – whether it’s playing golf, giving a speech, making conversation or making love. And we also need to be capable of effective action. Defusion enables both of these things.

EXERCISE 2: I’M HAVING THE THOUGHT THAT

  • Bring to mind a thought that readily hooks you, and pulls you away from the life you want to live. Ideally, for this exercise pick a negative self-judgement that plays a key role in the ‘I can’t do it’ story – eg ‘I’m not smart enough’, or ‘I don’t have what it takes’ or ‘I’m a loser.’
  • Silently say this thought to yourself, believing it as much as you can, and notice the effect it has on you.
  • Now replay that thought in your head, with this short phrase inserted immediately before it: ‘I’m having the thought that …’ For example, ‘I’m having the thought that I’m a loser.’
  • Now replay that thought once more, but this time the phrase to insert is: ‘I notice I’m having the thought that …’ For example, ‘I notice I’m having the thought that I’m a loser.’

So what happened? Most people get a sense of distance or separation from the thought. If this didn’t happen for you, please try again with another self-judgement. (And if you didn’t do the exercise at all, please note the reasons your mind gave you to skip it, then go back and do it anyway.)

EXERCISE 3: SINGING THOUGHTS

  • Use the same negative self-judgement as above, or if it has lost its impact, pick a different one.
  • Silently say this thought to yourself, believing it as much as you can, and notice what effect it has on you.
  • Now replay this thought, word for word the same, singing it to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Jingle Bells’. (You can either sing it silently or aloud.)
  • Now replay that thought once more, but this time, sing it to the tune of your choice.
  • What happened this time? Most people find the sense of distance or separation from the thought is greater than with the first exercise. Some people even find themselves smiling or chuckling, however that’s not the point of the exercise. The point is, when we hear our thoughts sung to music, it helps us to see their true nature: just like the lyrics in a song, our thoughts are nothing more nor less than words. (Of course, thoughts can also occur in the form of pictures or images, but for now we’re just dealing with words.)

EXERCISE 4: SILLY VOICES

  • Use the same negative self-judgement as above, or if it has lost its impact, pick a different one.
  • Silently say this thought to yourself, believing it as much as you can.
  • Now replay it, word for word the same, hearing it in the voice of a cartoon character, movie star or sports commentator.
  • Now replay it again in yet another distinctive voice, for example that of a posh English actor or a sitcom character.
  • This technique is similar to singing our thoughts. When we hear our thoughts said in different voices, again it helps us to separate from them – and recognise that they are nothing more nor less than words.

EXERCISE 5: COMPUTER SCREEN

  • Use the same negative self-judgement as above, or if it has lost its impact, pick a different one.
  • Silently say this thought to yourself, believing it as much as you can.
  • Now close your eyes, imagine a computer, and see this thought as words on the screen, written in simple black text.
  • Now play around with the font and the colour of the text. Don’t change the words themselves; just see them in three or four different colours, and three or four different fonts.
  • Now put the words back into simple black text, and this time, play around with the formatting. First, space the words out – large gaps between them.
  • Now run all the words together – no gaps between them.
  • Now run the words vertically down the screen, underneath each other.
  • Finally, put the words back into simple black text, and this time add in a karaoke ball, bouncing from word to word, back and forth. And if you like, just for good measure, also sing the thought to the tune of your choice.

This exercise tends to be more effective for more ‘visual’ people. Again, hopefully it helped you to separate or distance from your thought: to see that it is constructed out of words.

Now, once again tune in to your mind, and for ten seconds, notice what it’s telling you.

So how’s your mind reacting? Maybe it’s excited: ‘Wow! That was amazing!’ Or maybe it’s all worked up: ‘How can he say that thoughts are “just words”? They’re true!’, ‘This guy is patronising me’, ‘He doesn’t get how it is for me; he doesn’t understand the way these thoughts kick me around.’ Or maybe it’s a bit disappointed: ‘These techniques are just silly tricks, they’re not going to help me.’

Whatever your mind is doing, please allow it to have its reaction. And if that reaction is particularly strong and unhelpful, then I invite you to try something. It’s a little technique, developed by Steve Hayes, called ‘thanking your mind’. [Steve (Wasserman) adds: I use this one a lot! I actually have a name for my mind when it’s coming up with negative or critical stuff about me or other people. I call my mind Dave – based on a person I went to University with who was a know-it-all bully. So whenever my mind is giving me a hard time, I often just say “Thank you, Dave!” I also like to vary the way I say Thank You depending on how I’m feeling.]

Whatever your mind says – no matter how provocative, nasty or scary it may be – you silently reply, with a sense of humour, ‘Thanks mind.’ You can of course vary this as desired, for example, ‘Thanks for sharing’ or ‘Thanks mind, good story.’ Personally, it’s one of my favourite defusion exercises [SW: mine too!], so play around with it and see what you think. Remember, we’re not trying to stop our minds from having these reactions; this technique is simply to help us detach from those thoughts.

THE POWER OF WORDS

You’ve probably heard the quotation, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ This saying succinctly reminds us that words can have an enormous influence over our behaviour. For example, books, scriptures and manifestos can, in certain situations, shape entire nations far more powerfully than violence, bloodshed and warfare.

Likewise, in a state of fusion, those words inside our heads can have a huge impact upon us. They can dredge up panic or despair; they can feel like a kick in the guts or a plank on our chest; they can drag us down into the depths and sap all our strength.

However, in a state of defusion, our thoughts are nothing more nor less than words. Hopefully you got to experience that, at least to some degree, in the previous exercises. If you didn’t, no matter; I’m sure we’ll get a chance to do some defusion in a future session.

When doing this, it is important to remember that the spirit we do all of this in, is a kind and loving one. We do not belittle our challenges or patronise them; we don’t try to deny the powerful impact that thoughts can have on our actions. We simply aim to empower you and ourselves; to increase the choices available to you in your life. Once we can defuse from our thoughts – i.e. separate from them and see them for what they are – we have many more options in life. No longer are we at the mercy of our minds, pushed around by ingrained patterns of unhelpful automatic thinking. Instead we can choose to pursue what truly matters to us – even when our minds make it hard with all that reason-giving.

ANOTHER HANDFUL OF DEFUSERS?

Here are few more from Steve Hayes’ book A Liberated Mind.

1.DISOBEY YOUR MIND ON PURPOSE

For example. Stand up and carry the phone/laptop you’re reading this on around with you while you slowly walk around the room, reading this next sentence aloud several times. (Really do it, while walking, OK? Ready? Stand up. Walk. Read. Go!)

Here is the sentence: “I cannot walk around this room.” Keep walking! Slowly but clearly repeat that sentence as you walk . . . at least five or six times. “I cannot walk around this room.” Now you can sit down again. It is such a tiny thing, isn’t it?

A tiny poke in the eye of the Dictator Within; a little tug on Superman’s cape.

Even though it is a silly little exercise, a team in Ireland showed recently in a laboratory experiment that it immediately increased tolerance to experimentally induced pain by nearly 40 percent! I’m not talking about people saying they can tolerate pain. People were willing to keep their hand on a very, very hot plate (not hot to the point of injury, mind you, just hot enough to cause real pain) 40 percent longer—after just a few moments of saying one thing while doing the opposite. Think about that. Even the tiniest little demonstration that the mind’s power over you is an illusion can very quickly give you significantly more freedom to do hard things. You can easily build this into your life as a regular practice (right now I’m thinking, I cannot type this sentence! I can’t!). And we’ve only just gotten started.

2.GIVE YOUR MIND A NAME AND LISTEN TO IT POLITELY

If your mind has a name, then it is different from “you.” When you listen to someone else, you can choose to agree with what they say or not, and if you don’t want to cause conflict, it’s best not to try to argue the person into agreement with you. That is the posture you want to take with your internal voice. Process work has shown that naming your mind helps with this. I call mine George. Pick any name you like. Even Mr. Mind or Ms. Mind will do. Now say hello to your mind using its new name, as if you’re being introduced to it at a dinner party. If you are around others, you can do this entirely in your head—no need to freak people out. Appreciate What Your Mind Is Trying to Do Now listen to your thoughts for a bit, and when your mind starts to chatter, answer back with something like “Thanks for that thought, George. Really, thank you.” If you speak to your mind dismissively, it will continue right on problem-solving. Be sincere. You might want to add, “I really get that you are trying to be of use, so thank you for that. But I’ve got this covered.” If you’re alone, you could even say this out loud.

Note that your mind will probably push back with thoughts like That’s silly. That won’t help! Respond again with, “Thanks for that thought, George. Thank you. I really do see how you are trying to be of use.” You could also even invite more comments with dispassionate curiosity: “Anything else you have to say?”

3.CARRY IT WITH YOU

Write the thought on a small piece of paper and hold it up. Look at it the way you might look at a precious and fragile page from an ancient manuscript. These words are an echo of your history. Even if the thought is painful, ask yourself if you would be willing to honor that history by choosing to carry this piece of paper with you. If you can get to “yes,” put it carefully in your pocket or purse and let it come along for the ride. During the days you carry it, every so often pat your purse or pocket or wherever you keep it, as if to acknowledge that it is part of your journey, and it is welcome to come along.

4. THE LITTLE KID

This exercise will help you develop self-compassion. It’s vital to be aware that defusing from our thoughts should not involve self-ridicule or being hard on ourselves for having such thoughts. You are not ridiculous. You are human, and human language and cognition are like a tiger we’re riding that inevitably leads us into some dangerous territory. None of us can entirely prevent unhelpful thoughts from forming in our minds. Take a difficult thought that goes back a long way in your history, and picture yourself as young as you can while having that thought, or others like it. Take a little time to picture what you looked like at that age—what your hair was like, what you dressed like. Then, in your imagination, have those words come out of that child in the voice of you as a child. Actually, try to do it in his or her little voice. If you are in a private place, try to reproduce the voice out loud—otherwise, try to hear it in your mind. And then focus on what you might do if you were actually in such a situation and your goal was to be there for that child. Picture yourself helping the child, such as by giving him or her a hug. Then ask yourself, “Metaphorically, how can I do that for myself now?” and see if some useful ideas come up.

PUTTING THIS ALL INTO PRACTICE

Improving our lives requires committed action. That often means learning new skills or working on old ones. And obviously, if we want to become skilful at anything, we need to practise. This goes for psychological skills as well as physical ones. We can’t develop good defusion skills without practice. And we all need these skills, because the reason-giving machine is here to stay. It’s not going to suddenly transform into your own personal cheerleader or motivational guru. It’s going to keep on telling you multiple versions of the ‘I can’t do it’ story. So are you willing to practise the techniques listed above?

What I’m asking you to do is very simple. The moment you notice you’ve been hooked by an unworkable thought, acknowledge it. Silently say to yourself, ‘Just got hooked!’ Then replay the thought using any technique you like: I’m Having the Thought That, Singing Thoughts, Silly Voices or The Computer Screen. (And keep in mind, these techniques are like training wheels on a bicycle. You won’t have to go for the rest of your life singing your thoughts to ‘Happy Birthday’ or hearing them in the voice of Homer Simpson. This is just a convenient place to start.)

I invite you to do this as an experiment; to let go of any expectations you may have, and bring an attitude of genuine curiosity to your experience. Notice what happens, or doesn’t happen. Don’t expect any miraculous overnight changes. And if you do notice high expectations popping up, then gently unhook yourself; for example, you might say, ‘I’m having the thought that this should magically solve all my problems.’

At times you may be hooked for hours before you realise it – worrying, ruminating, over-analysing or ‘stressing out’. No problem. The moment you realise you’re hooked, gently acknowledge it: ‘Hooked again!’ Then pick the thought that’s hooking you the most, and replay it with the technique of your choice.

So are you willing to give it a go? Just pause for ten seconds, and again notice what your mind is saying.

What’s it doing this time? Is it all revved up and eager to practise? Or is it cranking out reasons not to do it: ‘It’s too silly’, ‘It won’t work’, ‘I’ll do it later’, ‘I can’t be bothered’, ‘It doesn’t really matter’ and so on. If the latter, no surprises there! Let your mind try its best to dissuade you – then do it anyway. And if you should at some point find yourself hooked by all that reason-giving, then you know the drill: acknowledge ‘Just got hooked!’, then do a replay.

I recommend you use these techniques at least five times a day, to begin with; the more the better. And if you don’t use them, notice how your mind talked you out of it: did it come up with some really good new reasons, or did it pull out the same old ones it’s been using for years?

The good thing is, you’ll have plenty of material to practise with, because your mind is …

 

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