Defusion is one of the six core processes that make up Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). These core processes, which also include acceptance (click here to review this process as described in Part 1), present-moment awareness, self-as-context, values, and committed action, are aimed at cultivating psychological flexibility, or the ability to have all of our thoughts and feelings while continuing to engage in our lives in meaningful ways and doing what matters to us in a given moment.
Defusion involves shifting our relationship to thoughts. Often we can get “hooked” by thoughts, particularly those that are uniquely and particularly difficult or painful to each of us. Defusion encourages the perspective that although we have thoughts, we are not our thoughts AND thoughts are not “facts”–we don’t actually have to “buy into” or believe what my mind says! Thus, we can take a step back and observe our thoughts for what they are–mental events that often present as images or words. By taking this perspective, we actually can have choice about how to engage (or not!) with our thoughts.
Depending on where you look, it is estimated that we have between 12,000 to 600,000 thoughts each day! Although this is a rather significant range, it certainly suggests that we have A LOT of thoughts. Some of these thoughts come and go and we barely notice them. These thoughts might be about your coffee getting cold, or texting someone, or a fleeting thought about the past weekend. Other thoughts can be upsetting, self-critical thoughts or thoughts about an argument that you had with a loved-one last week…or last year. These thoughts tend to like to “hook” us–and we certainly can become caught and increasingly engaged with these thoughts. We might try to ignore these thoughts or “think them through” (e.g., worry or ruminate), however, this tends to get us even more caught up in them and they lead to other upsetting and ruminative thoughts about the same or other situations. Getting entangled in these thoughts often results in behaving in ways that are NOT consistent with our values.
Defusion strategies come in different forms, however, all of them encourage a shift in our relationship to our thoughts. One way to encourage defusion with fused thoughts is step back from thoughts and watch them from a bit of a distance, coming and going, as though they are clouds moving through the sky, thought bubbles coming from our mind, or leaves floating down a stream. We can also practice defusion by deliteralizing language, by playing with the words associated with fused, sticky thoughts. Let’s give this one a try (go ahead and follow along–we learn better through practice and direct experience than just reading alone!):
Let’s start off by having you say the word lemon*. What images come to mind? Maybe a memory associated with lemons? What about when you think about the color, shape, and size of a lemon? What about when you imagine smelling a lemon? Now imagine placing the lemon on a cutting board and cutting a wedge of lemon from one of the halves and then squeezing the lemon juice into your mouth. What happens now? What images come to your mind? Did you notice any new sensations in your body? Maybe increased saliva in your mouth?
I am going to take a guess that there is not a lemon in your near vicinity and yet by saying the word lemon, and bringing a lemon to mind, you likely experienced a network of associated thoughts–and associated feelings. This is common phenomena with language; we think of one word, and a bunch of other thoughts flood in as well. What do you imagine this means for fused thoughts that come up, such as “I am ugly”,“I am stupid”, “I am not good enough”, or “I’ll never succeed”?
Now, what I’d like you to do, is repeat the word “lemon” as fast as you can for 1 minute. Give it a try! Lemon, lemon, lemon, lemon….faster…say it louder! (Complete 60 seconds before moving on!)
What did you notice? What happened to the word lemon? (Again, pause to reflect before moving on.)
I wish I could hear your responses! Often what folks describe, is that the word becomes a bunch of jumbled, silly sounds. You maybe even found yourself laughing a bit. Or maybe the word stayed in tact, but lost it’s meaning and associations. What do you think will happen if you practice this exercise with the unhelpful, fused thoughts that are familiar to you and your mind (e.g., fat, incompetent, failure, etc?) When you have more time–now or later–I hope you’ll try this same exercise with a word/ thought that your mind tends to get hooked on, and just be curious and notice…what happens?
Stay tuned for Part 3 on another ACT process aiming to create psychological flexibility, present-moment awareness.
By: Kelsey E. Schraufnagel, PsyD
*A similar version of this exercise, adopted by Titchener, E.B., 1916, is presented in Stoddard, J., & Afari, N. (2014) as well as Milk, Milk, Milk which is presented by Hayes et al., 1999.