How To Diffuse From Your Thoughts? - Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

From an ACT perspective, distress arises from getting hooked tightly by our thoughts, so that the self and the thoughts seem to become fused. Cognitive defusion (as in de-fusion, not diffusion) is about changing the relationship between your thoughts and yourself, creating a sense of separation between them. 

Before we take a closer look at defusion, consider some of the strategies you may already have used in an attempt to control your thoughts, emotions, and reactions to the world around you. Most likely, you’ve used at least some of these strategies, but the question is, have they actually been working very well for you? 

• Worrying about the future 

• Ruminating about the past 

• Blaming yourself, others, or the world in general 

• Engaged in self-criticism 

• Tried to “just think positive” 

What those strategies have in common is that you’re getting really cozy with those thoughts and trying to wrestle them in a certain direction. However, that’s not the only way to relate to thoughts. 

It’s very easy to think that because we have a thought, it must be true – true about us, and true about the world around us. Our thoughts often represent interpretations, evaluations, and judgments that are entirely subjective, yet we cling to them like gospel and often feel compelled to act on them. We can even start to use them as weapons to attack ourselves and our worth, and convince ourselves that we are oh so deserving of those self-inflicted attacks. 

Indicators of Fusion

• Rules, such as should, must, right, wrong, always, never 

• Judgments 

• Focus on the past (rumination) or future (worrying, predicting the worst) 

• Self-judgments and self-limiting ideas 

• Belief that thoughts represent absolute truth 

• Thoughts make it seem like something is happening here and now even though they’re actually associated with past or future 

• Beliefs that are held onto even though they actually make your life worse 

• Thoughts that are perceived as imminent threats 

Emotions are naturally short-lived and changeable, but if you get hooked on the thoughts associated with an emotion, that can drag you into the process of ruminating, thus extending the emotion’s lifespan far longer than it would normally stick around. 

What are some of the thoughts that you might be most strongly fused with? 

Are there any ways you can think of that this fusion might not be helping you? 

Self-as-Context vs. Self-as-Content 

What is it that makes you, you? Is it your thoughts and feelings? Or is it something else? Self-as- content refers to the perception that the content of thoughts, emotions, and other inner experiences are an inherent part of the self. ACT promotes a self-as-context approach, meaning that your self provides the context across which inner experiences temporarily pass. Your thoughts and feelings occur within the context of yourself, but they don’t define who you are. This serves as the basis for defusing from thoughts. A little later, we’ll talk about values, which provide a much more useful anchor for the self. 

ACT has a number of metaphors to represent self-as-context and cognitive defusion. 

One particularly useful one related to self-as-context involves a chessboard. The self is seen as the chessboard, and thoughts and emotions are the chess pieces that move across it. 

Another metaphor is the classroom. The context of the classroom represents your self. The students in the class are your thoughts and feelings. The teacher plays the role of your metacognition (thinking about thinking). It evaluates the students and tries to keep them in line, but the teacher is not the essence of the classroom. The teacher may judge, but the classroom itself is not judging; it’s just there, holding the class, and it’s still fundamentally the same room even if the teacher and students change. 

Another metaphor involves leaves on a stream. The self is the stream bed, and the leaves are thoughts and emotions that float on by without affecting the course of the stream itself. Very similar to this is the idea of thoughts as clouds transiently moving across the sky, which represents the self. 

The passengers on a bus metaphor treats thoughts and emotions as passengers you pick up along the road of life. Sometimes the passengers may get a bit rowdy, but rather than letting them control the bus, you could crank up the tunes and drive the bus where you want to go regardless of what the rowdies happen to be doing. 

Other Diffusion Techniques 

• Repeat a one-syllable word (try “milk”) rapidly for 30 seconds, and notice that the words become a series of sounds that are detached from the actual characteristics of milk itself. 

• Language matters. Often, the language we use (e.g. “I am angry”) describes our thoughts and feelings as being who we are. Try to use the phrasing (internal, spoken, or written) “I’m having the thought [or feeling] that …” and then “I’m noticing I’m having the thought…” This helps with recognizing thoughts as just thoughts and labelling them as such. In this way, “I am angry” would become “I’m having the feeling of anger” and then “I notice that right now I’m having the feeling of anger.” 

• Recognize and name the distorted patterns and rules in your thoughts, such as should-ing, which can help you to start to unhook from those thoughts 

• The mental rules that we create for ourselves often come with conditions. Try to recognize and challenge your “buts”, e.g. “I would… but…” Identify how these represent underlying fusion with thoughts, and consider how you might be able to defuse from whatever is underlying those rules. 

As much as we might feel tied to our thoughts, it is possible to change the relationship with them.


Pritam Chakraborty

As I was moving through life, I occasionally saw brief glimpses of beauty.

Post a Comment

Share your thoughts! We're eager to hear you out

Previous Post Next Post