Thoughts are just thoughts, not facts. Unfortunately, we often over-identify and fuse with our thoughts – and that can be a real problem when the thoughts are negative and punitive.
For example, you might react to the thought “I’m useless” as if you are really useless. You might react to the thought “This meeting is going to be terrible” as if it definitely will be terrible.
In this column, I’ve often talked about what CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) researchers call cognitive restructuring – that is, when you identify and challenge negative thoughts. For example, you might ask: Is this thought accurate? Is it balanced? What is the evidence for and against these thoughts and beliefs?
Cognitive restructuring is a valuable therapeutic skill, but it is not the only way of responding to negative thoughts. Instead of challenging your thoughts, you can also aim to casually defuse from them.
Cognitive defusion is a simple skill that helps you detach and gain emotional distance from your thoughts. It helps you change your relationship with your thoughts, allowing you to see them as unimportant passing mental events.
SILLY VOICES TECHNIQUE
Many exercises can help you defuse from negative thoughts. In his book The Happiness Trap, Dr Russ Harris refers to a client of his who suffered from depression. The client had grown up with an emotionally abusive mother who constantly criticised and insulted her.
These comments left their mark. As an adult, the client experienced recurrent negative thoughts and insults – “You’re ugly”, “You’re stupid”, “Nobody likes you” – that greatly distressed her.
To defuse from these thoughts, Harris told her about the silly voices technique, where you focus on a self-critical thought but “hear” it in the voice of a humourous character. A fan of Monty Python’s comic film The Life of Brian, the client thought of the character playing Brian’s mother, who is always criticising Brian in an absurdly high-pitched, screeching voice. The client couldn’t take the thoughts seriously when she “heard” them in the voice of Brian’s mother.
‘The thoughts did not immediately disappear’, Harris writes, ‘but they quickly lost their power over her, and this contributed significantly to lifting her depression.’
A similar approach is to sing about your negative thoughts. To see the power of this simple exercise, think of a thought that often upsets you – say, “I’m useless” – and hold it in your mind for 10-15 seconds, trying to believe it as much as you can. Chances are, this will leave you feeling heavy.
Now, take that same thought and sing it (maybe silently, if you have company!) to the tune of Jingle Bells or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Like the Monty Python example, the thought loses much of its emotional punch. Instead of buying into and fusing with the thought, you are defusing from it.
Another defusion technique is to pay thanks – for example, “Thanks for sharing that with me, Brain, very helpful!”, “Thanks for that thought, Brain”, or simply “Thanks, Mind”. As Russ Harris points out in his book, it’s important to not pay thanks sarcastically or aggressively; instead, do so with warmth and humour.
Not all defusion techniques involve humour. Try responding to negative thoughts with the phrase “I’m having the thought that... “. For example, “I’m having the thought that I’m useless”, “I’m having the thought that nothing will change”, “I’m having the thought that they’re sniggering at me”.
Using this phrase helps remind us that our thoughts really are just thoughts. It buys you time: instead of automatically reacting to a negative thought (“They won’t like me”) with a negative behaviour (avoidance, withdrawal), it provides you with some emotional space, reminding you that thoughts really are just thoughts – not facts, not instructions to be obeyed.
It’s a simple but important point. Thoughts are passing mental events that come and go, changing according to our mood and circumstances. The thoughts that pop into your mind when you’re drowsy and cranky first thing in the morning will be very different to your thoughts at lunchtime.
Defusion helps you not take your negative thoughts too seriously. It reminds you of one of the core messages of CBT – don't believe everything you think.
(First published in Southern Star on 09/12/2021)