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Cognitive Defusion for Psychological Flexibility

Cognitive defusion is another core process of ACT that encourages psychological flexibility. This process is about distancing oneself from the thoughts in our heads. We all have automatic thoughts in our minds, consistently running, telling us stories about situations and ourselves. Most of the time these thoughts and the stories they tell us become absolute truths. So thoughts such as “I’m lazy” make us believe we are actually lazy. A thought that says “I’m not good enough” becomes something we believe and start responding to others from that belief. Other thoughts like “I don’t have what it takes” or “I can’t handle that” are often not questioned and start to build a false reality about who you are. When in fact, these are actually just passing ideas that should be observed with some distance. The goal of defusion is not to “get rid” of unhelpful or negative thoughts, but merely to start to separate from them from who we are and our sense of self.

Unhelpful view of thoughts

· Thoughts are Reality: we believe that the thought is true in the present and here and now


Thoughts are The Truth

· Thoughts are Important and should be listened to.

· Thoughts are Orders: We should follow what they tell us


Thoughts are Wise: Thoughts are come from a credible source

Realistic view of thoughts

· Thoughts are merely sounds, words, stories, bits of language, passing through our heads.

· Thoughts may or may not be true. We don’t automatically believe them.

· Thoughts may or may not be important. We pay attention only if they’re helpful.

· Thoughts are not orders. We don’t have to obey them.

· Thoughts may or may not be wise. We don’t automatically follow their advice.

From: Harris, R. (2007) Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Introductory Workshop Handout

The separation from our thoughts can be facilitated by starting to notice them as merely words rather than truths. Passing ideas you can observe and actually let go of…rather than digging in, attaching to, or believing them.

There are many metaphors that ACT uses to help with this idea of cognitive defusion. We can imagine that thoughts are like waves that continuously lap on the shore. Washing in….and washing out….We can stand on the shore and notice those thoughts coming and going…or we can stand in water and be knocked down and swept away. You can also be a like a doorperson in a hotel towards your thoughts. As the guests (thoughts) enter the hotel you can notice and say hi, but you don’t need to follow them to their room. Again, we are not trying to control or stop the waves or keep guests out..but we are merely detaching from letting them “fuse” with our sense of self and our reality.

By spending a few minutes a day noticing these thoughts and letting them go by picturing them being swept away by waves you will build the skill of cognitive defusion.

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