“I am so stupid, I can’t believe I did that!” Cathy yelled out loud and hit her steering wheel. Unintentionally, she just backed her car into a fire hydrant. Her car was damaged, she was going to be late, and her stress was high. Worst of all, at some point, she had to tell her parents what she did. The more she told herself how stupid she was, the more she was convinced her parents would be angry, and the worse her stress became.
One process that may help Cathy is something called thought defusion. The term defusion seems rather complicated at first. The first time I heard this word, I thought my professor meant “diffusion” (which means to spread something widely). But “defusion” means to “defuse” or to separate. When a therapist talks about defusion, they are referring to a process where we distance or separate ourselves from our thoughts. If we can learn to see our thoughts as only words, and not facts, it can help us gain a more balanced perspective.
Why is defusion helpful? Research estimates that about 50-80% of our thoughts are negative. That’s a lot. Negative thoughts are normal. The trouble happens when we FUSE, or accept them as always true or important. Then our thoughts overshadow and control us.
To provide context for the above example, Cathy is not stupid, even though she experiences thoughts, such as, “I am stupid.” She learned to drive, is an accomplished musician, and she is enrolled in college. But, if she fuses, or becomes attached to the thought that she is stupid, she may experience more suffering and challenges in her life. If Cathy can defuse her thought, she may be better able to observe her distress with curiosity and self-compassion, and make choices that reflect who she wants to be.
There are other ways to practice defusion
Give yourself time to stop, step back and observe your thoughts and feelings, as well as what is happening in the situation. Also notice any physical sensations, images, or memories of similar events. Notice how you interpret your thoughts, and how impacts you.
Say it differently
Once you’ve noticed the thought, try saying in in a different way. For example, Russ Harris, in his book, The Happiness Trap, recommends singing your thought to the tune of “The Happy Birthday Song.” You could also try putting it to another tune, or say it in a silly or squeaky voice. Notice that you haven’t tried to change it, avoid it, or get rid of it. But, you may be better able to see it as just a group of words, and not a universal truth.
Try adding, “I’m noticing that…”
By reflecting, “I’m noticing that I’m thinking (insert thought), the thought loses its status as a fact, and becomes simply an experience.
Mindfulness helps us center in the present, not the past or the future. It can help us notice the senses of vision, hearing, smell, touch, or taste that we normally do not notice. It can help us be more aware of our thoughts and feelings, as well as the larger context around us. We put aside concerns about our careers, school, work-lives, expenses, or relationships. We allow ourselves to be. We notice the beauty in the world. We notice our experience in our bodies. We breathe.
Be the carpool parent
Sometimes, I use the metaphor of driving the carpool to help remind myself to defuse from my thoughts. You are the driver. Imagine the 4 children in your vehicle, chattering, laughing, arguing, or pointing at things from their window. You can allow them to talk and use words, but your primary goal is to keep your attention on the road. Similarly, our thoughts can all be chattering simultaneously, and we can be aware, observing these thoughts. And yet, we can also be mindful of our current experience.
Defusing from our thoughts can take practice and patience. Bottom line, we are more than our thoughts and feelings, and our contentment is worth the effort.