The Web of Painful Thoughts
We all experience unhelpful thoughts from time to time, such as thoughts that make us feel sad, angry, afraid, and/or hopeless. For some of us, it tends to be more often than less. To make things worse, they can be on repeat in our heads like a tune you can’t forget. Sadly, what happens quite often is those thoughts begin to take control of us. Whether we know it or not, we let these thoughts over regulate our behavior. Instead of taking it in as information we need to process and make healthy decisions, these thoughts become automatic and lead us into unhelpful reactions. Before you know it, these unhelpful reactions reinforce the negative thoughts and begins a vicious cycle. So to break this painful cycle, we have to free ourselves from the thoughts holding us in. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we call this process Cognitive Defusion. ACT argues that our problems arise not necessarily from wrong thinking, but because we spend too much time in them. Rather than simply treating our thoughts as thoughts, we can allow these ideas to control our behavior and we see our world through them like a pair of glasses without even knowing it. Cognitive Defusion works to help you develop flexible thinking so you can steer your life in the directions you want to go. Here are a few exercises to get you to practice mental flexibility and think of new ways to respond to your troublesome thoughts.
Thoughts and Thinker, Feelings and Feeler
Often times we live like “I am what I think and feel”. Our thoughts and emotions determine who we are. But now, try thinking of thoughts and feelings as something you have instead of something you are. We can call this process “Objectifying Thoughts”. We usually are quick to make judgments about what we are experiencing, so to give yourself space from judging your experience, try simply noticing what you are thinking. A concrete way of practicing this distinction is writing down your thoughts and emotions on cards like they are physical things that you have. Once you have this stack of cards, you get to decide what to do with them. Be creative and think of new ways of doing something with that thought that you didn’t think of before.
Identify a painful thought that you notice repeating in your head: I’m worthless, I’m bad, I’m ugly, I’m useless. Whatever the thought is, this is just one of the glasses you look at the world through. When we get caught up in the pain these thoughts elicit, we forget to take these glasses off. The goal is not to get rid of the glasses, rather to take a look and understand the pain you are experiencing and learn from it. Maybe it’s not that helpful. Then take them off and act on what you believe is the best course of action that will help you find healing from the pain.
Remember, Cognitive Defusion is not sifting out or forgetting about thoughts that make us feel bad. Painful thoughts tell us important information too! It tells us that something is wrong. The problem is we may begin to respond with a knee-jerk like reaction that causes more harm than good. Defusion gives us space to be flexible and respond to our pain in a more helpful way. Give this practice a chance and see what comes up for you. See if you can find new ways of responding to those unhelpful thoughts that are in line with who you want to be. This is not an easy process and takes practice. If you’re struggling to find space from your painful thoughts, reach out for help. This process definitely is more effective when you have someone that can work with you and help you find that little breathing room to change.