As I continue to share insights from acceptance and commitment therapy, their basic lab research into the way the human mind works found one of the core causes of suffering to be cognitive fusion. This is when you become momentarily stuck to your thoughts. There is no separation between you and your thoughts. You get caught in a train of thinking. Another way of saying this, is you get hooked to your thoughts. You’ve experienced this when your mind wanders off from thought to thought.
Cognitive fusion causes suffering because you get tossed around by your thoughts. When your thoughts are self-judgmental, you believe them to be true and trigger off unhelpful emotions too. Learning ways to disconnect or ‘defuse’ from your thinking is a very helpful skill that you can learn.
I've discovered there are many unusual techniques that can be used to defuse from your thoughts. I'll share four main ones here, taken from the book A Liberated Mind. But there are hundreds of them.
1. Disobey on Purpose
This is a really interesting one to start with. To do this experiment you’re gonna have to walk around the room while saying the following sentence out aloud. Ready?
Here it is: ‘I cannot walk around this room’
Keep slowly and clearly repeating that sentence as you walk around the room, right now.
‘I cannot walk around this room’.
Have you repeated the sentence around five times, clearly, as you walk around the room?
Good. That’s it!
Just this very short exercise was shown in a recent experiment to reduce people’s tolerance to high physical pain by 40%. That’s an amazing result in such a short exercise.
You’re demonstrating to yourself that the mind doesn’t have as much power over you as you believed, and that gives you freedom to do hard things.
Integrate this into your life. Right now you can say to yourself ‘I can’t read this sentence. I can’t read.’ And yet you can. See, you’re in charge, not whatever thoughts happen to cross your mind.
Your power lies in the actions you choose to do everyday that move you to a rich and meaningful life, despite what your mind says.
2. Give Your Mind a Name and Listen Politely
If someone’s talking to you, you can politely listen and decide to agree or disagree. Trying to argue with them to agree with your point of view doesn’t usually work.
In the same way, it’s useful to give your mind a name like Frank or Sonya, or like me, you can just call it Mr Mind or just Mind. By giving your mind a name, you create a separation and it makes defusion from your thoughts easier. That’s what the research has found to be true too.
Be polite to your mind and say: ‘Hello Mr. Mind. It’s a pleasure to meet you.’ as if you’re meeting someone at a dinner party.
Well done! You’ve now met your mind as separate to yourself and met in a respectful way. That’s the kind of relationship you want to develop with your mind.
3. Appreciate What Your Mind is Trying to Do
Here’s a strategy I really like. You say ‘Thank you Mr. Mind’ to whatever chatter your mind is saying. So take a few moments to listen to your mind, then respond, in your mind or out aloud ‘Thanks so much Mr. Mind. Much appreciated.’ Your mind may respond with more chatter, and again you can respond: ‘Thank you Mr Mind. Anything else?’ So you can even ask for your mind to share more if it wishes.
Here’s what happened when I tried this:
Mind: ‘I’m feeling really tired’
Me: ‘Thank you mind’
Mind: ‘No I’m feeling really tired actually’
Me: ‘Thanks for sharing mind. Anything else?’
Mind: ‘Probably cause I didn't sleep that well last night’
Me: ‘Thank you mind. Anything else you want to say’
Mind: Silent for a while...then…’I’m hungry’
Me: ‘Thank you mind’
Mind: …..not much else to think!....
Interestingly, in this short experiment, if my mind was left to wander, I would have been thinking about how tired I am, and why am I tired, and why didn’t I sleep well last night and so on. The ‘thanks for sharing mind’ strategy worked so well to stop the mind going off on a long train of unhelpful and judgemental thoughts. Fascinating stuff! Do try these now for even half a minute or so.
4. Sing It
This technique is powerful if you have a particularly sticky thought. Sing the thought out loud if alone, or in your head if with others, to the tune of a song. Any song will do. For example, it can be to the tune of Happy Birthday.
So,here I go!
I am not good enough…
I am not good enoughhhh
I ammmm not good enouuuugghhhhhhhhh
I am not good enuffff!
The test is not to make the thought go away, or lose its power or believability. The test is if you are a little bit closer to seeing that it’s just a thought a bit more clearly.
I just tried it now by singing the above a few times out aloud. And now I’m smiling. It’s so strange how it works. But it does. Not just on me, but on probably hundreds if not thousands in controlled experiments. I hope you try it too with your sticky thoughts and let us know if it worked for you.
So there you have it - some ways to practice what is called ‘cognitive defusion’. I find it’s such a nice relief compared to all that positive thinking stuff which has been proven to not work, especially when you most need it. Intuitively positive thinking should work, but it doesn’t when you’re feeling down. But this stuff does work, so have a go.
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