Learn to Unhook: Watch Your Thinking
In virtually all of our experiences, our minds are busy thinking. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, our mind is churning out thoughts; a literal "thought machine". Sometimes our thoughts are evaluating, judging, or explaining. Sometimes our thoughts are pleasant and calming. Sometimes our thoughts are distressing and painful. Every thought we've ever had has, at one point, come into our consciousness, and later, left our consciousness. Some of those thoughts return, others leave, never to be seen (or thought!) again.
We are often prone to labeling our thoughts as being "good" or "bad". Thinking about hurting someone? Ooh, that's a bad thought! Thinking of an upcoming vacation? Ah, now there's a good thought! But let's examine this idea for just a moment. Let's imagine you had the thought, "When I finish reading this blog post, I'm going to go across the street to help my elderly neighbor shovel her walkway." Is that a good thought or a bad thought? Well, it sounds like a great thought! So kind and helpful! So what do you do? You finish reading the blog, go across the street, and instead of shoveling her walk, you break her car window and steal her wallet. Does the thought about shoveling her walk feel as warm and fuzzy as it did before? Probably not as much, right? Let's examine the opposite for a moment. Let's say the thought you have now is, "When I finish reading this blog post, I'm going to go across the street to my elderly neighbor and rob her." How does that thought feel? Pretty rotten, right? Hurting an innocent old lady!? How terrible! But what do you do? You finish reading the blog and you go across the street. But instead of robbing your neighbor, you offer to shovel her walkway. Does the thought about robbing her feel quite as "bad" if you're doing something kind and helpful? Not as much anymore, right?
What people typically do is, they have a thought and then they act on their thought. If the thought leads to a positive outcome they go back and label the thought as being "good". If the thought leads to a negative outcome, they go back and label the thought as being "bad". But, it's not the thought that's good or bad, it's the consequence of the thought that's good or bad.
Additionally, the presence of a thought itself does not point to a subsequent action. For example, I'd like you to have the following thought: "I cannot lift my arms." Now, while keeping that thought in your mind, I'd like you to lift your arms. Did that thought translate to your arms not working properly? Let's try the opposite. I'd like you to now think, "I am going to lift my arms up", but this time don't move your arms. Did having that thought make your arms move? In all likelihood, the answer to both of these questions was "no". What we think and how we act are two inherently separate processes.
And what about the accuracy of thoughts? Did you ever think you were going to fail a test but end up passing with flying colors? Did you ever think your stock portfolio was going to increase in value only to have the market crash? We can likely find countless examples of times our thinking was faulty or inaccurate. Even thoughts that we might define as "facts" may be susceptible to inaccuracies or subject to perception. Like that blue/gold dress debate that went viral in 2015, or any other visual or cognitive illusion. And, even thoughts that we say are fact, like, "the sun is shining", are still just thoughts!
So what can we derive from this? Thoughts themselves are not inherently right or wrong, or inherently good or bad. Thoughts just are. And then, there are consequences to these thoughts. It is, in fact, the consequences to our thoughts that we may experience as "good or bad". And the more hooked we are to our thoughts, the more impactful these thoughts are. What happens when we get "hooked" into our thoughts? We experience something called "cognitive fusion".
What exactly is cognitive fusion? Well, let's first talk about what "fusion" is. If you have two pieces of metal, you have two distinct objects. If you were to weld, or fuse, these two pieces of metal together, you now have, for all intents and purposes, one piece of metal. It moves and operates like a single object. No one watches a car drive by and thinks, "Oh look, there goes 10,000 individual pieces of metal, plastic, and rubber." They see the car as one object. Something similar can happen with our thoughts. If we fuse with our thoughts, get consumed by our thoughts, we become our thoughts. And when we fuse with our thoughts, they start to impact our choices. I'll give you a simple example to demonstrate this.
Let's say you have the thought, "No one likes me." Let's say you are fully fused with this thought. Hooked to it. Consumed by it. Dominated by it. How would you act at, let's say, your company's holiday party? Perhaps you'd be standing in the corner? Keeping your eyes on your phone? Minimally interacting with others? Maybe you leave the party early? Maybe you don't even show up? All because of the thought, "No one likes me." The reality could be that you are the most popular person in the room, but if you get hooked to the thought that no one likes you, this thought drives your behaviors and may pull you away from acting on the values that are important to you. You may even produce the outcome aligned with the thought as a product of your behavior. It can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What is the antidote here? As I've discussed here, trying to push away or control our thoughts is notoriously difficult, if not impossible. Instead of trying to fight the thought, avoid it, or control it, what happens is we defuse from it? This is another unhooking tool called "cognitive defusion". This is a process by which we create space to allow for thoughts, and operate from the position of the "observer" of these thoughts. Through this process, we can have thoughts, but we are not the thoughts themselves. I can have the thought, "I'm a failure", but not have my actions dictated by this thought. Defusion entails looking at thought rather than from thoughts.
If you're open to it, let's give this a try. This is an exercise Russ Harris, an internationally renowned ACT trainer, shares in his book, ACT Made Simple. I'd like you to select a thought that causes you pain or distress. A thought that continues to be a thorn in your side. Maybe it's a thought about your self-esteem, intelligence, lovability, or success. I'd like you to take a few moment to close your eyes and really focus on this thought. Repeat it in your mind over and over again. Imagine shouting this thought at yourself. Allow yourself to become fully fused, fully hooked, into this thought. As you continue to repeat this thought in your mind over and over again, allow yourself to notice what's happening in your mind and body, You're likely noticing strong emotions pop up. Maybe you're even having a physiological response, like your heart rate increasing or feeling tense.
I'd like you to now try something a little different. I'm going to have you repeat the same thought in your mind again, but this time, I'd like you to place the words, "I'm having the thought..." at the beginning of your thought. So, for example, if your thought was, "I'm a failure", the new thought you're going to repeat is, "I'm having the thought that I'm a failure." Like before, repeat this new thought in your mind over and over again. Allow yourself to become fused or hooked to this second thought. As you continue to repeat this second thought, allow yourself to notice again what is happening in your mind and body. What you might notice is that this thought seems to pack a less impactful punch. It doesn't feel quite as potent as it did before.
But what actually changed here? During both rounds of this exercise you were repeating the same core thought. What changed here if you felt differently? (If you didn't feel differently, it might mean your fusion with your thought might need some more practice to effective defuse from). The thought largely remained the same. What changed was your proximity to the thought. You took a metaphorical step back from the thought and created a little space, which in turn, allows you to observe the thought. "I'm not a failure. I'm having the thought that I'm a failure". This space can give us some valuable room to navigate our thoughts when they show up, rather than getting consumed or dominated by these thoughts.
So what does it mean to use cognitive defusion, or just "defusion", as an unhooking tool? When we reflect back on the "Choice Point", discussed here, the experience of a thought by itself is not what pulls someone away from their values. Rather it is being "hooked" into the thought that results in their "away move" from their values. Defusion affords us greater flexibility in responding to our thoughts in a way that is still workable in our movement towards our values. You may note, correctly so, that "unhooking" from a thought does nothing, literally nothing, to change or control the thought. Defusion is not an avoidance tool for painful thoughts. It's a way for us to simply have our thoughts while noticing them for what they are--just thoughts.
In the next blog post, I'm going to focus on the role of "self-as-context" as an unhooking tool.