Thoughts swirl around our mind…
They hook, and they pull, and they vie for our attention, and they swirl.
Defusion is the practice of de-fusing your thoughts from your self.
Where “fusion” is a blending or melding together, “defusion” is a detaching or isolating of elements.
When we fuse our thoughts with the things they refer to — when we fuse the story with the event — they become stuck together, as one. It’s as though the thought is pure and complete truth — we completely believe it and act in accordance with it.
Once we defuse, we can then acknowledge our thoughts as they come — without reacting or trying to control them. We simply allow them to say what they have to say — and we listen, but we don’t assume that the story is worth acting on or investing any attention or energy in.
There are a number of techniques for getting started with defusion, some of which are described below. Generally though, the practice of defusion involves seeing — observing, noticing, acknowledging — whenever a thought presents itself. And that’s all. Just notice.
This then sets the stage for intentional action to follow.
The significance of defusion is in the thing it replaces: suppression.
Trying to control unpleasant or unwanted thoughts is what sends us in a tailspin, dragging us down away from the full life we want so desperately to live.
This effort to control unwanted thoughts is what Dr. Russ Harris refers to as the “Struggle Switch.”
He describes it this way:
Have you ever seen one of those old cowboy movies where the bad guy falls into a pool of quicksand — and the more he struggles, the faster it pulls him under? If you ever fall into quicksand, struggling is the worst thing you can do. What you’re supposed to do is lie back, stretch out, keep still, and let yourself float on the surface. This takes real presence of mind, because every instinct in your body tells you to struggle; but the more you struggle, the worse your situation becomes.
The same principle applies to difficult feelings: the more we struggle with them, the more trouble we create for ourselves.
— Russ Harris, The Happiness Trap
The effort to resist these unwanted thoughts is the root of our demise.
But defusion counteracts that impulse by offering an alternative…
The time to use defusion is whenever you feel yourself being roped into your thoughts. When you start to get really “heady” and overwhelmed. Or when you notice yourself becoming over-reliant on the words people say about you.
Below are three techniques you can do anywhere, at almost any time, to put yourself on a more productive path when thoughts begin to drag you down…
1 | I’m a Banana
The point of the “I’m a Banana” technique is to highlight the story-nature of your thoughts.
Everything that passes through your mind is a story. And those stories may or may not be an accurate or complete representation of what’s really going on.
This is how “I’m a Banana” works...
- Bring to mind a thought that normally upsets you and that takes the form of "I am x." (e.g. "I am a moron")
- Now bring to mind the thought "I am a banana!"
- Notice what each does to you when you think it.
The idea here is that it’s all just words.
With the first thought, you probably felt a wave of pain at the words. But with “I’m a banana,” you might have smiled a little.
Words can carry varying levels of importance, depending on the weight we let them have. But they’re still just words.
“I’m a Banana” can help you begin to relax and to not take the words you hear so seriously.
But this is only the first step in defusing from our thoughts and getting to a clear head. The next two strategies take us one step further…
2 | Thank You, Mind
In “Thank You, Mind,” you take a difficult thought as it comes — then you listen… and thank it… and continue forward.
It goes like this:
When your mind starts playing that familiar tune (“what an idiot, I can’t believe you just did that”), you might think “ah, it’s been a while since I’ve heard this one. Thanks for sharing, Mind!”
Or maybe: “Why, thank you for that perspective, Mind! What an interesting idea.”
Or simply, “Oh — thanks, Mind!”
This strategy defuses you from — or helps you step outside of — difficult thoughts. It reminds you that you don’t need to struggle with them or try to suppress or push them away. You can simply hear them and acknowledge them and continue on with life.
Again, the thought is just words — just a story — that you don’t need to absorb or give any attention to.
3 | Big Bird, the Asshole
So those voices that come into your thoughts and say things like “you suck” or “you’re worthless” or “no one wants to be around you” — what do they sound like?
…What would it sound like to hear Big Bird say those things to you?
Enter, Technique #3.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be Big Bird. It can be Homer Simpson or Yoda or Eddie Murphy or whoever makes you laugh.
The point is to “hear” that self-judgment from someone who it would be ridiculous to hear it from.
You can play with this by mixing it up. Go back and forth between your internal voice and some character’s voice. For example:
- When you’re thinking of the negative idea, hear it in your normal inner critic’s voice.
- Now hear it coming from Big Bird.
- Then listen to yourself say it again — does it feel different than it did before?
- Now hear it from Darth Vader.
- Then yourself again.
Living a Life of Impact
The purpose in all of this is to set yourself up to do incredible and worthwhile things in the world. If your mind is too bogged-down to allow you to live, then it’s not serving you in a useful way.
Your mind will serve up lots of thoughts, every day — and it does so with (good) purpose: it’s trying to help you. But there’s an array of tools we need to become familiar with so that we know how to interact with those thoughts usefully, to make the most of this one temporary life.
- The thoughts you have are words only.
- They’re no longer useful when they bog you down and prevent you from doing worthwhile things.
- You are an invaluable player in this world — your being offers more than you might think it does. And we need you to become the best you can be.
- Your head needs to be free, so that you can interact in useful ways that bring the best of you into your world.
- Learning how to interact with the thoughts that are interfering with your “bringing of your best” is a worthy mission.
Note: The techniques above come from clinical psychology, but I’ve given them different names (because the real names suck). If you’re looking for more information or resources like guided audio, you can search using these names: Not taking a thought seriously (I’m a Banana); Thanking the Mind (Thank You, Mind); The Silly Voices Technique (Big Bird, the Asshole). These strategies support the work of “Defusion” & “Expansion” in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy — two other keywords you might search for.
The ideas in this article come from clinical psychology’s Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). For further resources on ACT, check out The Happiness Trap, by Dr. Russ Harris, or Dr. Stephen Hayes’ free mini-course on ACT.
Each week, I do a deep-dive into the question of living meaningfully.
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