One aspect of therapy I really love is getting to know how people experience their inner worlds. It’s so interesting, because we are all incredibly different. While some of us have a ‘radio doom and gloom’ or ‘Sergeant-Major’ commentator, others can see the world in colour and form, with amorphous shapes of grey or bursts of colour and light. The thinking mind can also be overwhelmingly powerful, setting the tone for our emotional experiences, and causing our physical selves to fall in too. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If our minds are drawn to all the things that we ‘should’ be doing, and all the ways we feel we ‘could’ be better, then we can quickly get caught up in painful emotions such as guilt or regret, and our bodies synergising with some tension or nausea too.
What I’m describing here is a form of psychic equivalence; is a mind-state where there is no distinction drawn between the contents of the mind and the external world. It can be thought of as a type of faulty perspective, where we experience our thoughts as if they are literally 100% true, getting stuck in painful memories, or frozen by fearful predictions about the future.
But what if we were able to have a different relationship with our thoughts and change the way we experience ourselves in the world?
A powerful and gentle way to get unstuck from faulty perspectives about ourselves and the world is with the skill called cognitive defusion; which is a way to expand our attention to see thoughts as what they are, not as what they say they are. Rather than struggling with painful thoughts or feelings, or trying to avoid them (both strategies that can actually amplify our distress), we can change our relationship with our thoughts, seeing them as simply a thought; nothing more, nothing less.
When I taught cognitive defusion to a client recently, we practiced observing thoughts by articulating “I notice I’m having the thought that –“, which provided an immediate sense of distance from the critical thought. We imagined watching the thought pass by on a sushi train. We imagined saying one of the words in the sentence over and over until it became funny (Titchener’s repetition). We sat together through an exercise where every thought or feeling or sensation was placed on a leaf floating on a stream and allowed those leaves to come and go without influence. When we met the following week, she had really run with this notion of cognitive defusion and had some fun with it, giggling when she heard her ‘inner-Karen’ (her description, used with permission) pipe up, and responding with a ‘thanks Karen!’
When we can experience our thoughts as they truly are, just thoughts, we have new space within which to move. We can reflect on the content of thoughts if we wish, but we can also engage with the people that matter, activities that have meaning, and in the contexts that are life enhancing. This approach works best when we practice it regularly, rather than waiting for our inner-Karen to get riled up and want to speak to the manager!
For more on cognitive defusion, try checking out the resources below, or consider coming to see a psychologist for some personalised assistance.