When my daughter was 4 she went through a phase of being afraid of the dark. She thought there might be monsters in her room and she hated if her wardrobe door was left even slightly open. I bought a children’s fiction book to help her with her fears. The book was called “There’s a Monster in my Closet” by Mercer Meyer. In the book, a small boy is visited by a monster every night. At first the boy is very afraid and he hides under the covers. Some nights later, he becomes angry and starts trying to fight the monster. But the monster always comes back. Eventually the boy stops being either scared or angry. He realises that the monster is going to be there no matter what. Finally, he decides to befriend the monster.
Some of our thoughts can be much like the monster in this story and usually our reactions will be similar to the little boy’s i.e. we will either be scared of our thoughts or we will try to fight them. More often we are doing both at once. Most of us are assailed either by our inner critic or by obsessive worries at times in our lives. For the more anxiety prone among us, dealing with these negative thoughts can be a constant battle. And I use the word battle quite literally, since trying to 'fight' these thoughts tends to be the default reaction.
Lets think about that fight reaction for a second. What happens in a fight? Think of a tug-of-war at school. Two warring forces are at either end of a rope tugging as hard as they can, each trying to win. Now what would happen if one side were to simply let go of the rope? The fight ends right? Because without two forces pulling against each other there can be no struggle and the fight is over. Now think of this in terms of battling with unhelpful thoughts; much like with the boy and monster in the story above, there is not much point in fighting as no matter what the ‘monster’ will be there. Now think about what the boy ultimately did; he realised that there was nothing he could do to get rid of the monster, he ended the fight and instead, he decided to change his relationship with it.
And this is possible with our thoughts too. Very often our thoughts themselves are not our biggest problem. It is rather how we deal with them that gets us into trouble. We can become quite ‘fused’ with our thoughts. When we are ‘fused’ with our thoughts we take them terribly seriously, we believe the mean and nasty things that they tell us, we ruminate on them and become overwhelmed by them. When our thoughts tell us we're stupid we believe them, when they criticise that thing we just said in a work meeting, we presume they're right, when they tell us something terrible is going to happen we buy into it. We know from the above that it is probably unlikely and unrealistic to imagine we can turn off these negative thoughts, they are going to be there one way or another. So what can we do instead? Like the boy and his monster, we can change our relationship with the thoughts i.e. rather than being ‘fused’ with our thoughts we can become ‘defused’.
Sounds great in theory right? But what does this actually mean? Well, if being fused with our thoughts means taking them very seriously and giving them lots of attention, then 'thought defusion' means doing something like the opposite of this i.e. we would see our thoughts for what they really are; just words, images and ideas that we can either chose to attend to or not depending on whether or not they are helpful. Imagine listening to a radio; one minute a song is playing that you really love, you give it your full attention, you are absorbed in it. Suddenly the station switches to a talk topic you have no interest in. What happens? Your mind moves on to other things. You may leave the radio on. You may be able to hear the sounds and words in the background but you have stopped giving them your full attention. Thought defusion works on similar lines. Its allowing the negative track to be there (we can’t get rid of it) while not attending to it too much and letting the mind focus on other, more productive things.
One practice that can greatly help with thought defusion is the practice of Mindfulness. More on this in the next post!
In the mean time, ponder on the kind of thoughts you have. Are you often dealing with a negative voice inside your head; an inner critic or a worry wart? Think about how you respond to that inner voice. Would you like it to have less power over you? If the answer is yes then it might help you to consider further the idea of thought defusion.
If you would like to know more about thought defusion you might gain a lot from reading "The Happiness Trap" by Russ Harris. Or come and see me for an appointment if you would like to work further on your unhelpful thoughts.