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ACT Principle 3 - Cognitive Defusion

When two things are fused together – for instance two metal pipes – there is no longer any separation, they are one. This is the often the default structure of us to our thoughts and feelings. Often we are fused so fully with our thoughts and feelings that we are unable to recognize any separation between us and them. This is seen even in language. We say “I am anxious” the same way we would introduce ourselves to a new person: “I am Brittany.” This language is reflective of the fusion often experienced and in this state of fusion it is nearly impossible to connect with a world outside of these thoughts and feelings. Notice the difference even with this simple change in language from “I am anxious” to “I am noticing that I am anxious” or “I am hearing my anxiety story.” See how we can already start to see some separation. That is defusion.

Through cognitive defusion thoughts, feelings, and urges can be experienced with some distance, some separation. When thoughts, feelings, and urges can be observed as parts of a whole, they can then be responded to with mindfulness rather than responded from with overwhelm. Defusion means being able to have a thought, feeling, or urge without judging it, avoiding it, suppressing it, believing it, or acting on it. It gives enough distance to make mindful, values-based decisions.

Thoughts can be bullies. They can be helpful or unhelpful. They can hijack a situation. Defusion means allowing them to come and go mindfully without going to either extreme – avoidance or dependence. Defusion allows us to see our thoughts for what they are – words and pictures. Can lead us toward valued living or away from valued living – and this is far more easy to assess as an observer of our thoughts rather than being ruled by them.

Here is a mindfulness exercise to practice some cognitive defusion today:

Come into a comfortable position. Eyes closed or to the floor, whatever feels most comfortable to you. Take a moment to connect with you breath and your body. Look inward at what you are feeling, thinking, and experiencing with the senses.

Name one emotion you are having currently. Imagine holding that emotion in your hands out in front of you so that you can observe it. What color is that emotion? Blue? Orange? Purple? White? What is the shape? Square? Circle? Triangle? What is the texture? Is it smooth? Bumpy? Hard? Soft?

Continue to observe it until you are familiar with it. When you are ready, allow it to re-enter your body. Notice if you feel different than you did at the beginning of this mindful exercise. Notice if there are differences in having been able to observe the emotion. Take a few more mindful breaths before opening your eyes and returning to the room.

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