I still remember the mental prison that accompanied my eating disorder: the non-stop calorie counting, body checking, comparison, and constant planning on how to keep doing it all “right” while somehow staying afloat in the rest of my life.
For me, this actually became my biggest motivation for getting help and working toward recovery. I wish that, when I was going through that process, I had known about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and its realistic approach for how to deal with difficult thoughts.
These days when I teach ACT concepts to my clients, they often express a sense of relief and curiosity as they realize, “So, you’re saying it’s normal that I can’t just stop or change my thoughts? But if I can’t… then what do I do with them?”
ACT asserts that we have limited ability to control and avoid internal thoughts and feelings. But when we try to, we often create much more suffering for ourselves. It confronts this “control agenda,” and challenges us to consider which control strategies are actually “workable” and which aren’t. Many — like ED behaviors —often take us further from a meaningful life. ACT offers alternate ways of dealing with those uncomfortable internal experiences as we acknowledge the truth that we can’t just “get rid of them” like we want.
In ACT, we’re less concerned with proving whether or not a thought is true and more concerned with looking at what happens when we become “fused” with it.
Think of the common ED thought, “I’m so fat.” Even if that thought isn’t objectively true, simply being told that by someone else doesn’t really help. And if you are considered overweight by certain medical standards, you could say “see, it’s true! So I am totally justified in beating myself up all day.” Not so fast. Because what happens when you beat yourself up about that (when you get totally fused with that thought)? You feel discouraged, eat more, and then say, “see, exactly. I’m disgusting.” As one of my favorite cartoons says, “Hate is not a magic wand that shrinks thighs.”
So, again, we’re more concerned about whether the thought is workable than whether it’s true or false. Sometimes, being fused with thoughts is okay. For example, when you’re totally engrossed in your creative work, a movie that you’re watching, a game you’re playing with friends. But often, we find that the thoughts we fuse with are not workable — they’re getting in the way of living and negatively impact our choices.
But if we can’t just get rid of them like we’d want, then what?
This is where defusion comes in. Defusion strategies aim to change how you relate with your thoughts, rather than trying (and usually failing) to directly change the thoughts themselves. As a result, the thoughts don’t hold as much power over you or the choices you make. Their grip on you loosens and you have room to breathe. You are able to take action based on your values instead of what the thoughts are telling you. Below are just a few simple defusion techniques. If you like these, I suggest checking out this list. The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris is a great and easy-to-read primer on ACT and how to apply it to your life.
1. Notice the thought for what it is.
We’re used to identifying everything our mind tells us as the truth, without questioning it. But the monkey mind is constantly chattering away, and not everything it says is novel, important, or helpful! So, there’s a lot of power in just naming a thought for what it is — just a thought. Notice the difference between “I’m stupid” and “I notice that I’m having the thought that I’m stupid.” I like to say playfully, “thanks mind, heard that one a million times before!”
2. Try a visual defusion technique
I often find that using a visual helps me make the technique more “tangible.” You can close your eyes (or not) and visualize your thoughts as leaves on a stream, clouds moving through the sky, or words that you blow bubbles around and watch them float away. If you’re visualizing more of a mental image, you can picture that image on top of a can of paint and see yourself stirring it in, see it on a vintage TV and watch yourself changing the channel, see the thought printed on a fancy restaurant menu or action movie poster, etc. These techniques often help us remember the idea from #1 — that, oh yeah, this is just a thought I’m having.
3. Practice mindfulness meditation.
The goal of mindfulness meditation in ACT is not necessarily to totally relax or “clear your mind,” but rather to increase mindfulness of thoughts as thoughts, and mindfulness of your sensory experiences that can help you get out of your head without trying to micromanage your thinking. This was a huge relief for me when I practiced this kind of meditation, because I would often get stressed over the fact that I couldn’t quiet my thoughts. With ACT, it’s more about noticing thoughts rather than silencing them.
4. Create an avatar for your inner critic
Since self-critical thoughts are often the kind we get most fused with, it can be helpful to externalize the critic just as we externalize “Ed” with the eating disorder or “the disease” with addiction. This helps to remind you that the critic is not you. (And if you’re going, “but no, it really is me!” — read this recent article by Tara Mohr). When you visualize the part of you which says those thoughts, what could you name it? What does it look like? What does its home look like? Really giving your inner critic “avatar” texture can help you separate it from yourself.
5. Have a little understanding and compassion for your monkey mind
If you really think about it, your self-critical thoughts are often just frantically trying to keep you safe and protected. Thus, even when I identify my avatar from #4, I don’t really want to tell her “STFU!” but rather, I want to get curious about why she’s showing up, and then tell her, “Hey, thanks for wanting to protect me, but I’ve got this covered. I know I’m feeling anxious about this, but it’s important for me to try it.” Because this part of you desperately wants to protect you, it is not interested in you living a full life and stretching out of your comfort zone. That’s where you need to take the reins.
Do you agree or disagree with the ACT idea that we have limited ability to control our internal thoughts and feelings? What strategies help you to get a little distance from difficult thoughts? I would love to hear from you in the comment section below.