Do you ever find yourself overthinking a situation or battling intrusive thoughts? This post will teach you the skill of cognitive defusion, which will help you separate yourself from your thoughts so that you can look at them rather than through them.
You have a million thoughts a day, but you don’t even notice them. You just believe them.
We swim through our thoughts like a fish swims through water. We don’t even notice that the way we think colors our view of the world.
Or sometimes we do notice thoughts that we don’t like. And then we don’t know what to do with them.
Sometimes you fight them or struggle against them. But if, for example, you think “I’m such an idiot” and then you tell yourself “I’m the smartest person in the world,” that doesn’t feel any better.
So sometimes you get stuck in an endless loop of overthinking or obsessively struggling against intrusive thoughts. But that’s not any better because struggle steals your attention and energy.
Our thoughts are like glasses; they are the lens through which we see the world.
If you think the world is a terrible, mean place, that’s what you’ll see. If you think people are inherently good, that’s what you’ll find.
In this post you’re going to learn how to stop overthinking — how to get unstuck from your thoughts. You’re going to learn how to look at your thoughts instead of through them. How to take off your glasses, look at them, and decide if you want to hang onto them or choose a different pair.
This skill is called cognitive defusion.
It’s the difference between having a thought and buying a thought.
This is such a powerful skill for processing emotions and fighting depression and anxiety. If you want to improve your mental health, the skill of cognitive defusion teaches you to separate yourself from your thoughts. This gives you power over your thoughts, instead of letting them run the show.
Cognitive Fusion Defined
Your brain is a word machine. It says stuff and thinks stuff all the time. When you look through the lens of your thoughts, this is called cognitive fusion. It’s the problem of being stuck to your thoughts.
Cognitive fusion is buying into every thought that passes through your mind. It’s when you think something and you don’t even notice it; you just believe it.
In this post we’re going to talk about recognizing all our thoughts, separating ourselves from them, and selectively choosing which thoughts or beliefs you want to act on or buy into, instead of letting random subconscious thoughts dictate your mood, choices, and ultimate happiness.
Real-Life Example of Overthinking
I once was working with a young man who had a lot of social anxiety. We’ll call him Miguel.
Miguel had a good group of friends, but every time he hung out with them he would start to feel really anxious. And then when he was at a party he would make some joke or say something, and then he’d start to worry: “Did I say the wrong thing? Did I hurt her feelings?”
Or if one group of friends split off to the pool and another invited him to the game room, he would panic a little, feeling terrified — terrified because he didn’t know which group to go with.
Then he’d start thinking “Oh, I can’t believe I’m getting anxious again. I’m such a loser.” And then he’d think “Don’t think that way! What’s the matter with you? Don’t feel anxious! Why do you always do this?” and he would start going back and forth in his head, fighting his negative thoughts and trying not to feel anxious.
And if he couldn’t get his anxious thoughts to go away, he’d feel uncomfortable and go home early.
In this example, Miguel was fused with his thoughts in two ways. The first way was that when he was trying to hang out with his friends, he got all wrapped up in trying to make his thoughts go away. He was focusing all his energy on fighting his thoughts, and that kept him stuck or fused to them instead of putting his energy into having a good time.
The second way that he would get fused with his thoughts is that he had an unwritten rule that he didn’t even know about. He didn’t notice he was thinking it, and it colored everything he did.
Let me show you:
When I asked Miguel why he would get anxious, he said “Well, I always worry that I might say something wrong or that I might offend someone or hurt someone’s feelings.”
And I asked “What do you mean?”
He said “Well, I always overthink everything I say. After hanging out, I always worry that something I said might have bothered someone or that a joke I made might have hurt someone’s feelings, and I just hate dealing with the drama.”
“What drama?” I asked.
“Well, let’s say a couple of my friends invite me to do something with them but they don’t invite my other friend, and then my other friend invites me to do something that same night. How do I say no to the other friend without making them feel bad?”
I asked a followup question. “So they aren’t being dramatic; you’re just worrying?”
He said “Yeah.”
“What are you most afraid of?” I asked.
“That I might make someone feel bad by saying no,” he responded.
I realized something and said “Sounds like you have a rule in your head that you’re never allowed to ever make anyone feel bad.”
He thought for a second. “Hmm, I guess so. I never noticed that I had that rule, but now that you say that I think you’re right. Once I had a girlfriend who I wanted to break up with, but I didn’t for like a year because I didn’t want to make her feel bad.”
“Yeah, that’s a great example.” I said
“Or if the food is terrible or cooked wrong at a restaurant and the waiter asks how’s the food, I always say ‘great,’ even if it’s a lie.”
This young man didn’t realize he was thinking “I can never make anyone feel bad,” and this rule that he didn’t know he had was making him really anxious. He had bought that thought — believed it — without even noticing that he was thinking that way.
In Miguel’s case, he was stuck to his thoughts. This was keeping him from being present with his friends. When we buy our thoughts, when we believe everything we think, it makes it hard for us to change.
Cognitive Defusion Explained
The antidote to this is learning to notice your thoughts without buying them. You learn to look at your thoughts instead of through them. You notice yourself as the thinker, the place where these thoughts happen.
When Miguel noticed his unwritten rule, he could see how impossible it was, how it was keeping him from having good relationships. And he was able to replace it with something more helpful: “I can’t control how others feel, but I value being kind and also assertive.” He could see both of these thoughts and choose which one was most helpful to him.
This helped him feel less anxiety at parties and focus his energy on being present, having a good time, and being kind to people.
This is a difficult concept to explain, but it’s easier to demonstrate — you’ve got to experience this to understand it. Here are a few activities to try.
Practical Exercise to quiet Intrusive Thoughts
For the next minute, write down or say out loud all the thoughts that run through your mind. So for example, you may be thinking “I don’t get this” or “I’m not thinking anything.” Notice that that’s a thought too.
Now take one of those thoughts and put these words in front of it: “I’m having the thought that…” Stay there for a bit. Can you notice the thought? Can you see it as a thought that you are having in this moment?
Now replay it one more time, but this time add this phrase: “I notice I’m having the thought that …” For example: “I notice I’m having the thought that this is boring.” What happened? Did you notice a sense of separation or distance from the thought? See if you can look at yourself having thoughts.
While you are noticing yourself having thoughts, take a second to open up your awareness. What other thoughts are you having? Is work popping up in your mind? Or perhaps the thought “How much longer is this going to take?” Are there other thoughts running through your mind? Take a second to notice them and to notice yourself noticing them.
You just practiced cognitive defusion — looking at your thoughts instead of through them.
You are the person that experiences thoughts and emotions. Thoughts and emotions are experiences that you are having. They aren’t necessarily reality; they’re just something you’re experiencing. You can have thoughts without buying them.
A great way to practice this is through the exercise Leaves on a Stream. Check out that exercise on my YouTube channel.
Other Ideas for Managing Overthinking
Another helpful way to separate ourselves from our thoughts is to name them. Literally. I’ve had clients who’ve liked using the term “negative mind” to describe the spiral of thoughts, but it can also help to give those thoughts an actual name like “Billy Bob.”
For example, “Oh, there’s Billy Bob popping into my thoughts today.” Meaning “There’s those negative thoughts popping up that say ‘You’ll never be successful.’”
When we give our thoughts a name, we are saying “I am Emma” and “This is a thought” — essentially separating ourselves from them.
Thank Your Mind
So with Miguel, he might be able to look at his thoughts and say “I’m having the thought that I’m awkward. But just because I think it doesn’t mean it’s true. Hello thought. Thank you, mind, for making that thought. But it’s not super helpful for me right now, so I’m going to go back to listening to my friend.”
Sing and Use Silly Voices
Here’s a fun ACT exercise (they have hundreds of these, by the way): Use singing and silly voices. Take a thought that seems strong, like “I can’t go to the party if I feel anxious,” andstart to use weird voices to say the thought out loud.
Try it now: Low voice. Radio announcer voice. Tiny girl voice. Australian accent. Etc. and then start to sing it. You can use a tune or whatever. And the basic idea is that when you say a thought in a bunch of weird ways, it starts to feel like a weird thing instead of like the water that you’re swimming in.
This is the same thing that happens if you say a word over and over again. So if you think you’re awkward, you may say the word “awkward” over and over and over until it seems to lose its meaning and is just a weird word.
Put Your Thoughts on an Object
Another exercise that is often helpful is to symbolically put our thoughts onto an object. Give them tangible form.
Bruce Lee said “I have a system of ridding my mind of negative thoughts. I visualize myself writing them down on a piece of paper. Then I imagine myself crumpling up the paper, lighting it on fire, and burning it to a crisp.”
In residential treatment, I worked with a lot of kids who found it helpful to make their thoughts concrete by putting them on an object.
So I had one client who had really low self-esteem. She decided to get a huge rock, like a 10-pound rock, and write on it “I’m unlovable.” And when she believed that thought, she had to carry that rock around. And when she didn’t believe that thought, she would set the rock down. She made a physical way to represent the idea of having a thought vs. buying a thought.
Lots of thoughts are going to pop up in your head throughout the day. Average people have intrusive thoughts all the time. We might have inappropriate thoughts or negative thoughts or true thoughts or false thoughts.
It’s okay to have a thought. But if you’re going to buy it, if you’re going to believe it and act on it, make that a conscious choice.
So one way to do this is to take an object and name it with one of your unhelpful thoughts. I’ve had clients who’ve chosen to carry rocks, sticks, and even horse poop in a bag as a way to represent themselves being fused with their thoughts. When they were ready to notice them and separate from them, they would set those objects aside. When they no longer needed that thought, they would let go of the object.
Sometimes they would come back to it, but gradually they would just practice labeling it and choosing if they wanted it.
Choose your Values
Cognitive defusion gives you the freedom to ask “Does buying this thought make my life better?”
That’s what ACT is all about — freeing us to live the life we value instead of getting sucked into thoughts. “This is a thought. It is just a thought. I don’t have to believe it. I don’t have to act on it. I don’t have to fight it. I can let it pass through.”
So here’s the essential question: Is this thought helpful to me? Does it help me live my values? If the thought is helpful you can buy it. You can believe it or hang onto it or act on it. And if it’s not helpful, then you can notice it. You can have it but not buy it. It’s just a thought. Thoughts pop up all the time, and not all of them are helpful.
For example, fusion with thoughts says “I have to stop being anxious if I want to go to parties” or, with OCD, “I have to make this thought about washing my hands go away.” It traps us in a cycle of fighting our thoughts or acting on them.
With cognitive defusion, we create space between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings so that they have less of a hold over us.
So you can say “I can feel anxious and go to the party” or “I can think that I need to wash my hands 20 times, but I don’t have to buy that thought.”
Let’s just contrast this with CBT for a moment. When we talked about challenging distorted thinking, that is a CBT skill. So you might take the thought “I’m a complete loser” and say “That’s black-and-white thinking. Let’s look for exceptions. What would a kind friend say about that?”
CBT gives you the skill of challenging your thoughts, which is a helpful skill for some people. For other people, this causes them to constantly struggle against their thoughts. With ACT we add the skill of defusion. It’s the ability to separate yourself from your thoughts and choose your actions.
So you’d look at that thought “I’m a complete loser” and say “Thanks, mind,” and then ask “Is this thought helpful for me? Does it help me live my values?” And if not, then you let that thought pass along and look for another thought that’s more helpful.
When you add skills to your emotional toolbelt, you have more flexibility to find one that works for you.
Summary of What to do with Intrusive Thoughts
Don’t get obsessed with fighting your thoughts, making them go away, or reacting to them. And don’t just believe everything you think.
With cognitive defusion, we create a little space between ourselves and our thoughts. We notice them and say “I’m having the thought that…” Then we can ask ourselves “Is this thought helpful? Does it help me live the life I value?” Then we are free to choose what’s most important and allow other thoughts to pass through so we can focus on living the life we want.
The Acceptance and Commitment Therapy gurus have made some great videos and recordings to help people understand and practice this. Check a few of them out — click on the links below.
Leaves on a Stream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjKltKKSur8
Passengers on the Bus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z29ptSuoWRc
Tug of War With Thoughts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2TUXp5VMPI&index
The Unwelcome Party Guest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYht-guymF4
Russ Harris has written an article with some great exercises that you should check out: https://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/Mindfulness_without_meditation_–_Russ
Singing and Silly Voices: https://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/Mindfulness_