We all have sticky thoughts- thoughts that seem to hold on no matter how hard we try to shake them, ignore them, or get rid of them. If you are reading this, I am sure you have put a lot of time and energy in trying to do just that. Unfortunately, the more we try to free ourselves of these thoughts, the more they hang around and become seemingly more sticky. Or in the words of Carl Jung- “what you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” Why? Because when we try to stop these thoughts we inadvertently end up putting a lot of energy into these thoughts and you know this is so because you probably feel exhausted by your attempts. I often think of it like trying to arm wrestle yourself- you know your weaknesses and will end up wearing yourself out.
So now that we know what does not work. Let’s talk about what does- defusion. What is defusion? Simply speaking defusion is the unsticking of yourself from your thoughts by seeing these thoughts as thoughts that you watch come and go. You do nothing with their presence. You give them no energy. Easier said than done, right? To get you started, I will list five ways to start to practice defusion with your thoughts.
When a sticky thought shows up, think to yourself or say out loud if appropriate: “I am noticing that I am having the thought that (sticky thought).” or “I am having the thought that (sticky thought).”. For example, “I am noticing that I am having the thought that I am weak.”.
What we are doing here is just watching the thought, just noticing it like I would notice the color of the wall. It just is. Our mind likes to tell us that it means something big or bad because of the emotion we are experiencing at the same time as the thought, however, if we continuing to notice and not do anything with the thought, the less sticky it becomes with time.
Start by thinking what sounds funny to you, be it a cartoon voice, helium voice, accent, or something you make up yourself. Fundamentally it needs to be funny to you. Next you want to find space like in your car, shower, room, to say your sticky thought out loud in this silly and funny voice. How does this help? By the fact that we deflate the power of the thought by bringing humor to it. We are not minimizing that this thought was painful. Instead, we are taking the power away from the intensity of the thought. Also we are hearing this thought in a different way as we tend to saw and think sticky thoughts in a very heavy way.
Sticky thoughts feel very real because they feel so close and immediate. They sound like us. What we do with this skill is say: “My mind is telling me (sticky thought).”. For example, “My mind is telling me that I will fail if I try.”. This skill helps us to separate our minds that like to tell us all kinds of things- often contradictory, often hard, sometimes frustrating are not us. We are just hearing our minds tell us things like we would a radio often playing the same songs over and over.
This skill will likely appeal to your practical side. It involves asking yourself, if acting on this thought is workable in the long run. Does this thought if followed through in my life going to lead me where I want/get me what I want? For example, if I run with and act on the thought that I’m not good enough at work, what happens next? Do I try for a new job? Do I ever go for something more in line with my interests? Or do I stay stuck? This is fundamentally a mindset shift.
This has some similarity to silly voices in that you hear your thoughts differently than how they sound in your mind. However, the purpose is different in that this skill allows you to reduce the emotional intensity of the thought by saying the thought over and over till you feel bored with it or it loses all meaning. The example often given with this is saying the word “milk” over and over. To start you think about what comes to mind with that word and then as you say it over and over notice how it no longer sounds like the original word and may even sound like quacking. You may even feel like you have trouble bringing to mind the original thoughts that came up when you thought about the word “milk”.
As no one skill is the end all and be all, I hope that you will try them all and see what happens. You will likely like some more than others. You will also likely notice that certain skills lend themselves to certain kinds of thoughts.
It is critical to remember that point of these skills is not to make the thoughts disappear as we noted at the beginning is not doable as we have proven to ourselves through our own efforts time and time again. The point is to allow us to unstick from the thoughts to not let them rule our lives. You want want matters to you to decide what you do, not a sticky thought.
–Skills adapted from “ACT Made Simple” by Russ Harris