Excerpt by Russ Harris.
"Remember those old movies where the bad guy falls into a pool of quicksand, and the more he struggles, the faster it sucks him under? In quicksand, struggling is the worst thing you can possibly do. The way to survive is to lie back, spread out your arms, and float on the surface. It’s tricky, because every instinct tells you to struggle; but if you do so, you’ll drown. The same principle applies to difficult feelings: the more we try to fight them, the more they overwhelm us. Imagine that at the back of our mind is a ‘struggle switch’. When it’s switched on, it means we’re going to struggle against any physical or emotional pain that comes our way; whatever discomfort experienced, we’ll try our best to get rid of it or avoid it.
Suppose the emotion that shows up is anxiety. If our struggle switch is ON, then that feeling is completely unacceptable. This means we could end up with anger about our anxiety: ‘How dare they make me feel like this?’ Or sadness about our anxiety: ‘Not again. Why do I always feel like this?’ Or anxiety about our anxiety: ‘What’s wrong with me? What’s this doing to my body?’ Or a mixture of all these feelings. These secondary emotions are useless, unpleasant, and unhelpful, and a drain upon our vitality. In response we get angry, anxious or guilty. Spot the vicious cycle?
But what if our struggle switch is OFF? Whatever emotion shows up, no matter how unpleasant, we don’t struggle with it. So if anxiety shows up, it’s not a problem. Sure, it’s unpleasant. We don’t like it, or want it, but at the same time, it’s nothing terrible. With the struggle switch OFF, our anxiety levels are free to rise and fall as the situation dictates. Sometimes they’ll be high, sometimes low and sometimes there will be no anxiety at all. Far more importantly, we’re not wasting our time and energy struggling with it. Without struggle, we get a natural level of physical and emotional discomfort, depending on who we are and the situation we’re in. Our struggle switch is like an emotional amplifier— switch it on, and we can have anger about our anxiety, anxiety about our anger, depression about our depression, or guilt about our guilt.
Our thoughts seem to be the literal truth, or rules that must be obeyed, or important events that require our full attention, or threatening events that we must get rid of. In other words, when we fuse with our thoughts, they have enormous influence over our behaviour. Cognitive defusion means we are able to ‘step back’ and observe language, without being caught up in it. We can recognise that our thoughts are transient.
As we defuse our thoughts, they have much less impact and influence. If you look through the wide variety of writings on ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), you will find over a hundred different cognitive defusion techniques. For example, to deal with an unpleasant thought, we might simply observe it with detachment; or repeat it over and over, out aloud, until it just becomes a meaningless sound; or imagine it in the voice of a cartoon character; or sing it to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’; or silently say ‘Thanks, mind’ in gratitude for such an interesting thought. There is endless room for creativity."
Here’s a simple exercise in cognitive defusion: Step 1: Bring to mind an upsetting and recurring negative self-judgment that takes the form ‘I am X’ such as ‘I am incompetent’, or ‘I’m stupid.’ Hold that thought in your mind for several seconds and believe it as much as you can. Now notice how it affects you? Step 2: Now take the thought ‘I am X’ and insert this phrase in front of it: ‘I’m having the thought that . . .’ Now run that thought again, this time with the new phrase. Notice what happens. In Step 2, most people notice a ‘distance’ from the thought, such that it has much less impact. Notice there has been no effort to get rid of the thought, nor to change it. Instead the relationship with the thought has changed—it can be seen as just words."
This is just one of a myriad of ways we can allow difficult thoughts and emotions to pass through our mind without giving too much of our energy away to them. In this way, we might think, "Oh, there you are again, X, trying to pull focus and picking a fight. I see you, but I choose to do Y (positive value-driven behavior) anyway".
I like to think of life as an ocean, challenges and the associated unpleasant thoughts and emotions as waves and my behavior as how I wield my surfboard. As a surfer, I can notice the waves, because that is part of my life, but I can ride on or through them instead of fight with them.
Need a visual? Check this out.
Too far up on your board: struggling with or attempting to control unpleasant thoughts and emotions
Too far back on your board: avoiding unpleasant thoughts and emotions
Angled to the wave: unaware/blindsided by unpleasant thoughts and emotions
Cobra: acknowledging unpleasant thoughts and moving through them (Eg. cognitive diffusion steps 1 and 2, above).
6 o'clock sit and spin: safely feeling the big feelings, going with them, but not allowing them to steal from your value-led behavior. (Eg. I am so angry, but I am not going to yell or hit, but those behaviors are not in line with my values.)
Ditch the board: when you know you are having particular trouble with the above and you need to take time out to care for yourself, increase your support system, and reset. (Eg. I need a walk, a shower, a break, a counseling session....).