The Science Beneath the Untethered Soul: Defusion

Written by: Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D.
Co-founder, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

 

The goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is to increase psychological flexibility — the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being, and to change or persists in behavior when doing so serves valued ends. Psychological flexibility is established through six core processes, which are skills one develops to become more flexible.

In The Untethered Soul the very first chapter is a lesson in cognitive defusion, one of those six core processes.


Singer writes:

In case you haven’t noticed, you have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops. It just keeps going and going. Have you ever wondered why it talks in there? How does it decide what to say and when to say it? How much of what it says turns out to be true? How much of what it says is even important? And if right now you are hearing, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t have any voice inside my head!” — that’s the voice we’re talking about.


 

If you’re smart, you’ll take the time to step back, examine this voice, and get to know it better. The problem is, you’re too close to be objective. If you spend some time observing this mental voice, the first thing you will notice is that it never shuts up. When left to its own, it just talks.

Certainly this idea of “stepping back” is not new. Every mystical tradition in every major spiritual tradition has addressed it. The ancient practices of meditation and yoga have been taught for thousands of years in the east to develop the skill to watch the mind rather than get caught up in its relentless fluctuations. The use of silence, koans, chants, dancing, mantras, prayer, fasting and other methods are all to a degree linked to this process.

The importance of stepping back from the mind and learning to watch it is true of many forms of psychotherapy as well, even in forms of therapy that one might not think of first as based on that approach, such as behavior therapy and cognitive behavior therapy. When ACT was developed in the early 1980s as part of these traditions it embraced cognitive defusion as a keystone skill in creating more psychological flexibility. As one of the first popular books on the topic, when we published Get Out of Your Mind and Into your Life in 2005, we urged people to consider this approach. Instead of trying to change the form or frequency of thoughts, ACT uses “cognitive defusion” techniques to change the undesirable functions of thoughts. When you change how you related to the voice within, many of its unhelpful functions are diminished.

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