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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SBCC would like to share with you an acronym that reflects the action of love. As Valentine’s Day approaches let us not forget how to love those around us not only this month but every day of the year. Always knowing that it’s never too late to start showing love to others and in turn allowing yourself to be loved. Excerpt from the book ACT with Love.

L – Letting go

O – Opening up

V – Valuing

E – Engaging


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“Pain of Presence and Pain of Absence”

Pain reminds me a lot of the saying, “you can’t live with it and you can’t live without it”. Having some type of inner pain seems to be part of the human experience. At some point in our lives we will experience it, for many most of their lives.  There are two ways of experiencing inner pain: pain of presence and pain of absence.

When we are struggling with painful thoughts and feelings often times trying to get rid of the hurt or pain tends to have the opposite effect. It becomes bigger, more intense because the importance of trying to get rid of it and the energy put into shutting it out of your mind makes the painful thoughts/emotions return more frequently in the long run. This is what we call the pain of presence.  Pain of presence is when you feel the pain right here and now whether it be depressive feelings, anxiety, unwanted thoughts, etc.

Pain of absence on the other hand is pain for the longing of wanting your life to be a certain way. As the pain of presence grows so does the pain of absence because your energies are being spent trying to get rid of those present feelings so you miss out on the life you envision to have. We have been taught from a very young age that when we don’t like something then get rid of it, simple as that. What if it doesn’t work that way inside of us?

What if we shift our energies to living our lives the way we want to, even though we have pain of presence. Instead of putting our lives on hold to work on getting rid of the present pain, why don’t we flip the switch and move in the direction we want to in life. Maybe then will the pain of presence start diminishing or at least taking over our lives.

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Self Image

It hasn’t been until recently that societal expectations on what individuals should look like has come to the forefront of my mind.  In the United States it seems that altering what a celebrity looks like in a magazine is the norm, changing their looks according to what sells. These photoshopped magazine covers are fed by us “consumers”. This is not to blame celebrities, just as regular individuals have insecurities and pressures in their lives we must remember that famous people do too.  This has made the field of plastic surgery very popular not only in Hollywood but also for regular people such as your parents, siblings, children and friends.

For the most part racism in the traditional sense has gone away in the U.S. but inter-racial racism seems to be growing. Within each racial group there appears to be an expectation of what is beautiful. This is disheartening because instead of building each other up we are tearing ourselves down.  In the Asian culture the lighter skin you have the better,  in the Black American culture the smaller your nose the prettier you are, etc.

It will not be until we begin to embrace our unique features as beautiful and as part of what empowers us that we can begin to shift societal views.

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Psychological disorder or hormonal imbalance?

Are you feeling depressed, unable to concentrate, low libido or lack of energy to do activities you once enjoyed? Well than you are definitely depressed…wait just a second! We automatically think that these symptoms are caused by depression or other psychological problems and ignore physiological etiologies.

Our society is more understanding of psychological issues and in the United States we have now more than ever the resources for people to receive psychological treatments for such problems as depression. This makes advocates of persons with psychological disorders, such as SBCC, confident that the word about these problems are getting out there in the community but it would be a dis-service to our community if we ignore possible physical causes for changes in our mental well being.

Without going into the debate of firsts, chemical imbalance vs. psychological symptoms, I want to go into a different direction. At SBCC we strongly encourage individuals who have a sudden change in mood, energy, and/or thinking abilities to seek out a medical doctor to rule out hormonal imbalances. Too much or too little of certain hormones, such as the thyroid, can manifest into psychological symptoms. It is important to rule out other possibilities so that your therapist can tailor your treatment to best suit you as an individual, even if it is working along side your doctors to help you achieve a better quality of life.

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The nagging feeling of guilt.

All emotions have a purpose. The dictionary defines guilt as “a fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially morally. A feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense whether real or imagined.”

Guilt is an emotion that can stay with a person for the long term and interfere with one’s life if not understood.  The purpose of guilt is to help us decipher what is right or wrong. Guilt emerges when you feel that you should have acted a certain way but didn’t.

How can we make guilt go away, is the burning question?! May I just say that you may not ever be able to get rid of it but you can learn to accept it as just another emotion that crosses your mind from time to time. 

 Often times you feel guilty for something that you did or did not do in the past. There is no way to rewind the clock and do over. If it’s out of your control and can not remedy it than you need to learn to accept yourself and the situation, knowing that your heart was in a good place or that now you are a better person by learning from those errors.  As you start to process it you may even realize that it was not your responsibility or fault.

If it is something that can be done right in the present time and you have the ability, than do it. There may have been good reasons for having done it one way versus another at the time. And most likely you didn’t think that you would be feeling so down about it still. So now you may have to weigh your options,  fix it versus continuing to feel guilty.

Remember that life is a journey and sometimes you will make mistakes and if you choose to learn and accept those mistakes your quality of life will be improved!

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Welcome to our blog!

Spring Branch Counseling Center located in the Memorial Spring Branch area of Houston, Texas was established to provide psychological services to individuals, couples, adolescents, and families.

We are excited to share with you inspiring concepts on improving quality of life through practical and positive living! We will also share interesting and thought provoking articles, recommend books, and writings as it pertains to emotional functioning. It is our goal to create a space so we can all connect to a community of like-minded seekers on a journey of enhancing our well-being.

We invite you to share in topics that interest you and those that you want to hear more about.

Please remember, this is a blog. It is not psychotherapy or treatment of any kind and is not a substitute for the individual treatment you can get from going to see a good therapist.

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