Our brains are constantly on the lookout for things that might harm us and in doing so, they create a lot of difficult thoughts. These thoughts might relate to pain from the past, challenges we are facing in the present or fear about the future.
Positive thinking is great and can be very helpful, but it won’t stop your mind from generating these thoughts altogether.
The human brain will always work to move away from perceived threats and toward rewards. Difficult thoughts and the situations they remind us of are perceived threats (and sometimes real threats) – they can bring emotional discomfort, challenge our self-belief and self-worth and they feel uncomfortable. So of course, we want to move away from them by avoiding or getting rid of them altogether.
Ironically, when we try to avoid or get rid of difficult thoughts, we can actually end up suffering more. We may turn to distractions that support us in our short-term avoidance, but do not help us be the person we want to be or have the life we want to have, such as drinking too much alcohol, excessive social media use or isolating ourselves.
Consider a difficult thought that you have been trying to get rid of or avoid.
- Has your approach made the thought go away in the longer term?
- What has it cost you in terms of your time, energy and vitality?
- How has it impacted your relationships and health?
- Has your approach brought you closer to the life you want?
Imagine you are in quicksand. If you are upright and struggling you will sink further. If you lay back with your weight distributed evenly and stop struggling you won’t sink. Our difficult thoughts are like quicksand. The more you struggle with them, the more they want to pull you down. It’s as if their hold on you grows and they seem to attract similar difficult thoughts. You may then have difficult thoughts about the fact that you are having difficult thoughts. It can feel really overwhelming.
We all have difficult thoughts. We can’t escape this but when we stop struggling with our difficult thoughts we take the power out of them. Over time, we can absolutely change our patterns of thinking, but in the meantime, we can accept them and continue to take action toward a rich and meaningful life (whatever that means to each of us).
Defusing difficult thoughts
In my coaching, I practice Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which focuses on defusion from thoughts. When we are fused with our difficult thoughts, it means we are so focused on them that they have a significant impact on our lives. Defusion means we unhook from these thoughts so they can still be there but no longer control us or impact us so negatively.
There are 3 parts of defusion and we will explore each of them.
1. Noticing your difficult thoughts
This is a form of mindfulness where you are consciously aware of the difficult thoughts that enter your mind.
When we notice our thoughts, we take on the role of observer. It’s as if there are two parts of you – the part that is doing the thinking and the part that is observing the thinking.
Taking on the observer role creates some separation between you and the thought. You are not your thoughts. You are the person thinking the thoughts and the person observing the thoughts. Separation starts to create defusion.
2. Naming your thoughts
You might have heard of the expression “name it to tame it”. When we call out the thought, it can lessen its intensity. We do this without judgement because labelling our thoughts bad and good doesn’t support defusion and can actually create more fusion. We just observe them as they are.
In your mind, or out loud, try saying “I notice I’m having the thought that….”
3. Neutralising your thoughts
There are many ways you can neutralise your thoughts, and I encourage my clients to try a number of strategies to find the ones that work best for them. Neutralising takes your thoughts into a different context that disarms them.
Here are a few approaches you can experiment with, checking in with how you feel afterward to see if the thought feels less difficult (it may not go away and it may still feel somewhat uncomfortable). Please note that if a particular activity makes you feel like your thoughts are being mocked or trivialised, do not use that one.
- Imagine your difficult thought on a karaoke screen – Get really curious about how it looks on the screen. Notice the words and the letters. Imagine the bouncing ball moving across the top of them. Mentally change the font, colour and size of the letters.
- Say the difficult thought in the voice of a movie character or in a funny accent – You can do this out loud or in your head. You might need to try a few different voices to find one that supports you in defusing the thought.
- Sing the difficult thought to the tune of happy birthday or another tune that you enjoy.
- Draw a simple picture of yourself with the difficult thought in a bubble above your head – Add details to your picture such as animals or plants.
- Imagine the difficult thought dancing or jumping.
- Imagine the difficult thought coming from a radio – Notice how the words are pronounced and how they sound. Change the speed, volume and tone. Imagine turning the volume up and down.
- Imagine your difficult thought on a cloud floating about your head – Get curious about how the cloud looks and how it is moving. Is it moving fast or slow, or not at all. Does it look really fluffy? Is it big or small? It is bright white or grey?
All these neutralising approaches aim to move the difficult thought to a different context and allow you to interact with it to reduce its impact on you.
Then come back to the present moment
When you feel like the thought has been disarmed to a manageable degree, then bring your attention back to the present moment and allow yourself to be fully engaged in what you were doing or need to do next.
You can ask yourself: What is ONE thing I can do right now to move towards my goal for this time / the life that I want / the person I want to be?
The difficult thought can remain with you or return to you in the present moment, but when you have disarmed it using defusion it remains in the background. Remember that not all your thoughts are true, nor do they all need our full attention or need to be acted upon. They may be uncomfortable but they will come and go in their own time and you can still go about doing the things that help you live the life you want to live and be the woman you want to be.