How to unhook from negative thoughts

Which of the following sounds better to you?self talking

A. “I go to this job because there’s no way anyone would hire me somewhere else.”

B. “I go to this job so I don’t have to put up with my husband hassling me about money all the time.”

C. “I go to this job because it helps me contribute to society, enjoy connections, and create community.”

Option C is obviously the most appealing choice. That’s because it’s based on values: contributing to society, enjoying connections, and creating community.

Much like a compass gives direction to travelers, values are the principles that we use to guide our lives.

Or do we? In my last post, I shared how easily I slipped back into old habits, and despite how much I value connection and community—which I find through interacting with you—I let a month go by before continuing our conversation about experiencing a richer, more meaningful life through aligning our behavior more closely with our values.

Slipping back into old habits is one way that we sometimes get away from value-based living. There are two more ways that we’re going to look at in this post and the next: getting hooked by our negative thoughts and getting hooked by our painful feelings. First up: negative thoughts.

A metaphor

Do this exercise with me. Imagine that your hands are your negative thoughts. Put your hands together on your lap, palms up, as though they were an open book. Now bring your hands up toward your face until they’re almost touching your nose and your eyes are covered.

With your hands in front of you like that, how well would you be able to relate to someone who is sitting in front of you? You could hear them, but would you be able to see their body language and gestures? What kind of relationship would that be?

Keeping your hands in front of you, notice what you see of the world around you. You might see a little bit between the cracks in your fingers and a little bit on the periphery, but it’s probably hard to see much more.

How about being able to function well? With your hands stuck in front of your face like that, can you give someone a hug? Type at your computer? Drive a car?

This is what happens to us when we get hooked into our negative thoughts. It can be hard to see anything else, and this may affect our relationships, narrow our view of the world, and make it difficult to act effectively.

And, how easy is it to live our most cherished values when we are impaired in this way?

Slowly move your hands away from your face down toward your lap. Notice how much more of the world you can see and how much more open and direct your relationship would be with someone sitting in front of you. As your hands finally rest in your lap and separate from each other, note that you can now hug someone, drive a car, and type at your computer.

Living the life we want now

I want you to notice something else, something very important. Where are your hands? Did you get rid of them—are they gone? No, they’re still there at the ends of your arms and resting on your lap. And look: even though your negative thoughts (your hands) are still there, you can do so many of the things you value in life.

This metaphor helps us see a couple of important things:

1. Getting hooked into our thoughts blocks us from being present in our lives in an effective and satisfying way.

2. Once we unhook from our thoughts—get some space from them—we can continue to go about living our lives in the way we want, even with the presence of negative thoughts.

This second point is a big one; unhooking is the antidote to the old pattern we often get into of “When _____ happens, then I’ll be happy/successful/can move on with my life.” Instead of waiting for fill-in-the-blank to happen, we can live the life we want now!

Defusing from unhelpful thoughts

Have you ever seen two pieces of metal fused together? It’s a tight fit and it’s difficult to separate the pieces. Sometimes, that happens with our thoughts: we get fused to them. Our thought is so close to us and so stuck that we might not notice how hard we’re hanging on to it or how it’s affecting us.

Fusion with our thoughts keeps us stuck in our thinking rather than our experience, and often prevents us from taking meaningful action toward value-based living.

One way of unhooking from our thoughts is known as defusion. It’s a process of getting some space between us and our thinking. Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple, says the hands metaphor we did above “demonstrates the purposes of defusion: to engage fully in our experience and facilitate effective action.” (p.20)

But some thoughts are healthy and positive. How do we know which thoughts are healthy and which ones get in our way?

Ask yourself these two simple questions:

1. Is this thought helpful for me?

2. If I hold on tightly to this thought, will it help me move in the direction of a rich and meaningful life?

If the answers to one or both of those questions is no, it’s time to defuse. There are many ways to get space from your thoughts, illustrated earlier by letting your hands fall slowly away from your face.

Let’s start with one idea:

Defusion means to look at thoughts rather than from thoughts.

Our minds are amazing things that have evolved over millennia. One main purpose of our minds has always been to keep us safe. There are many ways our minds have done this, but I want to focus on just one way that is pertinent to the discussion here.

Negative thinking can make sense if you look at it from an evolutionary standpoint. One of the ways our ancestors remained safe was to be a part of a group. There was safety in numbers and so being thrown out of a group was dangerous and undesirable. The mind probably started thinking, “Am I fitting in? Do I measure up? Am I doing things well enough so I don’t get kicked out to face the saber-toothed tigers alone?”

It helped our ancestors to believe these thoughts and take action on them. The problem is that often our minds still work along those same lines, prompting us to ask ourselves, “Do I fit in? How do I compare to her or to him? What if something bad happens?” And on and on.

We can see that negative thinking is likely a natural part of being human, but that doesn’t mean we have to get hooked; we don’t have to look at our lives from our thoughts. When we’re holding tightly to a thought, it’s probable that we’re looking from our thoughts.

We can look instead at our thoughts as separate from ourselves and—newsflash! we don’t have to believe all of them.

Now on to some techniques of how to look at thoughts instead of from them.

I’m having the thought that . . .

Take a pen and paper and write down a negative thought you struggle with. I’ll start. I often struggle with the thought, “I’m not good enough.” Do you have your thought written down? Go ahead and get fused with it. Really get into it.

Now, write this phrase in front of it: “I’m having the thought that . . .” My sentence would now look like this: “I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough.” Play with your revised sentence in your mind for a few seconds. Do you feel your thought and you starting to separate from each other?

Finally, write this phrase in front of your new sentence: “I notice . . .” Thus, my sentence becomes: “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough.”

See how we’re starting to look at our thoughts instead of from our thoughts? For me, instead of thinking, “I’m not good enough” and living my life based on that thought, I can look at my thought and say to myself, “Oh, I notice I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough.”

Wait! What’s that noise? Is it the sound of two things defusing from each other?

They’re just words

Let’s go back to our original unhelpful sentences. If it isn’t already, rewrite your original thought in the form of: “I am X.” My original thought is: “I’m not good enough.” I could rewrite it as: “I am a slacker.”

Now, think this thought: “I am a banana!”

Return to your “I am X” thought. Did you notice how the thought about being a banana makes us laugh, but we believe our original thoughts about being a slacker or whatever your X is? Why is that? It’s because we don’t take the thought that we’re bananas seriously. But, somehow, I take the thought that I’m a slacker as the gospel truth.

And yet,  all our thoughts are just words. To help us understand and practice this idea of our thoughts being just words, try these two approaches.

Thanking your mind

The next time you become aware of an unhelpful thought, notice it and tell yourself, “Ah, there’s that thought again. Thanks, mind!” Or, “Mind, how fascinating that you brought that up. Thanks!” Or, “Thanks for sharing!” Just notice your thought and thank your mind for contributing to the conversation.

It’s hard to take your thoughts as seriously when you merely thank your mind for bringing it up and then move on your way.

Silly voices

No matter how bad I feel, this one always brings a smile to my face. When you notice a negative thought, repeat it in a silly voice such as a cartoon character. My favorite is Looney Tunes cat, Sylvester, especially when I’m having the thought, “You really suck.” I repeat it in Sylvester’s voice and hear, “Thufferin’ thucotash! You really thuck!”

Never fails to crack me up.

Letting thoughts go

This technique is a practice, so you’ll need a few minutes by yourself. Sit comfortably and quietly and allow your thoughts to arise as they will. Imagine you’re sitting by a gently flowing stream and there are leaves floating downstream with the current. As your thoughts come up, imagine placing them on a leaf as it floats away on the stream. Even if it’s a wonderful thought, place it on a leaf and allow it to drift away.

Inevitably, you’ll lose track of what you’re doing. That’s natural and okay. Just bring your attention back to noticing your thoughts and placing them on the floating leaves.

If it’s hard for you to visualize leaves on a stream, you can use whatever works for you: cars passing by, clouds in the sky, thought bubbles floating away, people walking by on the street, etc.

Defusing from our thoughts is one important step toward learning to live a richer, more meaningful life. If you go back to the beginning of this post, you can now see that comment A: “I go to this job because there’s no way anyone would hire me somewhere else,” is a thought that—if believed—can get in the way of living a meaningful, values-driven life.

But if we were having this thought, and we were to just notice it, or see it as just words, or let the thought go, perhaps some space could be gained between ourselves and the thought so that we can take some effective action toward a better work experience.

 

I’m excited about this concept, and I’m looking forward to hearing your responses about it in the comment section below!

Next time, we’re going to look at how to unhook from painful emotions.

 

If you missed the first two posts in this series start here and then go here.

 

Note: Many of the concepts in this post are based on the work of Russ Harris, MD. I recommend his book,The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT

33 Responses to How to unhook from negative thoughts

  1. Annis Cassells June 2, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

    I really like this concept of thinking about our thoughts, Bobbi. The step-by-step practice that you took us through brings it right out.

    Thanks for this for me; and I see it will be useful for some of my clients.

    Looking forward to the next installment.
    xoA

    • Bobbi June 2, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

      Thanks, Annis. I’m sure this will be helpful for your clients. I love this process and have found it helpful for me so I’m sure it will do the same for you!

  2. Sue June 2, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    I am having more trouble with this than average I think, since my most common negative thought involves what I think should happen to someone I know who got away with horrible crimes, including murder by neglect, forgery of legal documents, and theft of over 6 figures from an estate. There is no legal recourse, due to the laws of the state we live in. I have long been yelling to myself “cancel, cancel”, when I have thoughts about what I’d like to do to him, and then I visualize a big, yellow garbage truck that comes and takes the thoughts away. Then I say to myself: “This person is in the garbage. He does not exist on my planet. I do not live on the same planet with him”. That helps, but sometimes I still lose control and end up in a heart-pounding, high blood pressure rage, because even though the past cannot be changed, my husband will never be able to retire now, even though he is very ill, because this person stole his entire inheritance. I know I must not only banish this thought, but also forgive, before I have a stroke, but that mountain seems insurmountable.

    • Bobbi June 2, 2013 at 8:47 pm #

      Hi Sue,

      I’m sorry that you’re having such a difficult time right now and I can see why! Anyone would be upset with all of the offenses this person has committed. So, one thing I may not have said in the post – but I will in the future – is that this process isn’t really about reducing symptoms of depression or anger. It’s about learning to fully accept our experience and one of the ways that we do that is to get some space from our thoughts and look at them as just thoughts. While it may help us feel better, that’s a bonus! We’re actually aiming for learning how to be flexible about the pain life inevitably brings us.

      However, this is also NOT about accepting everything. Some things are not acceptable and we need to take action to change the situation. In your case, since nothing can be done against the offender, I think the best action for you might be to talk this over with a therapist to help you learn to live with what happened and continue on pursuing and enjoying a good life. Hang in there!

  3. Doug Toft June 2, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

    Another brilliant post in this series, Bobbi. I like the kinesthetic element.
    Doug Toft recently posted…6 Building Blocks of Good InstructionsMy Profile

    • Bobbi June 2, 2013 at 8:47 pm #

      Thanks, Doug!

  4. Donna Beddows June 2, 2013 at 8:29 pm #

    The unhooking unhelpful thoughts makes a lot of sense. I’ve just started CBT sessions, and it’s really been helping me to evaluate my unhelpful thoughts.

    • Bobbi June 2, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

      Hi Donna,

      I’m glad this is helpful for you! CBT is a very effective therapy so I’m glad it’s leading you toward making changes in your life. It is a bit different from ACT, though, in that CBT suggests you change your thoughts rather than see them just as thoughts/words and let them go. A combination of both approaches is great!

  5. Susan Schwartz June 2, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

    Very helpful! A second before you talked about de-fusing, I couldn’t imagine how I might do it…however, when I tried, it was easy & helpful!
    A great practice!

    • Bobbi June 2, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

      That’s good news, Susan! It is fairly easy once you try it.

  6. Rosie June 2, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    Hi Bobbi,
    Once again, your words have come at a very appropriate time for me. I am a teacher and I teach mindfulness to my 8 year old students. I have even done the “leaf” practice with them. We talk about being mindful all the time. But here is the conundrum. I can help them to do this whenever necessary and I can “preach/teach” it to them, but when it applies to myself, my brain and knowledge go right out the window. Not getting caught up in the thought is so difficult. But I really like your exercise of changing the sentence. That really does help. Thanks!

    • Bobbi June 2, 2013 at 11:17 pm #

      Hi Rosie,

      ” . . . but when it applies to myself, my brain and knowledge go right out the window.”

      Boy, ain’t that the truth? I’m right there with you, Rosie! What do you think might help you to be more mindful and aware about applying this to yourself?

      Glad the “I’m noticing I’m having the thought . . . ” is helpful for you!

  7. Linda June 2, 2013 at 10:47 pm #

    This is so helpful. A few months ago I started reading your blog and e-mailed you something about the things I have been struggling with (I just realized I never thanked you for your response, so – thank you!). It was about one of my unhelpful thought and how I have been fusing with them for years. My thoughts would be something like this: “I am worthless because I have never had a relationship”, or “I will be alone forever”, and so on. Even though I’m only 23, every year with my birthday I would think: “Great. Still single.” If I would achieve something else in my life, say in school, dance class or in later years at university, I would always turn it around and let my negative thougts get involved: “But I still don’t have a relationship, so it doesn’t matter.”

    …I know what you’re thinking. That’s exhausting!

    What I try to do now is to work on my own issues, get out of my comfort zone and enjoying life. And I like my life so much better now. Just like you said in your e-mail to me: when you’re scared to fall back in old habits of negative thinking, just notice it and get back out of it. The noticing and getting out of it was sometimes still a little hard. But I really like your advice: thanking my mind or repeating the unhelpful thought in a silly voice. It sounds so incredibly simple, I have no idea why I never thought of it. But what I do know is this: having a relationship doesn’t ‘fix’ my life or make my life ‘complete’. It is not everything. And thoughts are just (silly) words that pop up in your mind every now and then.

    If you look at it this way, life suddenly seems much more brighter. :) Thank you!

    • Bobbi June 2, 2013 at 11:15 pm #

      Hi Linda,

      I remember you, of course! I’m glad to hear that things are looking up for you.

      Noticing and letting thoughts just float away and/or getting space from them by using “silly voices” or “Thanks, mind!” does seem pretty simple doesn’t it? But I didn’t think of these ideas, either, before I read about them, so you’re not the only one who needed some guidance! I’m glad this is helpful for you, Linda. Keep in touch to let us know how you’re doing!

  8. Gary Korisko June 3, 2013 at 3:00 am #

    Bobbi:

    One of the reasons I enjoy your posts is that you always offer a handful of things I can put into play immediately. In this case, I love the “I notice…” exercise. I’m implementing that right now.

    Thanks!
    Gary Korisko recently posted…Comment on Creating Your Own Zone of Influence by Gary KoriskoMy Profile

    • Bobbi June 3, 2013 at 3:02 am #

      Hi Gary!

      Isn’t the “I notice . . .” exercise cool? And pretty easy once you get the hang of it. I’m glad you’re already finding it helpful! Now we just need to figure out how to increase awareness around continuing to do it . . .

  9. Rosie June 3, 2013 at 4:23 am #

    Haha! Bobbi,
    If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be following my thoughts. :) Breathing helps a lot, but now I will also add the I notice…………
    Rosie

    • Bobbi June 3, 2013 at 4:31 am #

      Sounds good, Rosie! And remember, this is a practice so it takes awhile to make it into a new habit. I think it can be helpful to take even five minutes per day to sit quietly and just notice your thoughts. That kind of practice will bring this idea to your mind more often. Just a thought! ;-)

  10. Priska June 3, 2013 at 4:51 am #

    Hi Bobbie,

    I attend weekly mindfulness sessions at a Zen Buddhist Centre.

    Our teacher has attended workshops run by the author of ‘Act made Simple’ and sometimes uses his techniques in mindfulness training, so I am becoming familiar with them.

    I’m now discovering that my mind is a Master of Deception which manages to keep me from staying on track by behaving in new, less obvious or tricky ways.

    Perhaps the fact that I beginning to notice this shows that mindfulness is making me more aware. I am also now aware of how important it is to me to ‘not give up’ even though the road is long and the going gets tough.
    Priska recently posted…10 steps to take you toward your mid-life reinvention.My Profile

    • Bobbi June 3, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

      Hi Priska,

      Yes, Russ Harris is an Aussie so it makes sense your teacher would have met him! I’m glad that his work and that of your Zen teacher have been helpful for you! The going can get tough and ACT is not a panacea, but it certainly helps us during those tough times!

  11. Edufiey June 3, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    Thanks very much for the piece. It is very interesting how you have been able to develop the steps that guides anybody who want to practise it. Please keep it up.

  12. Nicole D. June 3, 2013 at 10:45 am #

    Now we just need to figure out how to increase awareness around continuing to do it . . .

    Love this post (thank you for posting) and your response here. Definitely what I need help with. Also, Daffy Duck is my fave as well, however I do believe Sylvester’s tag line was sufferin’ succotash. Yeah, I know, poTAYto, poTAHto- let’s call the whole thing off!
    :)

    • Bobbi June 3, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

      Nicole – ha ha ha! You’re right, it IS Sylvester! I’ve made that mistake before. Thanks for the catch!

  13. Sanjay Tripathi June 3, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    Hi Bobbi,I like your presentation as well as suggestion. Watching our thoughts gives us observations but how to control origin of these negative thoughts . Please enlighten.thanks and love. Sanjay

  14. Halina Goldstein June 4, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

    Bobbi, you’re always an inspiration and it’s interesting to learn about your perspective (including that which you added in comment #7 above! :-)).

    I’m wondering right now when the defusing process is really helpful (I have no doubt that it is sometimes) and whether it sometimes would be a way of removing symptoms rather than addressing the core of the issue?

    So when a widow for example has this recurring thought: “I can never be happy again”, when is it most helpful to defuse it and create some freedom here and now and when is it most helpful to stay with it and use it as an opportunity to going deeper – and finding a potential for more lasting freedom and happiness this way?

    I tend to do the latter.

    What do you think? :-)

    Warmly,

    Halina

    • Bobbi June 4, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

      Hi Halina!

      Thanks for your kind words!

      So, Halina, remember that we’re not getting rid of our thoughts through defusion. We’re just gaining some space from them so that we’re not hooked. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy goes by ACT for a reason other than just the acronym: it shows that part of the process is taking action. So, if a widow is having the thought, “I can never be happy again,” it would be helpful for her to get some separation from that thought and be able to look at it rather than from it so that she can then be able to take action toward her values which may include something about happiness. Does that make sense?

      By the way, I looked at the About page on your site and it looks like where you live in Denmark is a little slice of heaven!

  15. Debra Eve June 6, 2013 at 6:18 am #

    Very detailed and useful, Bobbi. I’ve used the “clouds in the sky” technique with great success when meditating. I’ll now have to try it with negative thoughts. Thanks!
    Debra Eve recently posted…Into The Wild Blue Yonder: A Late Bloomer’s TaleMy Profile

    • Bobbi June 6, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

      I’m glad it was helpful for you, Debra!

  16. Carole Lyden June 9, 2013 at 1:22 am #

    Yes defusion from negative thoughts is a game changer.

  17. Carole Lyden June 9, 2013 at 1:29 am #

    But only a temporary distraction. I find that I need to face my negative thoughts and feel the pain of them before I can move on.
    Carole Lyden recently posted…The ticking clock and the soulMy Profile

    • Bobbi June 9, 2013 at 3:52 am #

      That’s an interesting idea, Carole. So, you don’t think you can feel the pain of them and move on?

  18. Jessica July 18, 2013 at 7:42 pm #

    I love the way you’ve phrased this! “Unhook from negative thoughts.”

    I’m currently reading “Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears,” by Pema Chodron – and the ideas are very related to what your talking about here – but you give it a more practical extension.

    I love the idea of turning one’s negative thoughts into something more values-based. Turning something negative into something inspiring that you can live by.

    I was stumbling over trying to explain the book I’m reading to my sister and I think I will point her to this article because of your practical suggestions. :)

    What a coincidence that I stumbled on this post (from the A-List Blogging Forum) right now!
    Jessica recently posted…Seeing Your Life From Another Point of View: A Meditation On The HomeMy Profile

    • Bobbi July 18, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

      Hi Jessica and welcome to Bounce!

      I’m glad this article was helpful for you. I’m a big fan of Pema Chodron’s so I’m flattered that you’ve related my ideas to hers. Just sort of shows the universality of the concept, right?

      You might also enjoy Russ Harris’ book, The Happiness Trap, upon which some of these ideas are based.

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