What Is Cognitive Defusion? Therapist Explains

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Happiness Trap" by Russ Harris. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is cognitive defusion? How can practicing defusion help you deal with negative thoughts more productively?

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, cognitive defusion means separating yourself from your internal mental chatter. Rather than taking your thinking self’s stories as the absolute truth, through defusion, you can harness the power of the observing self to take a step back from those stories and recognize them for what they are: only words and images. 

Keep reading to learn about the ACT concept of cognitive defusion and some techniques you can use to defuse yourself from negative thoughts.

Defining Fusion

Before we fully explain what cognitive defusion is, let’s discuss what it means to “fuse” with your thoughts. When you mistake your thinking self—the part of you that thinks, judges, and acts—as a direct reflection of reality, ACT says that you are in a state of “fusion” with your thoughts. Let’s take a closer look at how fusion functions.

Harris reiterates that the thinking self operates primarily through thoughts and images. 

A thought is a word or phrase that you experience within your mind. For instance, if you’re driving to the grocery store and the words, “I think I’ll take the expressway” pop into your head, those words are a thought. 

An image is a picture, or an extended movie, that you experience within your mind. For example, if you visualized the Nike logo, your mental picture of the logo is an image. 

Although thoughts and images are different, they often occur simultaneously in our minds. 

The Interplay Between Thoughts and Images

A study at Harvard found that the relationship between words and images—the two main components of human thought—is even more complicated than is presented here. Not only do words and images occur simultaneously in thought, but visual images “intrude” into the mind even when our mode of thought is primarily verbal (or word-based). These images are less like movies and more like brief flashes, or interruptions, in the ordinary course of thought. 

Researchers found more visual activation in people’s minds when they discussed—or imagined—things that were closer to them. By contrast, verbal activation occurred when the subjects discussed or imagined places, people, and things that were more distant. For instance, when a subject focused on a place they were familiar with, researchers found activation in the visual centers of the brain, but when they focused on a place farther away and less familiar, the subject’s thoughts were more word-based. 

Harris asserts that we rely on the running commentary of our thoughts in order to live. These words and images come together in our mind to tell us stories about who we are and our place in the world. For instance, we would not be able to form judgments about good or bad, right or wrong, without input from our thinking self. 

However, most of these stories are neither true nor false, Harris explains. They reflect our thinking self’s partial viewpoint of complex events (both in our minds and in the world around us) and they determine how we orient ourselves with respect to those events. When we accept these incomplete stories as reality, we are experiencing fusion.

For example, imagine that you’re late picking up your children from school. Your thinking self may think that it’s okay for you to speed (because everybody does it and the roads are fairly clear). Later, when you get a speeding ticket, your thinking self may think it’s unfair because you were simply trying to be a responsible parent. This is your partial viewpoint of the situation. From the officer’s perspective, you deserve the ticket simply because you were driving over the speed limit. 

When we are experiencing fusion:

  1. We believe our thoughts are a direct reflection of reality. For instance, if we make a mistake at work, we believe that our thought, “I’m an idiot,” is objectively true. 
  2. We believe that our thoughts have great significance. 
  3. We believe we should do what our thoughts tell us to do. For instance, in the speeding ticket example above, you may try to convince the police officer that the ticket is unfair—likely landing you in even more trouble. 
  4. We believe our negative thoughts are threats to us that need to be eliminated.
Taken as a whole, our thinking self’s perspective of the world can be called a “worldview.” And not only are our worldviews flawed and partial interpretations of reality, but our worldviews are also resistant to information that contradicts them. For instance, people who believe that global warming is not real are likely to reject the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change.

Based on this information, fusion with our worldviews is a real danger, causing us to choose our thinking self’s stories over reality simply because those stories are familiar. 

Harris notes that fusion isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, if you’re on a first date and you perceive that it’s going well, it’s unlikely you’d consider it a problem that you’re treating your pleasurable thoughts as reality. 

But fusion becomes a problem when it prevents us from living rich and meaningful lives. Making matters worse, Harris cites research showing that about 80% of the thoughts we experience contain negative content. (Shortform note: We can easily connect this kind of thinking back to the concept of the happiness trap. When we identify too completely with our thoughts, any negative thoughts that we experience become threatening. So we try to eliminate them through control strategies, which creates new negative thoughts (with which we also “fuse”)—and the cycle continues.)

The Process of Defusion: Taking a Step Back

So, what is cognitive defusion? Harris calls defusion an “acceptance strategy” as opposed to a control strategy: You don’t have to like or agree with your thoughts in order to practice defusion—you simply have to accept them. Similarly, the goal is not to eliminate our negative thoughts. If you practiced defusion with the goal of eliminating your negative thoughts, you would end up back in the happiness trap. 

Instead, according to Harris, the goal of defusion is to acknowledge that our thoughts are stories the brain tells us in order to help us survive. 

When we practice defusion:

  1. We recognize that our thoughts are merely words and images, not reality. For instance, if we make a mistake at work, we recognize that our mind’s reaction (“I’m an idiot”) is simply a story produced by our brain rather than an objective fact. If somebody disagreed with this thought, we could accommodate their perspective. 
  2. We believe that our thoughts only have significance if we judge them as useful to us. 
  3. We don’t believe we should do what our thoughts tell us to do, or that we have any obligation to those thoughts beyond acknowledging they exist. In our speeding ticket example, we may have the thought that receiving the speeding ticket was unfair, only to accept the thought, and let the encounter with the police officer end amicably. 
  4. We don’t experience negative thoughts and images as threats, because we understand that they’re only words and pictures. Accordingly, there’s no need to eliminate negative thoughts. 

By practicing defusion and accepting your negative thoughts, Harris says, you live a richer life and experience the world more fully—rather than continually trying to eliminate negative thoughts and feelings through experiential avoidance. 

Common Hurdles in Defusion

Clinical psychologist and ACT trainer John T. Blackledge identifies common problems that people can experience when trying to apply defusion to their lives. He identifies these problems within the clinical context, where a professional therapist is leading a patient in ACT, but we can still take a look at the common issues to be prepared in our more personal practice. 

The idea of defusion can be a tough pill to swallow when we struggle with long-term, persistent negative thoughts: Since fusion causes us to take a thought as objective reality, persistent thoughts are even more ingrained as facts. Being told that we should defuse from such a thought might come across as being told that we need to accept that we can’t reliably interpret our own reality. In this case, we must remember that thought is inherently an unreliable narrator—it’s not something that’s specific to us. The idea of defusion, taken to an extreme, can lead to a sense of meaninglessness. If thoughts are just thoughts, then what about the important thoughts that we have concerning our morals and ethics? It can seem as though we have to throw out the good with the bad. But Blackledge emphasizes that our core morals and values are shaped by our direct experience of what’s meaningful in life, not merely a parade of thoughts.When we practice defusion, it can be difficult to separate our factual thoughts from our nonfactual thoughts. For instance, when describing an object, a factual description is “That object is made of steel.” But at other times, it may not be entirely clear whether a thought is factual (and therefore useful to you, even if it makes you feel bad). For example, describing yourself as “fat” carries a lot of cultural baggage in Western society, so the acknowledgement of the physical fact of fat on the body may blur into the nonfactual associations that fat carries with it. You can distinguish between the factual and nonfactual by asking yourself what a presumed statement of fact means to you—this will give you a sense of the nonfactual elements that may be loaded into the factual description.  

Defusion Techniques

Now that you know what defusion is, Harris provides some simple ways to practice it. But first, he emphasizes the limits of these techniques:

  1. As discussed, the goal of these defusion techniques is not to eliminate negative thoughts, but to acknowledge thoughts for what they are: stories your brain tells you in order to live. 
  2. The goal of these defusion techniques is not to make you feel good. You may have pleasant feelings while engaged in these techniques, but these feelings are incidental. It’s especially important not to mistake this incidental pleasure as the goal of defusion, since that mentality would turn defusion into a control strategy—and send you right back into the happiness trap. 
  3. You may not always remember to perform these techniques exactly when you need them, but they are always available to you when you do recognize that you’re experiencing negative thoughts. 
  4. These techniques aren’t perfect and there’s no guarantee they will work 100% of the time. If you try them and find they aren’t working, try to use your observing self to observe yourself believing that your thoughts are a direct reflection of reality. 
  5. Finally, these techniques are intended for repeated use over time. Doing them once won’t be enough to train your observing self in the practice of defusion. But with enough practice, defusion should become something you can perform without these techniques. 

Technique #1: Distancing

The first technique Harris describes aims to train your observing self to notice the thoughts of your thinking self as thoughts rather than as reality. Follow these steps to practice distancing:

  1. Pick a powerful negative thought that you struggle with regularly.
  2. Take a moment and really believe the story that your thinking self is telling you. Observe yourself in a state of fusion with that thought. 
  3. Now, try rephrasing the thought in your head by prefacing it with this phrase: “My brain is having the thought that…” For example, if your original thought was “I’m never going to succeed,” the rephrasing of that thought would be: “My brain is having the thought that I’m never going to succeed.” 

You can experiment with this technique by adding more layers of separation to the beginning of the thought. For instance, you could rephrase your original thought this way: “My observing self is noticing that my brain is having the thought that I’m never going to succeed.” 

Technique #2: Cartoon Characters

Harris’s next technique requires you to imagine a cartoon character saying your thoughts. Putting your thinking self’s commentary in another voice makes it easier to recognize that your negative thoughts are only sequences of words loosely bound together—and that helps you dissociate from those thoughts. 

  1. Pick a powerful negative thought that you struggle with regularly. 
  2. Observe yourself in a state of fusion with that thought. 
  3. Now, try imagining a cartoon character with a distinctive voice saying the negative thought. For instance, imagine Donald Duck saying, “You’re never going to succeed.” 

Technique #3: Thanking Your Mind

Harris’s third technique helps you recognize that your thinking self’s running commentary is meant to keep you safe—even if it’s not the absolute truth. To practice this:  

  1. Pick a powerful negative thought that you struggle with regularly. 
  2. Observe yourself in a state of fusion with that thought.
  3. Express gratitude to your thinking self in whatever way you feel is appropriate. Just be sure the gratitude is heartfelt, not sarcastic. 

If you struggle with this, remember that your thinking self is merely doing its best to keep you safe in a world it assumes poses many threats to your life. Even if you’re inconvenienced, hurt, or bothered by your brain’s attempts to keep you safe, acknowledge that it’s trying to work in your best interest. (Shortform note: In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle argues that your ego (which Harris would call your thinking self) is not acting in your best interest when it generates negative thoughts. Instead, Tolle says that the ego manufactures problems and abstract fears in an effort to keep you engaged with it and prevent you from connecting with your true self (your observing self).)

Technique #4: Television Images

Unlike the previous techniques, this technique is specifically designed to help you process negative images, not negative thoughts. Harris writes that this practice helps you recognize that you can radically recontextualize your painful image or memory until it loses its negative connotation and becomes a picture next to a thousand other pictures—ultimately harmless. 

  1. Pick a powerful negative image, or sequence of images, that you often struggle with. Harris recommends limiting the scope of your chosen images to roughly 10 seconds in length.
  2. Observe yourself in a state of fusion with this image. 
  3. Imagine the same image on a small screen. You can experiment with the image on the screen: Turn it black-and-white, fast-forward or reverse, make the image bigger or smaller, or imagine the image with a different set of colors. 
  4. Add a soundtrack to the image or memory. Experiment with a number of unique sounds. You might try bluegrass music for five seconds then switch to R&B. 
  5. Place the image in a new background or setting. For instance, you might start off outside of your childhood home, then the edge of an erupting volcano, then up into the clouds. The only limit is your imagination. 

As a caveat, Harris advises that people who have traumatic histories and strong memories associated with trauma should not use this technique on their own. (Shortform note: In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk explains that certain images and memories can trigger powerful flashbacks in trauma survivors, and that the brain responds to flashbacks as intensely as if the danger were present in that moment.) 

The Goal of Defusion: Recognizing Helpful Thoughts

Now that you’re familiar with the concept of defusion and have a handful of techniques to practice, let’s consider the end goal of defusion. 

After you’ve successfully defused a negative thought, the question becomes: What do you do with it? 

Harris advises asking, “Is this thought helpful?” If yes, then the observing self gives you the power to allow that thought to guide you toward effective action. If no, then the observing self gives you the power to let the thought go and refocus your attention somewhere more helpful. 

To see this process in action, let’s consider an example: Alyssa plans on meeting a friend at the bar for some drinks. Her friend arrives 15 minutes late because of traffic, and Alyssa yells at him. They argue, and her friend leaves. 

Sitting at the bar afterward, Alyssa has the powerful negative thought, “I was a real jerk to my friend.” The thought is painful, so she defuses it. She takes a step back and remembers: It’s a painful thought, but it’s just a thought. 

Now, she asks herself whether it’s a helpful thought. She decides that it is a helpful thought, because it can motivate her to reflect on her behavior (it was wrong to yell at her friend in public) and ensure that she doesn’t lose her temper in the future. She calls her friend and apologizes. 

While some approaches that employ mindfulness techniques consider mindfulness an end in itself, ACT differs in the sense that it employs mindfulness as a means to an end. Specifically, ACT uses mindfulness to facilitate actions that align with your values. 

What Is Cognitive Defusion? Therapist Explains

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Russ Harris's "The Happiness Trap" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Happiness Trap summary :

  • Why trying to be happy is making you unhappy
  • How to practice ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, to become happier
  • How to develop “psychological flexibility” toward negative feelings instead of eliminating them

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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