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The Irony of Trying to Control Your Thoughts

I invite you to participate in a brief exercise:

For one minute, I want you to not think about a pink elephant.

How’d it go?

* * *

While you may have never had to think about a pink elephant for your entire life, the sudden conscious effort to not think about it now, has most likely proven difficult. Similarly, you may have unpleasant thoughts that never seem to leave no matter how hard you’ve tried to push them away. The pink elephant problem is just one example of how our handling of unwanted thoughts can alter their presence and impact: the more effort we put into suppressing our thoughts, the more likely they are to reappear.

The mind is similar to quicksand in this way. While our natural instinct may be to wrestle our way out, we know that this only pulls you farther into the mix. The way to survive an encounter with quicksand is to do something that feels against your natural instincts: you must relinquish your struggle, lie on your back, and swim out. Similarly, addressing your thoughts by relinquishing the struggle to push them away, may feel tricky and counterintuitive at first. However, you may find that accepting their presence is both helpful and a lot less effort.

This alternative is known as the act of defusion. To defuse from your thoughts is to acknowledge the presence of your thoughts, while creating breathing room through a shift in perspective. When we treat each thought as true and important, we let them define our experiences and ourselves. In reality, thoughts are simply mental activity that come and go as part of a healthy working brain. They do not have to be the absolute truth, they are not rules to follow, and they do not have to demand your attention for every moment they are present. They are simply passing visitors in your mind. There is you, and then there is a thought. Here are some common analogies to help you enter into the experience of defusion:

  1. You are the bus driver for your mind. Some passengers may be louder than others, some kind, and some mean-spirited. At the current moment, there may be one that is insulting you. Defusion is the acknowledgement that there are multiple voices on the bus, and that all passengers come on and off the bus eventually.

  2. Your mind is a masterful storyteller. It pieces together parts of incoming information in an effort to develop a narrative that is interesting enough to capture your attention. Defusion is allowing the stories to play on like a radio in the background of the room, while you continue on with your present experience.

  3. There is a train with each boxcar representing each thought that you have. Defusion is the act of stepping off the train to watch it pass by. Instead of being in your thoughts, you are looking at your thoughts.

Defusion is not accepting your thoughts for their meaning, nor does it mean giving up on an optimistic perspective. It is connecting with a deep sense of self that is the observer of your psychological content. Thoughts are constantly moving, evolving, and changing. Some days your unpleasant thoughts will appear, and some days they won’t. Some days you will feel high, and some days you will feel low. What will remain unchanged is you: the observer. See if you can foster a connection to that part of yourself when you need it most.


Written by Victoria Sabo, PITC Therapist. Learn More about Victoria.

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