Look at these two words:
BANANA – VOMIT
What did happen? Even you have seen two random words your brain creates a picture/story of someone who is vomiting because he had eaten a banana. You may experience the rush of disgust, stomach withdrawal; or get goose bumps (Kahneman, 2013). There is also a good chance that banana is not the food you have a craving for at this moment. You crafted a powerful story (it had a real “physical” influence) without trying to do so at all. This “random story making” trait of our brain is both powerful and tricky.
Who are you?
Maybe you define yourself as a student, a good fellow, loving partner, or a hard-worker. Why? Because you believe a particular story you crafted about yourself; based on experience, wishes, or other people opinions. This is possible due to self-awareness and level of consciousness which differentiates us from other animals. There is no other live organism which experience would be so shaped by his inner life and thoughts. This ability is enormously powerful, and, like the stories we tell ourselves, it shapes who we are. But there is one significant problem: a story is just a story. It makes no difference if you made it based on experiences, if your parents told you, or if you read it on a cereal box. Once you believe it, it impacts you.
Have you ever seen a moving film? What was it like? Even if you sat on your sofa, you may have experienced the same emotions, despair, or tension as the heroes of the story. You lived a weaker decoction of the story yourself; that’s why it is so entertaining. Besides, it points out to another important fact; we can experience the REAL emotions even if the events, from which they arise, aren´t part of reality itself. There is a reason why Seneca told that “we suffer more in imagination than in reality”. So far, we’re cycling about major fact: the power of thoughts. But what are they?
Thoughts are stories which our brain tell us. As author and therapist Russ Harris (2008, p. 40) puts it: “They tell us how we are and how we should be, what to do and what to avoid. And yet, they are nothing more than words”. As with every story, some may be true, some may be false, but most of them are neither true nor false. They are just stories about how we see the life (opinions, beliefs) or what we want to do with it (plans, wishes) (Harris, 2008). The core point is that they are still just stories, nothing more and nothing less.
Let’s have a look at the news-webs. You know that none of them are purely objective. If we know how the website is biased, we interpret every story there considering this bias. Exactly the same way as we interpret the statements of our racist family member. There is a distance which allows us to adjust. Unfortunately, we can’t keep this distance when it comes to our own thoughts.
This absence of distance is then in the core of so-called “cognitive fusion.” Cognitive fusion means that the story and the event, the story refers to, become blended (Harris, 2008). This phenomenon allows us to enjoy the books as we feel REAL emotions even if we sit on our sofa. But it is not always the case, we would appreciate this ability. Especially, if the story doesn’t even exist and it’s artificially crafted by our brain.
Now, I have a little challenge for you. Think about a combination of those two things:
1) In the state of cognitive fusion, we react to stories as if they were facts.
2) Our brain tends to create stories (thoughts) even from absolutely random facts (as the two words above).
Can you see the danger of this Molotov which nature endowed for us? If your brain creates a random story about someone vomiting a banana and you react to it, as it was real – no big deal. But if you create a story (thought) like: “I’m dumb,” “I’m ugly,” or “there is no point in trying,” the fact that we tend to react to those statements as statements of truth is much more serious. In a nutshell, if you internalize the thoughts above you may start to react and behave in a way that those were statements of true instead of just opinions/stories. Not to even mention on how shitty facts our story may be based on. Neither news-webs nor we are objective, what’s more, all of us tend to be biased in particular ways. Let me introduce you so-called “cognitive distortions”. They are a systematic flaw in thinking which may lead to creating a shitty stories (thoughts). And as we already know; the shitty stories in combination with cognitive fusion may be a bloody mix for our life and well-being. Below is presented a list of them 1 (Leahy, Holland & McGinn, 2000, as cited in Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018, pp. 268–269).
- MIND READING: You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts.
- FORTUNE-TELLING: You predict the future negatively: Things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”
- CATASTROPHIZING: You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”
- LABELING: You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”
- DISCOUNTING POSITIVES: You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial.
- NEGATIVE FILTERING: You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”
- OVERGENERALIZING: You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”
- DICHOTOMOUS THINKING: You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”
- SHOULDS: You interpret events in terms of how things should be, rather than simply focusing on what is. “I should do well. If I don’t, then I’m a failure.”
- PERSONALIZING: You attribute a disproportionate amount of the blame to yourself for negative events, and you fail to see that certain events are also caused by others. “The marriage ended because I failed.”
- BLAMING: You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”
- UNFAIR COMPARISONS: You interpret events in terms of standards that are unrealistic—for example, you focus primarily on others who do better than you and find yourself inferior in the comparison. “She’s more successful than I am,” or “Others did better than I did on the test.”
- REGRET ORIENTATION: You focus on the idea that you could have done better in the past, rather than on what you can do better now. “I could have had a better job if I had tried,” or “I shouldn’t have said that.”
- WHAT IF?: You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if I get anxious?” or “What if I can’t catch my breath?”
- EMOTIONAL REASONING: You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”
- INABILITY TO DISCONFIRM: You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought “I’m unlovable,” you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people like you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.”
- JUDGMENT FOCUS: You view yourself, others, and events in terms of evaluations as good–bad or superior–inferior, rather than simply describing, accepting, or understanding. You are continually measuring yourself and others according to arbitrary standards and finding that you and others fall short. You are focused on the judgments of others as well as your own judgments of yourself. “I didn’t perform well in college,” or “If I take up tennis, I won’t do well,” or “Look how successful she is. I’m not successful.”
If we live on McDonalds cheeseburgers or watch television 3 hours a day, it will have impact on us. It’s no surprise that repetitive negative thoughts affect us as well. The unconstructive consequences of them may be: vulnerability to depression, anxiety, and difficulties in physical health (Watkins, 2008). It seems like no brainer to stop taking part in those, nevertheless, preventing particular thoughts may not be different from trying not to hear a radio which plays right next to you. You may know it: the harder you try the harder it gets. So, should you reconcile with that? Fortunately, you don’t have to.
(Cognitive) defusion is like your good friend when you are drunk. Its goal isn’t to get us rid of booze in our blood 2 but rather help you get home – recognize thoughts as what they are: the stories-. It´s a super powerful technique. To take advantage of it, according to Russ Harris (2008), you should take these steps: Every time you have some negative and unproductive thought, mark it as such. E.g., instead of I’m dumb to tell yourself: I have a thought I am dumb; instead of: “I can never make it” tell yourself: “I have a thought I can never make it”. It seems pretty easy, right? And it also is, the only thing to do is to realize that you should do that.
There is also a good chance you aren’t repeating yourself only single thoughts but whole chunks of them. The major stories. The principle is the same; based on some more or less random facts the major story, we tend to believe in, emerges. Major stories are sets of related thoughts to one topic. E.g., “I am not good enough” story may consists of thoughts like: “I am dumb,” “Everyone else is so good,” or “I have no talent compared to others.” Another example may be an “I never find a spouse” major story which may consist of parts like: “I am ugly,” “I am boring,” or “Nobody cares about me.” On the one hand, it’s worse as one thought may activate the whole story. On the other hand, if you detect those stories you can spot unproductive thoughts much faster as they will be linked to those.
To stick to radio broadcast metaphor; if you name your stories, then you can think like: Oh, this bloody radio plays the “I will be forever alone story” again, who the hell pays them to do that? Or oh this “I will be a forever alone story” is here again – welcome but sorry, don´t think I have enough energy to hear you today. With time and practice, you will be able to spot the stories much faster. When you spot them, you may also try to imagine your friend telling you such a story. How would you react to her/him? Keep on mind that the practice is the key. IF you started naming your major stories, you will get the distinction and treat them as what they are. I don’t want to repeat again how powerful that change may be; give it a try and see what happens [NOTE]All these techniques are inspired by Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT). As the name itself suggests: the goal is to recognize your stories, accept their existence, but don’t buy into them. The goal is not to suppress them or fight them. Remember the radio broadcast. Trying not to hear it may bring you many frustrations and tears, neither of which is something you want. [/NOTE]
In the end, recommend you doing these three things now (or at least one of them)
- Think about your “Major stories.” Do you have some? What kind of events/thoughts trigger them?
- Recheck the table of cognitive distortions. In which are you trying to fall most often? Pick three and write them somewhere to keep them in sight (mobile phone, physical card, set an automatic daily email reminder…)
- Whenever you eat, do a quick check if there are some stories you have failed to recognize that day (cognitive fusions).
Give it a go. If it works, don’t hesitate to tell someone who may benefit from these techniques as well. We tend to neglect are close friends and family anyway – so now you have your incentive to change it. Let’s go!
Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap (Based on ACT: A revolutionary mindfulness-based programme for overcoming stress, anxiety and depression). Wollombi: Robinson.
Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2018). The coddling of the American mind : how good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure.
Watkins, E. R. (2008). Constructive and unconstructive repetitive thought. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 163–206. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.134.2.163