These exercises can help you disentangle yourself from your thoughts.
Do you ever feel like your thoughts are in the driver’s seat, and you’re just along for the ride?
While thoughts can be positive and helpful, they can also tell us scary stories, keep us up at night, and make us believe things about ourselves that aren’t true. Sometimes, it feels like our thoughts have all the power — and that we’re helpless against them.
However, you can change your thoughts. And when you do, you can also change your emotions, your behavior, and your entire perspective.
Thought exercises help you disentangle yourself from your thoughts, so they no longer hold such power over you.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), founded by psychologist Steven C. Hayes, is a type of psychological intervention that uses mindfulness and a variety of behavior-changing strategies — including numerous thought exercises — to increase psychological flexibility.
The idea behind ACT is that our suffering doesn’t just come from our painful experiences. Rather, we suffer because we struggle against our uncomfortable feelings and thoughts about these experiences.
ACT has been successfully used for decades all around the world. A large meta-analysis of 133 studies and 12,477 participants reveals that ACT is an effective strategy for numerous conditions.
The following exercises are adaptations of those used in ACT. These exercises help you switch the narrative around when you’re feeling overwhelmed by your thoughts.
Cognitive defusion exercise
Most of the time, we live in a state of cognitive fusion — fully believing our thoughts without giving them a second thought. Cognitive defusion is a technique used in ACT that can help you detangle and distance yourself from negative thoughts and feelings.
When a certain negative thought is overwhelming you, try the following exercise:
- Think of a negative thought you often have that causes painful emotions. (Eg. “I am unlovable.”)
- Say the thought out loud several times.
- To defuse this thought, start this phrase with “I’m having the thought…” (Eg. “I’m having the thought that I am unlovable.”
- To defuse it even more, start the phrase with “I notice I’m having the thought that…” (Eg. “I notice I’m having the thought that I am unlovable.”
- Now take a moment to consider how different it felt to say these phrases. When you notice yourself thinking negative thoughts, take a moment to defuse them so you can get some distance from them.
Research shows that cognitive defusion can reduce the discomfort of a negative thought and increase a person’s willingness to believe a more positive version of that thought.
Thank your mind for the story
Our minds love to tell us the same negative stories over and over. Your mind might say to you: “You’re a total failure” or “No matter how hard you try, you can never succeed.”
In the “thank your mind for the story” technique, you will give the familiar story a name, thank your mind for telling it, and then focus on the task at hand while it plays itself out in the background.
For instance, let’s say your mind starts telling you the familiar story that you’re an imposter and that people wouldn’t like you if they knew the “truth” about you.
In this case, you acknowledge the story, name it the “imposter story,” and thank your mind for telling you this familiar tale. Then you continue to focus on other things.
This technique allows you to acknowledge the story from a distance without giving it any power over you.
Put your flaws into context: a self-compassion exercise
We tend to beat ourselves up over the parts of ourselves that we don’t particularly like. In these moments, all we see is the flaw, and we forget about the parts of ourselves that we like.
For instance, let’s say your home is messier than you’d like it to be. You might get angry at yourself for being such a “lazy slob.”
This type of labeling chips away at your self-esteem and self-compassion. It can also work against you, making it harder to actually do anything about the problem. If you label yourself a “slob,” it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To counter the tendency to berate yourself when things aren’t going well, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does this failure or mistake take away from my good qualities?
- Does it make sense to determine that I’m a total failure because of this situation?
- Change the narrative: “I’m messy when I get overwhelmed. But I can start to work on this today.”
Now’s your chance to sing along to the endless track in your head. This exercise brings your subliminal thoughts into the light so you can see them more clearly — and work with them.
Let’s say you notice that you’re feeling somewhat uptight today. Think deeply about what’s bothering you.
Then you remember: Your boss was a little rude to you for no discernable reason over the last few days. Now you’re worried that something might be wrong. Maybe you’ll even get fired. Then how will you pay your bills?
Make a song out of it. You can make up your own tune or use one from a nursery rhyme. Make the song as silly as you’d like. Try to make it rhyme.
“My boss is mad; I don’t know why. If I lose my job I just might cry.”
While this doesn’t make the issue go away, it does bring your worry into the light for clarity. It allows you to see it as just another thought and helps lighten the heavy effect it’s been having on you.
Thought exercises help us see our thoughts more clearly and objectively.
All too often, we believe our thoughts to be absolute truth. When we don’t question their validity, it leads to distorted thinking which only causes more pain.
Most of us have a continuous track of thoughts and judgments running through our minds. Thoughts have such power over us that we can become immobilized. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
When we take action to bring our thoughts into the light and see them differently, they lose their power over us. We become disentangled from them and see them as as they are: passing thoughts.