Part 2 of The Happiness Trap is where Dr. Harris outlines the Core Principles of ACT and thoroughly describes the practices that will improve your mental health and psychological flexibility. The first of the core principles was perhaps the most beneficial for me. It really helped me break the cycle of obsessive thinking and overanalyzing. Principle one is called defusion – a way of “relating to your thoughts in a new way, so they have much less impact and influence over you.”
Let’s back up a bit… thoughts, according to Harris, are just words passing through your mind. People typically give their thoughts way too much power. Harris calls this chapter “The Great Storyteller” because our minds tell us stories all day long, and then we believe these stories and assume our thoughts are truth. Actually, our thoughts are sometimes true (called “facts”) and sometimes false. But, most of the thoughts that run through our minds are neither true nor false. Harris explains, “Most of them are either stories of how we see life (called “opinions,” “attitudes,” “judgments,” “ideals,” “beliefs,” “theories,” “morals,” etc.) or about what we want to do with it (called “plans,” “strategies,” “goals,” “wishes,” “values,” etc.).”
Personal note- When I reflect on my life pre-awakening, it’s clear that a lot of my thoughts were in these categories. Planning, goal setting, and dreaming about the future were my go-to thoughts. Believing that these thoughts were true and the essence of my life was the coping mechanism that hurt so much to lose.
Harris describes that thoughts should not be given such power because “stories are not the event.” There’s a difference between witnessing an event and recalling it in your mind later. When folks are dealing with thoughts that are stuck to the event they refer to – they are experiencing fusion. It works like this: thoughts are reality, truth, important, wise, and can be threatening. Therefore we believe them, take them seriously, obey them, give them our full attention, and feel the need to get rid of them.
Say someone is dealing with painful thoughts like, “I’m never going to succeed at this” or (in my case) “I cannot stay in the moment.” When you’re experiencing fusion, this thought is reality and truth. In order to reduce the influence of this thought, you must learn to defuse the thought and the event (fact) itself. Harris repeatedly points out that the goal in ACT is not to “get rid” of the thought – that just leads you back to the control strategies that don’t work (remember we don’t have control over our thoughts). Instead, through ACT, you’re learning to accept your thoughts and let them come and go on their own.
Here are the techniques I found most useful for defusing your thoughts:
- Add the words “I’m having the thought that…” before the thought that’s bothering you. For example, if you think “I am not a good mother.” Change that to “I’m having the thought that I’m not a good mother.” Then try, “I notice that I’m having the thought that I’m not a good mother.” With these phrases, you’re creating distance between yourself and your thoughts. The thought is merely words passing through your mind; they’re not necessarily true.
- Thanking your mind. When your mind starts to tell you stories that are bothersome, just acknowledge that your mind is trying to catch your attention. Saying, “Thanks mind!” and letting those thoughts come and go helps you to accept what’s happening in the moment but also stops the process of ruminating on the thought or arguing with yourself about whether the thought is true or not.
There are several other techniques in the book, such as setting your thoughts to music, not taking your thoughts seriously (by replacing key words with other words, kind of like Mad Libs), and restating your thoughts in silly voices. All of these exercises basically help you to see your thoughts for what they are – just words passing through your mind. Harris also likens thoughts to the cars that pass by your house. You don’t usually stop to acknowledge that a car is driving by your house, they just pass by. That’s how you should view your thoughts when you’re in state of defusion.
Defusion is one of the principles that lead to acceptance within ACT. Harris explains that acceptance is “about embracing life, not merely tolerating it.” As he describes the true meaning of acceptance, he quotes the Serenity Prayer. I was so excited to see this because I’d previously made the connection that this book was a practical application of this prayer. Both illuminate that you should take action to change the things that they can, accept the things you cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference. Awesome.
As I mentioned above, defusion can easily become another control strategy, if you use it with the expectation that it will make your bothersome thoughts go away. I fell into this trap several times when I first attempted defusion techniques. My desire was to get rid of the thoughts that were making me anxious and unhappy so I defused them hoping they’d leave quickly. Harris says that it’s okay to want to get rid of the thought, but that’s different than actively struggling with it. Accepting that it’s there and, most importantly, seeing it for what it is – just words in your mind, means that you can still not like it but you’re not fighting the thought.