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Self-control Through Mindfulness: Cognitive Defusion

In continuing our series of articles about learning self-control skills, we address the role of our thoughts in the process. If we are honest with ourselves, many of the areas we want to increase our self-control in (diet, exercise, sleep, etc), we experience a certain amount of ambivalence. We want to change and be self-controlled, but we also push against the effort and discomfort that change will require. This can create quite a bit of internal tension, that our mind will try to resolve by throwing any number of unhelpful thoughts at us and sabotage our efforts at change: "I'm just a lazy person," "I don't have the willpower," "I'll change later," "I can't do this," "Screw it, I don't care..." These thoughts often pop up during the moment of truth when it matters most. This is where mindfulness and a particular application of it comes in.

Mindfulness can be generally defined as intentional awareness of present moment experience with an open, nonjudgmental, curious, or accepting attitude. Mindfulness is traditionally practiced in various types of formal meditations, but there are many clinical and practical applications that don't require sitting quietly for extended periods of time. Enter - Acceptance and Commitment Therapy's (ACT) concept of cognitive defusion!

According to ACT, the problem isn't that we have certain unhelpful thoughts (cognitions). The problem is that we fuse with them. Cognitive fusion occurs when we take thoughts literally, buying into them or becoming entangled in them to the extent that they dominate our consciousness and control our behavioral responses. Cognitive defusion is the process by which we can de-literalize our thoughts, seeing them as "just thoughts," that don't have to be taken to seriously, listened to, or followed. When defusion occurs, we can allow any and all thoughts to arise without judging them, allowing them to come and go, while we continue to act on our values.

Cognitive defusion is mindfulness in action. To facilitate this process, practice becoming aware of any thoughts that sabotage self-control, but remember to do it in a nonjudgmental manner. You might try labeling each thought when it arises "I'm having an impulsive thought" or "I'm having the thought 'I don't have enough willpower." You can enhance defusion by imaging the thought as text writing scrolling across a computer screen. Then simply thank your mind for trying to help you and continue to do what matters most. This is very different from arguing with your thoughts or trying to convince yourself they are true or not.

Try it out and see for yourself if it helps you distance yourself from thoughts that sabotage your efforts at self-control.

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