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What to do with unhelpful thoughts that get in your way – a cognitive defusion technique

anorexia nervosaThe way we think affects how we feel and how we behave. Yet, sometimes these thoughts are self-defeating and we allow them to act as barriers in our lives, making us feel miserable and dictating how we behave. For example, if you think that the friend you saw in the street this morning didn’t greet you because he doesn’t like you, then you are likely to feel sad about this and maybe even decide not to call him again. Or, if you think that everyone is going to look down on you after your presentation, you are likely to feel stressed and forget your words.

Yet, what if there could be a way to reverse this? How could things be different if we learned to see these unhelpful thoughts as just… ideas, say…or interpretations of a situation rather than facts that lead us to sabotage our own self and lives? What if there was a way to train our brain to think beyond the initial thoughts and see the situation as a whole and more clearly? Surely this would help us feel better and give us more options about how to respond!

Well, there is a way. It is a very simple exercise you can do with your mind. And just like any new physical exercise, it might take a while to master. But when you do, you will gain an immense power to alter the outcomes of your situations to your advantage.

The idea behind this exercise is to create some mental space between you and the thoughts you are having. This mental space means you are less likely to feel controlled or pushed around by your own thoughts, and more likely to act in line with what you value and what is important to you.

Treat your thoughts as a separate person who is being mean to you
Imagine someone saying to you what you say to yourself.
For example:
“You can’t go to that party and have fun because you look fat in this dress.”
“What’s the point in going to that interview – you are going to fail to impress anyway.”
“Your friend said nasty things about you because she doesn’t like you. Why would she? You are a loser.”
“Why bother and apply for this promotion? You’re not very good at what you are doing.”
“He doesn’t fancy because you are boring.”
“You will fail this exam because you are stupid.”
“You can’t go and speak to him because you are too ugly.”
Etc, etc, etc…

Now ask yourself:
“Does having this thought need to stop me in my tracks?”
“Do I have a choice about how I respond?”
“Just because I have a thought, does it mean I have to believe it?”
“Do these unhelpful thoughts have to control me?”
“Who’s in charge here?”
“Can I go after what I want and value in life, with this thought still there?”

Notice how you feel now about this thought of yours. Can you see how you were about to be pushed and pulled around by just a thought? Do you feel freer now from the grip of your initial thought?

Remember – your thought cannot stop you.

Call its bluff like in a game of poker! Hoover it up like dust and debris! Pop it like a soap bubble!

cognitive behavioural therapy

After all, it is just a thought, a string of words together… not a fact.

A thought doesn’t dictate how each story ends – you do.

And a few things to help you make the most of this strategy:

  • Use it when a thought has got the best of you.
  • Do not rush yourself applying this strategy – take your time.
  • Keep practicing it as often as you need to, anywhere you are, and at any time, until it becomes a habit.
  • Remember – thinking makes things look good or bad. In other words, it is a layer of interpretation, which may or may not be useful or even accurate. You can choose to look at what is happening in a different way and this will help you figure out more flexible ways to respond.
  • But what if you choose to accept a particular thought? What if you can find reasons to cling to and defend your thought? Well, let’s assume you are correct and your thought is true. Now what?
  • Be kinder to yourself – after all you tried! So why not redefine ‘success’ according to effort rather than outcome. Congratulate yourself for giving things a go, and moving towards your goals, even if things don’t always work out as planned. It’s the trying that will make your stronger.



Dr Patapia Tzotzoli

Dr Patapia Tzotzoli founded My Psychology Clinic where she gained her reputation working as Clinical Psychologist with clients on one to one basis in London and worldwide via online therapy. She specialises in adult mental health and couples therapy. Studied at the universities of East London, Oxford and Cambridge and trained at the Institute of Psychiatry where she worked across world-renowned NHS Trusts.

Dr Patapia TzotzoliMedical LiveWire Award Winner

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