In a recent post I discussed the six components of psychological flexibility.
- Valued living (defining valued directions).
- Contact with the Present Moment (mindfulness).
- Committed Action (commitment).
- Acceptance (acceptance).
- Observing Self (self-as-context).
- Disentanglement (cognitive defusion)
In this post I am going to discuss Disentanglement (Cognitive Defusion).
Acceptance and Commitment (AC) Coaching uses the term the conceptualized self, to refer to what clients would probably think of when asked to describe themselves to someone else. It is their internalized picture of how they see themselves.
Most clients describe their conceptualized self with statements that summarize or evaluate who they are and what they do. For example, if I asked you to describe yourself, you’d probably say things such as; “I’m forty years old, and about 5’10” with an average build, I’m happily married, I’m an art history teacher, I’m honest and trustworthy,” and so forth. These kinds of self-statements sum up who you are and how you measure up to others by comparing yourself to them based on societal standards such as intelligence, income, occupation, body composition, and so on.
This is the self-as-content view of the self I discussed in an earlier post. In other words, clients see themselves as the sum total of the contents of their minds. The mind breaks the conceptualized self into pieces and attaches labels to them. The labels and pieces of the conceptualized self are like home movies that have their own personal scripts (dialogue) and mental images (scenes from the movie) associated with them. Your clients could close their eyes and literally see themselves in their personal movies.
These movies and the scripts create stereotypes, or shortcuts, that clients attach to and use to describe themselves to others. Sometimes this is positive and helpful while other times it is not.
For example, imagine that you have a client who enjoys running in addition to a thousand other things. Part of her conceptualized self is as a runner. The personal scripts and stereotypes that she has of herself as a runner are positive and center around her love of physical activity and movement, the actual feeling of running, and the side benefits of being lean and healthy. The runner piece of her conceptualized self contributes positively to her sense of self and helps her set values-congruent health-related goals that give her life a sense of purpose and meaning.
Now imagine that you have another client who has asthma. Rather than viewing himself as a person with asthma, he views himself as an asthmatic. A person with asthma is a human being who also happens to have a disease that is characterized by tightening of the chest muscles, constriction of air passageways in the lungs, and difficulty breathing. The asthma just goes along with the many other parts that make the client who he is as a person.
Seeing himself as an asthmatic represents a totally different version of the conceptualized self. When he calls himself an asthmatic, he fuses with the disease and becomes the illness. All of the negative personal scripts and stereotypes he associates with asthma (feeling deprived about being able to do everything a person without asthma can do, being dependent upon long-term controlling medications and rescue inhalers, feeling self-conscious around people who are unfamiliar with the disease and so on) now substitute for your client, the person, who also happens to suffer from asthma.
Cognitive fusion is a major barrier that keeps clients from meeting their coaching goals. When clients fuse with unhelpful and outdated views of themselves (such as being an asthmatic) it keeps them stuck in a rut and afraid to move forward.
How to Defuse
Disentanglement (cognitive defusion) helps clients notice their unhelpful thinking and gain separation and distance from their thoughts (defuse from them). This allows them to see their thoughts as objects of their consciousness that rise and fall, that come and go, and over which they have little control. This increases their psychological flexibility, helps them get out of their ruts, and gives them more control over the direction of their lives.
Disentanglement also helps them to more fully engage with the world as it is, directly experiencing it via the senses, rather than just through the filters of words, images and other cognitions. Thoughts, images and memories come to be seen as things which come and go, which rise and fall of their own accord and in their own time – rather then things which to be struggled with, fought, suppressed, argued with or blotted out.
Disentanglement is a natural follow-up to the Observing Self because clients need to understand the self-as-context (observing self) views before they can disentangle from the areas they are fused with.
AC coaches uses a variety of activities and strategies to help their clients (and themselves) defuse from their unhelpful thoughts, beliefs, rules, saying, words, phrases, images and memories.
One of the most powerful activities is called the White Board. It is taken from my book, Maximize Your Coaching Effectiveness with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Defusion Activity # 1: The Whiteboard
Purpose: The purpose of this activity is to help clients defuse from unhelpful thoughts, personal scripts, mental images, and emotions that stand in the way of them living their life and taking values-congruent action. This activity builds upon the one from self-as-context (Observing Self) post. The use of language is very important in AC Coaching and in this activity. Having clients say, my mind is telling me instead of I think is intentional. “My mind is telling me” is a phrase that separates the mind, and its machinations, from the person and facilitates defusion.
Information: The Whiteboard is a classic tool that can be used to help clients defuse from any unhelpful thoughts, personal scripts, mental images, and emotions they have. Writing things on a board and then stepping back creates distance from them. The use of physical distance helps the process of defusion. You can do this activity with a whiteboard, a flip chart with color markers, or legal sized pad with felt-tip pens.
- Think of an area where you are feeling stuck or trap. It might be related to work, your relationship with your partner, spouse or children, or any other area.
- Pick up one of the markers and write this heading: Unhelpful Thoughts My Mind Is Telling Me About [whatever you’re stuck about]
For example, “Unhelpful Thoughts My Mind Is Telling Me About Starting to Date Again” or “Unhelpful Thoughts My Mind Is Telling Me About Asking for a Raise.”
- List all of the thoughts & personal scripts your mind is telling you about being stuck on this issue. For example, about dating again, you might find your mind telling you, I’m too old to be doing this or I’ll never find another person like my ex-wife. Regarding asking for a raise, your mind might say things such as I don’t really need the money or I should be happy to just have a job.
- List all of your thoughts—no matter how crazy, silly, or inconsequential you think they might seem to be.
- Now write the following heading:
Unhelpful scary pictures my Mind Is creating about ……
For example, “I can close my eyes and see……
- Describe all of the scary pictures your mind is creating about…….
- Describe all of your scary pictures—no matter how crazy, silly, or inconsequential you think they might seem to be.
- Finally, write the following final heading: Painful emotions my mind is creating about ……
- Describe the emotions your mind your mind is creating about…….
- Describe all of your emotions—no matter how crazy, silly, or inconsequential you think they might seem to be.
- When you’re done, put down the marker and step back a few feet from the board or pad and re-examine all of your unhelpful thoughts, personal scripts, mental images and emotions.
- Tell yourself, Boy my mind has been pretty busy churning out all of these things.
- Now step back three more feet and say, These are merely my thoughts, feelings, and mental images—they are not me. I am much more than these things.
- Feel the effects of your self-talk and the distance you have put between yourself and these unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
- Try stepping back even further to put more distance between you and these unhelpful thoughts.
- How do these thoughts feel now?
Clients report that the actual process of getting things out of their minds and onto paper was incredibly liberating. Following that up with literally stepping back and observing this mental activity from a distance was very powerful.
My Free Training Course will show you how to help your clients become more psychologically flexible by using Disentanglement and other easy to learn techniques derived from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Find out more by getting a free copy of my Training Course. This 30 minute training course (a $79.00 value) is yours free .
Anstiss, T., Blonna, R. (2014). Acceptance and Commitment Coaching, in Passamore , J. (Ed). Mastery in Coaching: A Complete Psychological Toolkit for Advanced Coaches. London: Kogan Page