A lot of the time you know what the smart thing to do is. But you’re still worried about how it might turn out. Or regrets about a past decision are making you overthink things.
Your brain is telling you all kinds of negative stories about how stuff might go wrong and you end up more focused on alleviating those concerns than making choices based on your values.
So you play it too safe. Or you get reckless and swing for the fences. Or you’re paralyzed and procrastinate. But there’s a way out of this loop. Cue the trumpets:
Mindfulness. That thing everybody these days thinks is so darn cool but nobody can tell you what it means.
Alright, quick definition for our purposes: awareness of your thoughts and feelings without being consumed by them.
(Yeah, I know, that clarifies nothing for you… yet. Well, gimme a second here. We’re just getting started, okay? Jeez.)
A lot of smart psychologists took mindfulness and science-tized it and created ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.) Let’s see how ACT can help you deal with your negative thoughts so you can make smarter decisions based on what’s really important to you.
Mindfulness to the rescue. (And, no, I’m not gonna make you meditate.)
Let’s get to it…
How to stop negative thoughts forever
You can’t. The end.
Seriously, you are so not in charge of your brain it’s not even funny. Go ahead and delete that memory of the time you embarrassed yourself in front of that cute person you liked in high school. Go ahead. Try.
Any luck? Didn’t think so. And the result of trying to suppress thoughts is even worse.
From ACT Made Simple:
…research shows that suppression of unwanted thoughts can lead to a rebound effect: an increase in both intensity and frequency of the unwanted thoughts (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000).
So mental whack-a-mole doesn’t work. But here’s some good news: the negative thoughts aren’t really the problem when it comes to decision-making.
Your brain makes thoughts. That’s what it does. And some of those thoughts will always be negative because your grey matter lives by the motto of “better safe than sorry.”
Thousands and thousands of years ago, Caveman #1 thought a snake was a stick, got bitten, died and didn’t reproduce. Caveman #2, who walked around petrified that every stick was a snake, had lots of kids and now we’re stuck with brains that create problems even when there aren’t any. Thanks, evolution.
But that doesn’t have to lead to poor decisions and bad behavior. Your thoughts don’t immediately control your actions. You get to decide. At times, you’ve been worried but still made the correct choice anyway, right? Right.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)
So what is the problem here? In ACT, they call it “fusion.” No, we’re not talking about nuclear reactors…
You are not your thoughts
Your brain produces thoughts. They just bubble up all the time. Some are utterly ridiculous (“What if I filled surgical gloves with butterscotch pudding?”) and you just dismiss them.
But sometimes you take that storyteller in your head all too seriously. So seriously, in fact, that you think that negative voice in your head is you and you run with whatever it says:
- “I’m such an idiot.”
- “This will never work.”
- “I’m no good at this, it’s gonna blow up in my face and be shown on national television.”
This is fusion. It’s when an idea pops into your head and you take it as fact, when it’s just another goofy possibility your noggin is bubbling up.
From ACT Made Simple:
In a state of cognitive fusion, we’re inseparable from our thoughts: we’re welded to them, bonded to them, so caught up in them that we aren’t even aware that we are thinking…. Cognitive fusion basically means that our thoughts dominate our behavior. Thus in ACT, we may talk with clients of being “pushed around by your thoughts” or “allowing thoughts to tell you what to do,” or we may talk of thoughts as bullies, or we may compare the mind to a fascist dictator, or we may ask, “What happens when you let that thought run your life?” Similarly, when our thoughts dominate our attention, we often talk about being “hooked,” “entangled,” “caught up,” or “carried off” by them.
Things don’t go your way and the grey matter pops out: “Life sucks!” And you believe it. That’s you fusing with a judgment.
There are many different ways to interpret what’s going on. But you’re identifying with this negative one and saying, “Yep. I heard it in my head. It must be true. That voice has never ever ever been wrong in my entire life so it is fact.”
When you fuse with bad memories you get regrets. When you fuse with scary visions of the future you get worried. These often end up affecting your decision making. And rarely for the better.
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
So how do you stop fusion? Oh, that’s “defusion”…
Defuse the bomb
You’ve done this before and didn’t realize it. Have you ever stepped back from your negative thoughts and said, “Whoa, what’s with all this worrying in my skull?”
It’s like you pulled off the VR goggles and realized that what’s being projected on them isn’t the only way to see the world.
From ACT Made Simple:
Fusion means getting caught up in our thoughts and allowing them to dominate our behavior. Defusion means separating or distancing from our thoughts, letting them come and go instead of being caught up in them. In other words, defusion means looking at thoughts rather than from thoughts; noticing thoughts rather than being caught up in thoughts; and letting thoughts come and go rather than holding on to them.
When you experience fusion, that thought in your head is The Truth. It must be immediately reacted to. And you cling to it even if it makes you miserable.
But when you give defusion a try, a thought is just an idea. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. You don’t have to obey it, you can merely consider it.
So when you’re mindful — when you choose to defuse — worries and other negative thoughts cease to be a blaring fire alarm that you must react to. Instead, they’re a smartphone notification that you can choose to ignore.
(To learn the 3 secrets from neuroscience that will make you emotionally intelligent, click here.)
Great. So how do you do it?
Ask “What is my brain telling me right now?”
Ha! I just tricked you into defusing. See how “my brain” is built into the sentence?
You’re acknowledging that the negative thoughts are not “you” — they’re your brain. You didn’t say “I’m such a loser” — your brain did. You’re creating some distance there. And you can use that distance to question the thought.
Yeah, often you’ll question the thought and come back with, “But it’s true. I am a loser. I screwed this up last time and I’ll screw it up again.”
Now you and I could go round and round with me telling you it’s not true and you saying it is true. But is it really true? Here’s the thing:
I don’t care.
And neither should you. When it comes to mindfulness, “Is it true?” is the wrong question.
The right question is: “Is it useful?”
Is telling yourself you’re a loser going to help you do the things that will make you not-a-loser? Nope.
From ACT Made Simple:
…what we’re interested in is not whether a thought is true or false, but whether it’s helpful. When that thought pops into your head, does it help you to get all caught up in it? Does it motivate you to exercise, or eat well, or spend time doing the things that make life rich and rewarding?
So defuse. Step back. Say, “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m a loser.” That gives you distance. It puts the thought on trial.
And often (but not always) that takes some of the sting out of it. You can observe it rather than immediately running with it — and making the kind of decision a real loser would make.
And then hit it with the important question: “Is it useful?”
If you run with this idea as truth, is it going to get you where you want to go? Will it help you take effective action? Is this thought going to help you be who you want to be?
Then make a decision based on what’s really relevant — not your worries, regrets or fears.
(To learn more about the neuroscience of mindfulness, click here.)
Okay, let’s round it up and learn how to quickly keep negative thoughts at a distance — and make even better decisions going forward…
This is how to use mindfulness to make better decisions:
- You can’t prevent negative thoughts: Stop trying. Wrestling with them only makes them worse.
- The real problem is “fusion”: When you treat your negative thoughts as indisputable facts and not merely ideas produced by your brain, that’s when they cause problems.
- Ask “What is my brain telling me right now?”: Get some distance from your thoughts. Treat them as possibilities, not The Truth.
- Ask “Is it useful?”: Doesn’t matter if they’re true. It matters if the thoughts help you get where you want to go.
Over time, you want to make note of the thoughts you regularly fuse with. (Maybe it’s “I can’t handle this” or “I’m going to embarrass myself.”)
And then gently make fun of it: Oh, so we’re playing the “I’m not good enough” song again?
It takes practice to not get swept away by your thoughts. You’re going to have to spend time at it.
Maybe you’re looking at all this mindfulness stuff right now and thinking, “I’ll never be able to do this. I’m an idiot.” No problem.
Take defusing to the meta-level. Say, “I notice I’m having the thought that I’ll never be able to do this and I’m an idiot.”
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