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  • Writer's pictureHelen Dempsey-Henofer

Escaping the thought-cage

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Did you hear that expression that as a child? It may be one of my least favorites. Expressions like this one diminish and devalue felt experiences. Yet they're all too common. Chances are, when you've expressed being hurt by unkind or insensitive words you likely have heard, "You're too sensitive!" or "Suck it up."

In fact, words - especially the ones we tell ourselves - often have a profound impact on our well-being. Relational frame theory, a theory of language and cognition, asserts that our thoughts are words in our heads. How does it effect you when you buy in to those thoughts and hold them close? The messages you've gotten about yourself, which might include "You're too sensitive!" or "You're not that great." or "Don't put yourself out there like that." when held onto tightly might feel like a trap: from thoughts you may have constructed your own cage.

So how can you escape from that cage? One of the six core processes of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is called cognitive defusion. Cognitive defusion has the potential to free us from our thought-cages or internal narratives.

Let's imagine that limiting social scripts are lines in a play, instructing us how to act and react. They're the societal norms, expectations, and beliefs we've internalized over time. Some may be helpful. Others less so. These scripts can influence our behavior, often without us even realizing it.

Imagine you're a character in a play, confined to saying the same lines and performing the same actions, scene after scene. Sounds restrictive, right? It is!

Is that restricted character you? Notice if you're buying into thoughts of what you couldn't possibly or should or shouldn't do... what's happening there?

Practicing cognitive defusion, noticing our thoughts and giving them some distance, is like taking a red pen to these scripts, examining the lines, questioning their truth, and deciding whether they serve us. Instead of getting caught up in our thoughts and letting them dictate our actions, cognitive defusion allows us to step back, observe these thoughts as separate from ourselves, and make conscious choices about how to respond.

You're not just an actor in the play – you're also the director. You have the power to challenge the script, to change the story, to move the plot in a different direction.

How do you do it? One way is to notice the lines. Take a moment here, sit yourself down, and take a full minute to notice whatever thoughts come into your mind. Actually write the thoughts out like writing a script itself. With your thoughts in front of you, observe them, recognizing thoughts as the words in your head, and remind yourself that you're the director of your own play. The script doesn't actually determine what happens next.

Ask yourself, "Is this script serving me? Does it align with my values? Is it leading me towards the life I want to live?" If the script doesn't move the plot in the direction you want to go, that's okay. As you direct your own story, you can choose to go off-script.

Cognitive defusion, like any practice, takes time to develop. Be patient with yourself. It's a journey of self-discovery and growth. Once you start noticing your scripts, giving yourself permission to improvise in ways that connect with what resonates for you, you're free to perform your leading role - being authentically you.

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