Don’t let your own thoughts bully you

Be present, open up and do what matters through ACT.

Do these thoughts sound familiar?

“I’ll never get this project done.”

“I’m a loser.”

“Nobody cares about me.”

“I can’t do this.”

“There’s never enough time.”

“I have to do more.”

“I don’t fit in here.”

“There’s something wrong with me.”
“I’m not good enough.”

“I’m not smart enough.”

“I’m not attractive enough.”

“I’m not enough.”

These statements are examples of common thoughts that we as humans (youth and adults) may have throughout our lives. While these kinds of negative thoughts are common and a normal aspect of human functioning, they can cause us great pain and suffering if we actually believe our own thinking. According to Russ Harris, M.D., becoming more aware of how often we let our own thoughts push us around or “bully” us can increase our psychological flexibility—an important part of overall health and wellbeing.

Dr. Harris is the author of the book The Happiness Trap and ACT Made Simple. These and other resources provide information about Acceptance and Commitment Theory (ACT which is pronounced “act”). In short, the model of ACT includes:

A = Accepting your thoughts and feelings and being present.

C = Choosing a direction that lines up with your values.

T = Taking action.

Many of us have learned to believe our worried, painful, scarcity-based thoughts and to believe that our thoughts are actually who we are—leading us to become over-identified or “fused” with them. Many of us have also been taught to be afraid of intense or painful feelings and have learned ways to avoid, suppress, diminish or numb ourselves through alcohol, drugs, food, TV, sports, gambling, video games and other distractions. While these distractions might feel like they help in the short run—they often lead to long-term harmful physical, emotional, mental and social consequences.

ACT is an approach to mindfulness that helps us to “defuse” from our thoughts. Rather than allowing our own thoughts to hurt or “bully” us, we learn defusion skills. Defusion means separating ourselves or distancing ourselves from our thoughts and allowing them to come and go like passing cars on a street. We learn to simply notice our thoughts rather than being caught up with them or struggling against them. When we get stuck struggling against our thoughts and feelings, we’re more likely to experience depression, addiction, isolation, phobias and suicidal thoughts.

In his book, ACT Made Simple, Harris provides a summary of fusion versus defusion:

In a state of fusion, a thought can seem like:

  • The absolute truth
  • A command you must obey or a rule you must follow
  • A threat you must get rid of as soon as possible
  • Something so important it requires all of your attention
  • Something you won’t let go of even if it worsens your life

In a state of defusion, thoughts are seen for what they are—thoughts (words and pictures inside your head). In a state of defusion, we recognize that a thought:

  • May or may not be true
  • Is definitely not a command you have to obey or a rule you must follow
  • Is definitely not a threat to you
  • May or may not be important
  • Can be allowed to come and go of its own accord without the need to hold on to it, analyze it or push it away

ACT encourages us to be present, open up and do what matters by reflecting on our own values so that we can mindfully take action that is lined up with who we really are and that brings meaning and purpose to our lives.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources, workshops and programs to help parents, adults and youth develop social and emotional skills and practice everyday mindfulness through programs like Stress Less with Mindfulness and Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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