“Cognitive defusion” describes the process of accepting your thoughts while at the same time distancing yourself and not clinging to them. Here are 7 great metaphors that illustrate this concept perfectly.
To build a healthy mind, we have to learn to how to accept and detach from any thought and not take everything we think too seriously.
One of the common myths in psychology is that we have complete control over what we think. So if a negative thought or destructive thought creeps into our heads, then we feel that there must be something wrong with us and we need to change it.
But this isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes thoughts just pop up and there’s no reason to read into them or attach ourselves to them.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), therapists use mindfulness-based tools to help their patients better manage their thoughts. One tool is the idea of “cognitive defusion,” which is the process of accepting our thoughts while at the same time distancing ourselves from them and not clinging to them.
To more easily detach from our thoughts (especially ones that we find unhelpful, negative, or destructive) it often helps to find new metaphors that give you a new perspective and outlook on how your mind works and a better understanding of what your thoughts really are.
Often by looking at our minds in new ways, we can learn to better manage our thoughts, feelings, experiences, and overall well-being.
In this article, you’ll learn 7 different metaphors for “cognitive defusion” that will help you to both accept and detach from any thought. The basic theme of these metaphors is that they create more distance between you and your thoughts, and help you to recognize that they aren’t necessarily a part of who you.
Metaphors for cognitive defusion and detaching from your thoughts
Here are 7 helpful and effective metaphors you can use to accept your thoughts, defuse your thoughts, and not give them too much power over you.
- Clouds in the sky – One of the most common metaphors for “cognitive defusion” is to see your mind as a sky and thoughts are just clouds passing you by. This touches on the fact that all of our thoughts are impermanent and changing. Like the popular saying, “this too shall pass” – new thoughts will rise into our awareness, and then drift out of awareness and disappear. And if we give it enough time, every thought eventually dissipates and passes us by, just like a cloud in the sky.
- River stream – Another popular metaphor for how our minds work is a river stream. Heraclitus famously said, “No man can step in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” This is a great illustration of how things are always changing in our lives, both in our environment as well as within our own self. Everything is in a constant state of flux – and your thoughts, feelings, and experiences flow through consciousness in the same way water flows through a stream. Your mind is the river and your thoughts are just things flowing down it. Give it time and it will pass.
- Passengers on a bus – One of my favorite exercises is the mindbus exercise. In this exercise, you visualize yourself as a bus driver, and every thought you have is a passenger that gets on (and off) the bus. The best part about this exercise is you can create faces for each thought and imagine yourself talking to them and interacting with them (this visualization alone will make you feel that your thoughts are separate from you). Then you can take control by saying things such as “Thanks for your feedback, but this is my bus!” or “This is your stop, please get off!”
- Suggestion box – Think of your mind as a suggestion box. It’s genuinely trying to help and serve your best interests, but it doesn’t always suggest the best ideas. Your mind is always searching and playing with new thoughts, and you never have to take any thought or impulse too seriously. It’s just a suggestion, and you have the ultimate power to “veto” any single thought you have. This is related to the concept of free won’t, which states that our real power and choice in life comes from our ability to NOT act on every thought or impulse.
- Brain drain – Another great exercise for disempowering your thoughts is to practice a brain drain writing session. All you need to do is give yourself 5-10 minutes to write whatever comes to your mind, without any self-filtering or self-editing. This completely “stream of consciousness” writing can often help to purge thoughts that have been hanging around in your head (even ones that you may not be aware of). The metaphor I apply to this exercise is that your thoughts are clogged up, and the “brain drain” allows you to break up the clog and let your thoughts flow more freely. This can be particularly helpful to do in the morning (or night) to help clear your mind before starting your day (or going to sleep). It can also help to purge any worries, anxieties, or stressors that you are excessively ruminating over.
- Feeding the wolves – There’s a common folktale of a grandfather telling his grandson about a fight between two different wolves. One of the wolves represents light, hope, and positivity; the other wolf represents darkness, despair, and negativity. The grandson asks, “Which wolf wins?” and the grandfather replies, “Whichever one you feed.” This is a great metaphor that shows us that we choose which thoughts we give power to and which we don’t give power to. While negative thoughts happen, we can always choose to not feed any energy to them and suck them up of their power and control over us.
- Burning your thoughts – One fun exercise for overcoming negative thoughts and stripping them of their power is to burn away negative thoughts. Just get a piece of paper and a pen, then write down 5-7 negative thoughts that have been occupying your mind lately. Then get a lighter and find a safe place to burn the piece of paper. This isn’t just a metaphor for destroying negative thoughts, but also a ritual that can often send a symbolic message to your brain. “Fire” itself is a powerful symbol of change and transformation. Here is a picture of the last time I did this at the beach.
All of these are great metaphors for “cognitive defusion” and keeping them in mind can help you whenever you get trapped in your thoughts and identify with them too strongly.
Any single one of these metaphors can help you to gain a new perspective on your thoughts, not take them too seriously, and make yourself less clingy to them.
Which one of these metaphors do you find the most helpful? Can you think of any other metaphors that would work for you?