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Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Getting out of our heads: ACT and Defusion

By Clinical Psychologist Erika Fiorenza

There is a great scene in Finding Nemo where Nemo’s dad, Marlin, and his newly found friend, Dory, have been swallowed by a whale and are holding on for their lives.

Dory: “It’s time to let go! Everything is going to be alright”

Marlin: “How do you know? How you know something bad isn’t gonna to happen?”

For me, this scene sums up Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT. It’s about opening up and accepting fearful or painful thoughts and feelings while taking action towards our values, which in Marlin’s case was love for his son Nemo. In ACT, this is referred to as ‘Psychological Flexibility’.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, said “act”, is an evidence based therapy which teaches clients ways to handle painful thoughts and feelings and take action with full awareness of what is important. One of the core processes taught in ACT is called ‘defusion’.

Our thoughts can often get in the way of living the life we want to live. Thoughts can be like bullies – pushing us around, telling us what to do. ‘Defusion’ means separating from our thoughts, and seeing them as just that – thoughts. In ACT, we teach clients ways to look at, rather than from their thoughts. We ask clients to look at what their mind is telling them. For clients with depression, their mind may say things like “I’m worthless” and “what is the point”. There are a number of exercises psychologists use to help teach the process of defusion.

A simple defusion exercise (Harris, 2009):

I invite you to think of a thought that may bully you around, and say that thought in the form of “I am X”. For example, “I’m a bad mum”

Now, in front of that thought say “I notice I’m having the thought that…” For example, “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m a bad mum”

What did you notice when you did this?

Painful or unwanted thoughts are part of being human. It is important to emphasize that the aim of defusion is not to get rid of these thoughts, but to hold them lightly so they have less hold over us, and we can be present and engaged with our world.

I recommend checking out www.actmindfully.com for more on ACT and defusion, or the CD ‘Mindfulness Skill Volume 1’ which can be ordered from the site.
Harris, R (2009). ACT made Simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger

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