Consider how you respond to beliefs such as:
- I am unlovable.
- Nothing good ever happens to me.
- You just can’t count on other people when the chips are down.
For decades, the accepted answer among psychotherapists was — in effect — search and destroy. Root up such irrational beliefs. Unmask their logical contradictions. Reveal their lack of evidence. Expose their negative consequences. Use the scalpel of pure reason to dispute irrational beliefs and systematically replace them with more rational alternatives.
In short, dispute irrational thoughts.
Today, however, some psychotherapists question this argumentative approach. They worry that it can backfire and even reinforce irrational beliefs. And, they suggest an alternate approach — defusion.
Both of these approaches have been helpful to me. In this post I’ll explain how I use them, which is based on my reading. I’m not a scientist or therapist, so keep in mind (as always) that “your mileage may vary” if you apply these suggestions.
The ABC model of human misery
In his many books, a psychotherapist named Albert Ellis proposed the “ABC model of emotional disturbance”:
- A refers to an Activating Event
- B refers to Beliefs about that event
- C refers to Consequences of those Beliefs
According to Ellis, most of us assume that Activating Events lead directly to certain Consequences.
For example, I fail a test (A) and conclude that I’m incompetent (C).
Or, I interview for a job and don’t get hired (A), and conclude that I’m un-employable (C).
Ellis maintained that the “A causes C” model often leads to depression, anxiety, shame, rage, and other negative emotions. His solution was to notice the “B factor” — the role of Beliefs in creating such emotions.
According to Ellis, interpretation is everything. It’s not what happens to us (A) that creates our misery. It’s what we believe (B) about what happens to us.
We can interpret any event according to rational beliefs or irrational beliefs. If our beliefs are irrational, we’ll suffer greatly (an undesirable C). But if our beliefs are generally rational, we’ll suffer less and rebound faster (a more desirable C).
For example, a rational belief about failing a test is:
I can go back over my answers, discover the sources of my errors, and learn to correct them.
I might feel disappointed about my grade, but I won’t become depressed or conclude that I’m incompetent.
Likewise, a rational belief about job rejection is:
I can rehearse effective answers to common questions and do better at my next interview.
Again, I might feel sadness about the lost opportunity and nervous about that upcoming interview. But I won’t sink into depression and anxiety.
Disputing irrational thoughts
Ellis said that the key to mental health is adding another letter to the ABC formula: D for Disputing. As a result of disputing irrational beliefs, we’ll emerge with more rational alternatives — and more human happiness.
Ellis called his approach Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Its impact was enormous, leading to widespread changes in the practice of psychotherapy and lots of supporting research.
As you might expect, Ellis had an edge. He didn’t just criticize irrational beliefs. He attacked them mercilessly. He despised them. He ridiculed them. He sought to slay irrational beliefs as fire-breathing dragons and nine-headed hydras.
For a taste of his style, check out this video.
See what I mean? He was a man with a mission — to free the human race of irrationality.
How disputing your irrational beliefs can backfire
In their book A CBT Practitioner’s Guide to ACT, Joseph Ciarrochi and Ann Bailey take a fresh look at the whole topic of disputing irrational beliefs.
Ciarrochi and Bailey offer the following reasons why disputing can fail.
(By the way, CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.)
Disputing leads to suppression. Right now, do everything you can do avoid thinking about a pink elephant. Do not under any circumstances allow any image of a pink elephant to enter your mind.
Did you succeed? Probably not. In fact, you probably experienced how attempts to suppress a thought can have exactly the opposite effect. You just couldn’t help thinking about that pink elephant.
Here’s the paradox: In order to suppress that mental image, you had to bring it to mind in the first place.
One logical effect of disputing irrational beliefs is the assumption that we should suppress them. Unfortunately, this sets us up for the “pink elephant paradox.” Trying to suppress such beliefs can actually increase their frequency.
Disputing links experiences with irrational beliefs. When a client stated an irrational belief, psychotherapist Albert Ellis asked: “Where’s the evidence?” That’s a reasonable question, since many irrational beliefs have no supporting evidence.
But there’s a potential problem with asking for evidence for an irrational belief: It forces us to filter experiences through the lens of that belief.
Suppose that the belief under dispute is “I’m unlovable.” For an entire day, I make a resolution to look for possible evidence that supports this belief.
Now all my interactions with people during these 24 hours become tinged with the question: “Is this person rejecting me or not?” Instead of being freed from the irrational belief, I am forced to refer to it more often.
Disputing implies that thoughts cause behavior. One purpose of disputing beliefs is to change the self-defeating behaviors associated with those beliefs. Yet it’s easy to fall into another trap here — the assumption that we have to change our beliefs before we can change our behavior.
This assumption is false. In fact, we can deliberately act against our beliefs. For instance, you can ask someone for a date even if you believe you’re unlovable. You can sign up for a public speaking class even though you believe you’ll fail.
Ironically, Ellis often encouraged his client to dispute beliefs by acting against them. This was the basis of his legendary shame-attacking exercises.
Disputing assumes that we’re motivated by the accuracy of our beliefs. Disputing is one way to reveal that irrational beliefs are inaccurate. However, we hold beliefs for many reasons other than accuracy.
For example, stating an irrational belief can elicit social approval. If you tell a lot of people that you’re unlovable, you’re likely to get some positively reinforcing responses: “That’s not true at all. You really are lovable.”
Disputing is inefficient. Disputing is a lot of work. You take individual beliefs and tear them apart, examine their logic, scrutinize their supporting evidence, and review the arguments for and against them. Then you systematically replace irrational beliefs with carefully-constructed rational beliefs.
The problem is that you can only do this with one belief at a time. And if you’re dealing with dozens of irrational beliefs, then you’ve just signed up for a lot of work.
An alternative to disputing — defusing
Is there a way to deal with more than one irrational belief at a time? There is. It’s called defusing.
Instead of disputing and replacing thoughts one by one, defusing allows you to immediately unplug from whole streams of thoughts.
To understand this approach, first consider what happens when we fuse with thoughts. This means what we automatically accept them as true and self-defining.
In a state of fusion, I identify with my thoughts. I believe that I am my thoughts. And, if I have “bad” thoughts, then I must be a “bad” person.
Defusing reverses this process. When you defuse, you step back from your thoughts. You detach from them. You observe them. You no longer are your thoughts. You simply havethoughts.
It’s like meditation
If you go to a meditation workshop or retreat, you’ll probably hear the “cloud analogy.”
Meditation is like watching clouds come across a big expanse of blue sky. As each cloud floats into your awareness, you notice its characteristics (shape, texture, color). But you don’t become personally involved with or emotionally attached to any individual cloud. You simply observe each one as it arises and passes away.
We can take exactly the same stance toward our thoughts. Like clouds, thoughts appear in our field of awareness in a natural and spontaneous way. And like clouds, thoughts are impermanent. They will billow up and float away if we just let them.
In short, meditation is moving from “cloud mind” to “big sky mind.” Instead of identifying with thoughts, you simply stand back and watch them arise and pass.
In short: You defuse.
Ways to defuse
In Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith define defusing as being able to “watch your thoughts without belief or disbelief, without entanglement, without struggle.”
These authors suggest many exercises to build your defusion muscles. Following are some examples — including exercises that harness the power of humor.
Label your thoughts. Preface them with an introductory phrase, such as I am having the thought that….
Instead of saying “my life’s a mess,” for example, say, “I am having the thought that my life’s a mess.” Adding the extra words gives you some distance from thoughts and helps you to stop fusing with them.
See thoughts as leaves floating down a stream. Each time a thought pops into your head, visualize it as a leaf that’s dropping into a gentle stream and floating away. Your goal is to stand by the stream without trying to change anything.
Don’t try to control which leaves fall into the stream. Don’t try to change the speed of the stream. If the stream stops flowing because you fixate on a certain leaf, or because your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the image of the stream.
Say it slowly. Take a judgmental thought and say it slowly, out loud. Elongate each word.
If the thought is “I am worthless,” for instance, then:
- Stretch out the word “I” so that it lasts for one inhalation of your breath.
- Say the word “am” for the whole exhalation.
- Then say “worth“ for your next inhalation and “less” for the next exhalation.
The purpose here is to experience thoughts simply as sounds and columns of moving air — not statements of fact.
Say it in a different voice. Speak judgmental thoughts while doing an impression of Mickey Mouse, Homer Simpson, Sponge Bob, or your least favorite politician.
Turn the thought into a song. For instance, take a cue from “The Sound of Music.” In a loud and full voice, sing “My mind is alive—with the thought of sadness.”
Broadcast the thought on “bad news radio.” Like a cable news station, your mind broadcast thoughts without interruption. Using an announcer’s voice, “report” the judgmental thoughts that pop into your mind:
This is bad news radio! We’re here 24/7. Remember. All bad news. All the time. Flash: [insert your name] is a bad person! She thinks she’s not as good as she needs to be! More news at 11.”
Adding both disputing and defusion to your toolbox
I find value in both disputing and defusion. Perhaps you, too, will find that one will prove more effective than the other at different times in your life.
Isn’t it wonderful that we have both options to use when we’re suffering?