Cognitive fusion can lead us to make a storm in a teacup. As an old Swedish saying warned: "worry often casts a big shadow over a small thing."
When our worries become recurrent and our thoughts take on the face of absolute truth, they can become obstacles in our path that generate completely unnecessary psychological anguish and prevent us from enjoying the peace and mental balance we need.
What is cognitive fusion?
Cognitive fusion is a mental process by which we become entangled in our thoughts, assessments, judgments and memories, behaving according to these subjective interpretations. In other words, subjective experiences almost completely supplant reality, determining our decisions and making us practice maladaptive behaviors that cause us discomfort.
Cognitive fusion is the result of our natural tendency to over-identify with our thoughts, amplifying them until they become the absolute truth. We become attached to or merge with these thoughts, to the point of believing that they are the only possible interpretation of reality and we take them for granted, without questioning them.
The trap of merging with our thoughts
Cognitive fusion can be a very dangerous process for our emotional well-being. When our subjective experiences are primarily adverse, cognitive fusion leads us to practice experiential avoidance strategies to reduce discomfort. The problem is that these avoidance strategies, such as worrying or repressing unwanted content, are negatively reinforced and can lead to an unhealthy cycle in which various psychological disorders proliferate.
In fact, a study developed at the Royal Holloway University of London found that cognitive fusion is a risk factor for rumination and depression, as well as for stress and anxiety. On the other hand, Auburn University psychologists concluded that "individuals with high cognitive fusion and high experiential avoidance may be particularly prone to experience psychological distress."
Cognitive fusion poses various mental traps for us. It makes us believe that our thoughts are:
• An absolute and indisputable truth
• An order we must obey or a rule to follow
• A threat that we must get rid of as soon as possible
• A very important issue that requires our full attention
• Something that is happening right now when it really refers to the past or the future
• Something we have to cling to, even if it hurts us
Cognitive fusion makes us live in the reality that our mind creates, giving excessive importance to our thoughts. It prevents us from realizing the true nature of thoughts and from understanding that they are nothing more than words and images that create a subjective interpretation of reality, but they are not reality.
How to identify cognitive fusion?
Identifying cognitive fusion is the first step in learning to give our thoughts the importance they deserve, no more, no less. Russ Harris, a physician and coach specializing in acceptance and compromise therapy, proposed to analyze six key psychological areas to identify cognitive fusion:
What unspoken rules govern our behavior? Where did we learn that it was important to be a certain way? We must delve into the origins of the rules that underlie our behaviors and our decisions. What stories do we tell ourselves about what we should feel, think or do? We also need to imagine what our life would be like without the unspoken rules that we follow without discussion. What's the worst that could happen if you don't follow those rules? How would our life change if we freed ourselves from these rules?
We like to believe that we are objective and rational people, but the truth is that we often construct justifications after making decisions, a phenomenon known as choice blindness. Therefore, we must ask ourselves: What explanations do we construct for ourselves and for others to justify why we cannot, must or want to do certain things? Of course, we have to be careful because at some point defense mechanisms such as rationalization are likely to come into play to convince us why we “can't” change. Instead of assuming the validity of our motives and reasons, we need to question them.
We are all judges. We criticize practically everything, from the people we know to those we don't know, from the events we have experienced to those who are strangers to us. Judgments are so present in our lives that we even come to understand the world and make sense of it through them. However, to identify cognitive fusion we need to analyze our judgments and try to understand where they come from. Once we understand its origin we must ask ourselves: do our judgments allow us to live the life we want or are they an obstacle?
The past no longer exists. Even if we can learn from what has happened to us, it is useless to get stuck in a time that will not return. Living in the past is like driving a car by looking in the rearview mirror instead of looking ahead. It is choosing to close our eyes to the present and remain connected to what we have left behind. Therefore, we must evaluate the thoughts that keep us tied to the past and prevent us from enjoying the present. We can ask ourselves: how do we identify with the past? Do mistakes, failures and missed opportunities still hurt us? Do we keep blaming and recriminating ourselves for the past?
The future is yet to come. It does not exist yet. But when we merge with worries, we start living in that nonexistent time. This makes us less effective because we don't make decisions thinking about the present, but only worry or fantasize about what might happen. We might ask ourselves: how do we identify with the future? Do the things we want to do keep us trapped? Are we too busy worrying or fantasizing about the future to be fully present here and now?
Cognitive fusion also extends to the way we describe ourselves to ourselves. We all have an idea of what kind of person we are and what we stand for. Without a doubt, it is important to have a strong sense of identity and to have our values clear in order to build a meaningful life. But when we get too attached to the idea we have of ourselves, it becomes harmful, causing us to become rigid and inflexible in our way of thinking. Therefore, we must carefully observe our thoughts. What kind of person do we think we are? How do we think others see us? What are the characteristics that define us? Eventually, when we let go of who we are, we open up to who we can be.
Cognitive defusion as a way out
Cognitive defusion is a technique that helps us understand that thoughts are just thoughts. Recognizing that reality does not imply minimizing the emotional impact that thoughts may have or denying the factual information that generate them. Both are valid.
But we must understand that thoughts have no more power than what we give them. They are just words and images floating in our minds. We make sense of them, decide what they mean and give them power over us.
The fact that we have a thought does not necessarily imply that we must act. It is true that terrifying or powerful thoughts generate a sense of urgency that pushes us to action, but it is not always necessary to be guided by them, especially when it comes to distorted interpretations of reality. Instead, we must take a psychological distance that allows us to unlock the cognitive fusion to see the facts with greater clarity and objectivity.