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The Problem With Stories: Cognitive Fusion

Mar 15, 2018

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Written by: Sonia Heidenreich, LGSW We need to tell our stories for so many reasons: to make sense of our experiences, to create meaning, to experience a sense of cohesion within ourselves, and, sometimes, to speak the unspeakable.

Written by: Sonia Heidenreich, LGSW

We need to tell our stories for so many reasons: to make sense of our experiences, to create meaning, to experience a sense of cohesion within ourselves, and, sometimes, to speak the unspeakable. Particularly when we’ve experienced things that we have internalized as shameful, I believe it’s important to shine the light of narrative on these experiences in order to diminish their power over us. Just like switching on the closet light to make sure that there are no monsters dwelling inside, telling our stories sometimes helps us to overcome the fear that can accompany them.

The problem with stories, though, is when we become fused with these narratives. In ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), a key process is called cognitive defusion. In basic terms, this means noticing the thoughts (or stories) that hook our minds and taking a step back from them.

It’s common for people to tell and retell their narrative once they’ve discovered it. It can feel good. Sometimes there’s the hope that in the retelling, we can make important people in our lives understand us better, or love us more, or see us more clearly. And sometimes, this is the case.

But often, after the first telling, the retelling of our stories becomes a barrier between us and these important others. As we tell them again our story again, their mind switches into the “Yeah, yeah, I already know this” mode, or even the, “Why are you still talking about yourself? Don’t you care about me enough to want to listen to me?” mode. When we become fused like this with our stories, they’re accompanied by the unhelpful belief that we are our stories. When this happens, they can serve almost like a reverse invisibility cloak (Harry Potter reference, anyone?). Rather than concealing us from others, our fusion with our stories conceals the reality of the present--what’s going on in our present relationships, present moment experiences that contradict our narratives, or potential moments where we can enact something different in our lives. Rather than telling our story and integrating it into a more cohesive sense of ourselves, fusion leads us to see our entire lives through the lens of this story. This is a limited, constricted place to be.

To become unstuck, we first have to notice when we’ve fused with our stories. Without judging ourselves for becoming hooked, we can then kindly and compassionately start to practice becoming unstuck. There are many cognitive defusion strategies, but what they all boil down to is this: First, notice the thought. Then, get some distance from this thought. My favorite way is to say, “I’m noticing the thought that __________.” In labeling the thought as “just a thought,” we gain some mental distance.

Imagine going for a long hike through the woods to reach the top of a mountain. When we’re on the trail, it’s impossible to see where it leads, or to anticipate the twists and turns or obstacles. The trail starts to feel like it goes on forever. When we get to the top of the mountain, though, we can look down over the valley and see where we’ve come from, observing our path with the wisdom and insight that comes with distance. From this vantage point, we have perspective. Often, we can take a break, catch our breath, and acknowledge the hike with a more nuanced view: Yes, it was challenging, and yes, there were moments when we were tired or scared we weren’t going to make it. From our new, distanced vantage point, though, we can acknowledge these challenges and notice the other thoughts and feelings that arise: maybe a feeling of accomplishment, or pride, or satisfaction with ourselves. (The artist Mari Andrew has a really nice depiction of this on her Instagram—check her out!)

Noticing, honoring, and ultimately unhooking ourselves from our stories is similar. At first, we’re lost in the woods, so to speak, and finding perspective can feel impossible. Once we make it through to the other side, though, we can step back, notice where we came from, and then start to shift our gaze to a vantage point ahead of us. With this perspective, we can start to move thoughtfully towards our future.