The easiest way to get rid of pesky, negative and difficult thoughts is not to get rid of them at all.
"You cannot stop the waves, but you can learn to surf."
We all have thoughts that return to our minds over and over again.
These thoughts are not usually things like, "Oh, I am so fantastic!" Or, "that was such an amazing thing I did the other day."
No, the thoughts that come back over and over again are usually related to problems such as things we do not like about ourselves, conflicts with others, or dissatisfaction in areas of our lives.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we understand there to be many different types of thoughts, and some are particularly pesky and recurrent.
The type of types of thoughts that seem to trouble us most are thoughts that are fused or sticky. At least, this is the term that we use in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Fused thoughts have certain characteristics.
Fused thoughts often seem like:
The truth - you should believe them
Important - you should pay attention to them
Orders - you must obey them
Good advice - you should do what they suggest
Threats - warning of dangers
These can be thoughts like: "I really suck at math." "I can't go to that party there will be too many people I don't know." "It's not worth even trying." "This wouldn't happen if I could just get my act together." I think you get the idea.
These thoughts often play in the background of our minds and can impact our mood, emotions and behavior.
One thing we can do when we are being mindful is to notice the nature of our thoughts, how we are thinking rather than what we are thinking.
You see, thoughts are actually really nothing more than words and images passing through our minds, but when a thought becomes fused, it feels like an absolute truth.
When we notice we are having these types of thoughts. There are things we can do to de-fuse, or de-energize these thoughts.
We can't get rid of a thought and we can't just stop thinking about something.
But, we can take away the power of the thought; the power it has over how we feel and how we behave. This is why I like the term Sticky Thought, it's like the thought is stuck to our emotions and actions, and we can unstick it to get back to what matters in that moment.
The magic recipe for unsticking a thought
If you find yourself stuck in a thought, the first step is to become aware, stop, slow down and take notice. Where did the thought begin? Was it triggered by another thought before and another thought before that? Was there something, a cue, in your environment that triggered the thought? Take a biologist's perspective, looking at yourself through a magnifying glass and thinking, Hmm, isn't that interesting that I'm having this thought right now.
Bring your attention to the present moment. What are you actually doing in this moment? What are your senses telling you is going on in around you? What do you hear, see, smell, and feel inside your body?
See the thought for what it actually is, words and images passing through your mind. You can take away its power - you can defuse it - by rewriting the thought as "I notice I am having the thought that____."
Ask yourself, what truly matters in this moment? What do you intentionally choose to prioritize right here, right now? Maybe the sticky thought is relevant and related to an actual problem you are trying to resolve in this moment. If that is the case, what can you do with it? Should you use it or defuse it
I created this little flow chart to elaborate on this point:
USE IT OR DEFUSE IT
Bringing it outside:
There is a practice often used by mindfulness-based therapists called Leaves on a Stream. In this practice, you imagine your thought is like a leaf that you cannot get rid of but that you can place on a stream to float away, and while it is floating away, you can watch it and notice it.
I often use the metaphor of thoughts being like Cars on a Street, and you are watching the cars pass by. Many of the cars will simply pass, but some will pull us in, and we get inside and ride away from the present moment. When do we choose to watch the cars, and when do we get in? And if we get in, can we get back out and go back to noticing?
It is particularly beneficial to examine our thoughts and practice de-fusion when we are outside because we do not have the same cues and triggers that we have when we are inside. It can be really interesting to notice the difference in how we think, or what I like to call the nature of our thinking, when we are inside versus outside. What do you notice happens with your thoughts? What gets triggered?
Also, if your intention is to be enjoying some time outside, or appreciating nature, then you already know what matters in that moment. You can then practice focussing your attention from thoughts back to what you sense in nature. Thus, you are refocusing on what matters.
For more information on thoughts, check out these two great books by Russ Harris: