Disputing and Defusion: Two Options for Dealing With Upsetting Thoughts

Consider how you respond to self-critical thoughts 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 strategy used in psychotherapy was essentially search and destroy: Root up such irrational beliefs. Unmask their logical contradictions. Expose their negative consequences. 

In short, use the scalpel of pure reason to dispute irrational beliefs. Then systematically replace them with more rational alternatives.

Today, however, many psychotherapists question this argumentative approach. They worry that it can backfire and even reinforce irrational beliefs. Instead, these therapists suggest defusion.

Both of these approaches have helped me, and in this post I’ll explain how I use them. I’m not a scientist or therapist, so keep in mind (as always) that “your mileage may vary” with these suggestions.

The ABC model of human misery

In his many books, the psychotherapist 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, such as feeling miserable.

Say that I interview for a job and don’t get hired (A). I might conclude that I’m un-employable (C) and stop looking for work.

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 rational, we’ll suffer less and rebound faster (a more desirable C).

For example, a rational belief about interviewing for a job and getting turned down is: I can rehearse better answers to common questions and do better at my next job interview.

I might feel sadness about the lost job opportunity. But talking to myself in a constructive way about happens next offers real benefits. I am less likely to quit looking for work or sink into depression.

Disputing irrational thoughts

In short, Ellis said that the key to mental health is adding another letter to the ABC formula: D for Disputing. This means looking for the logical flaws in our self-defeating beliefs and exposing the lack of evidence for them. The result is more rational thinking, more flexible behavior, and more happiness.

Ellis called his approach Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Its impact was enormous.

Years ago I saw Ellis in action at a conference. He asked for volunteers to do a short therapy session in front of the audience. Man, that guy had an edge. He didn’t just criticize irrational beliefs. He attacked them mercilessly.

Ellis was a man with a mission — to free the human race of irrationality.

How disputing can backfire

In A CBT Practitioner’s Guide to ACT, Joseph Ciarrochi and Ann Bailey take a fresh look at the practice of disputing irrational beliefs. (CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.)

Ciarrochi and Bailey say that disputing can fail for several reasons:

Disputing leads to suppression. Here’s a thought experiment to demonstrate this point: 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 am unlovable. And 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 reveal inaccurate beliefs. 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. While disputing, you isolate individual beliefs, tear them apart, and systematically replace them. While this can help, it’s also a lot of work. If you dealing with dozens of irrational beliefs, you might be signing up for weeks of months of effort.

An alternative — defusing

Instead of disputing and replacing thoughts one by one, defusing allows us to unplug from whole streams of thoughts immediately.

To understand this approach, first consider the concept of fusing with thoughts. 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 I defuse, I step back from thoughts. I detach from them. I observe them. I no longer am those thoughts. I simply have thoughts.

This is like meditation, which is often described with the “cloud analogy”: Imagine yourself watching clouds as they float through the sky. As each cloud appears, you notice its characteristics (shape, texture, color).

However, 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.

Something like this happens with thoughts when we meditate. Like clouds, thoughts float into our field of awareness. And like clouds, thoughts are impermanent. They will billow up and float away if we just let them arise and pass without judgement. 

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.”

Ways to defuse

Hayes and Smith authors many exercises to build our defusion muscles. Following are some I’ve used.

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 and just watch that happen.

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 (thought), 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 simple sounds and moving air — not statements of fact.

Say it in a different voice. Speak judgmental thoughts while doing an impression of Mickey Mouse, Homer Simpson, 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! Really bad, in fact! More at 11.”

Adding both disputing and defusion to your toolbox

I find value in both disputing and defusion. Perhaps you, too, will find them useful in different times and circumstances.

Isn’t it wonderful that we have both options to use?