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Fact vs Thought

Defusion provides the ‘space’ for us to separate a thought, place it in a box or cell, and objectively examine and assess it. It enables us to place a thought to one side, allowing it to be there until it passes. It enables us to recognise a thought for what it is – a product of the mind – and, after doing so, identify its value as helpful (‘this red looks good on me – I chose well’), unhelpful (‘this red looks terrible on me – I have shocking taste’) or neutral (‘this red matches my skirt’.)

In defusion we are recognising first that a thought is just that, just a thought, and second that the content of a thought is just that, content. 

One of the first steps in ACT is to understand defusion and its value in determining the difference between ‘thought’ and ‘fact’. There may be elements of a thought that are fact. We may not even consciously register some of these facts – for example, that ‘the colour is red’ and ‘I own a skirt’. But thoughts themselves are not real, and their content may not be factual.

Remember Brian, with the 19-year-old daughter? Brian’s ‘thought factory’ suggests that she’s been kidnapped, or had an accident, or is lying alone and drunk in an alley or in hospital. None of these thoughts are factual. The facts are that Brian’s daughter is often out longer than she expected, and that Brian worries about her. His thoughts are not real, and their content may not be fact. 

We do tend to adopt and accept whatever thoughts come into our mind without much awareness or consideration. It’s a natural consequence of relying on our thoughts to operate as humans every day – to achieve the planning, learning, assessing, judging and other mental processes we discussed earlier. Defusion, however, allows us to adopt a four-step process before reacting to the content of a thought:

  1. Recognise a thought as a product of the mind

  2. Distance from it 

  3. Assess whether it is valuable

  4. Use it or allow it to pass, based on this assessment.

So, we recognise that thoughts may have value – we don’t automatically reject them. Some will be neutral. Some will be helpful and should be kept. The act of recognising thoughts as something that can themselves be judged as positive, negative or neutral is the first, important step in dealing with their impact.

Then, there two ways to deal with unhelpful thoughts. In traditional CBT, the process would be to fight these thoughts – to challenge or dispute its factual basis. But this creates a struggle for what is truth and often leads to holding thoughts as fact (fusion). ACT suggests that we should focus on what is helpful, rather than truth. Does it help Susie that the truth is that she is 30 kg overweight – or is it more helpful for her to recognise the unhelpful thoughts that relate to her weight and that prevent her from sticking to a weight-loss and exercise program?

ACT is a form of CBT, but focuses more on what is of benefit than ‘truth finding’. We are concerned about whether our thoughts are helpful, workable or useful. If we assess a thought as unhelpful, we can notice it as a normal product of the mind (the ‘thought factory’) and allow it to ‘be’. Allowing it to ‘be’ avoids a struggle with an unhelpful thought and instead allows us to focus on those things in life that are important to us. 

Within ACT, we also recognise that all thoughts come and go, and as such both helpful and unhelpful thoughts will pass. This reinforces the futility of arguing, fact-finding or otherwise investigating unhelpful thoughts.

Some useful defusion tools that help notice and compartmentalise thought:

  • The commentary box – recognise that a stream of judgements or opinions is coming from a ‘commentary box’ and not from a factual source. 

  • Thanks, Minister’ – on the road, you’re the ‘Minister of Transport’, the expert on traffic lights and when other drivers should change lanes; in a hospital, you’re the Minister of Health who knows best about adequate staffing levels, rosters and lighting; when listening to the news you’re the finance or sports specialist and the minister of those respective portfolios. When you find yourself commenting like this, thank the appropriate minister and move on.

  • ‘I am having the thought that….’ – if you find yourself having an unhelpful thought, take a step back and reflect that you are ‘having the thought that’ you are ‘not going to get the job’ or ‘look fat in this’.

  • Similarly, ‘I’m having a mind Tweet’ and ‘I’ve heard that thought before’.

These are some examples of ways to step back from thoughts, consider that they are only thoughts, and move on.


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