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Labelling Thoughts

In the ACT framework, some thoughts are considered to happen to us. These are involuntary thoughts. We experience them just as we experience the satisfaction of achieving a goal, or the pain of a sore throat or a tight shoulder.

We also have voluntary thoughts – the ones that allow us to plan to exit the house, ready to face the world, on a Monday morning. Voluntary thoughts are related to one’s awareness, focus, attention and consciousness. They help us study, learn and plan. 

Then there are involuntary thoughts. These are the ones that pop up or occur to us – we judge people’s clothing or respond to news or events, or appreciate the sun on the first day of spring.

Involuntary thoughts can objective, positive, or negative and destructive. The negative ones are the ‘it’s all too hard’ or ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I’m going to fail’ thoughts. Defusion is a process that enables us to help our clients distance themselves from these negative thoughts and their influence.

Studies in psychology and neuroscience are now showing us that pain can be separated and treated separately from the physical injury that caused it. In the same way, we can separate a negative thought from the event that triggered it.

Defusion leads to the recognition of a negative thought for what it is – a thought, rather than a real, concrete object. One aspect of defusion is labelling. Labelling a thought enables us to distance ourselves from the content of the thought.

Labelling allows for objective scrutiny of a thought, almost like placing it in a cell or a test tube and observing it. It provides a different, objective perspective.

We can label thoughts and categorise those that run along a theme – ‘others think I'm boring’ or ‘I don’t have any friends that genuinely like me’. Labelling a thought and categorising it according to a theme enables us to view, observe and study that thought, along with others that may be placed in the same category. Categorising or grouping thoughts according to themes highlights the links between thoughts that may not always be evident – perhaps a worry about being late all the time and another about not getting to the gym often enough may be different aspects of a theme called ‘the unreliable story’.

Susie tries on a dress that she wants to wear to a party next week. Her voluntary thought, as she pulls up the zip, is that the dress is a little tight. Her involuntary and unhelpful thought is that it is tight because she eats too much and that her over-eating is simply more evidence that she has no self-discipline or self-control. 

The next day, Susie is offered a piece of cake at work. She accepts and eats it with pleasure. But an hour later, she feels disappointed and guilty about her lack of control. 

These thoughts can be considered as songs on a ‘record album’, each one an unhelpful thought on the ‘I don’t have any discipline’ theme.

To assist Susie with defusing from her thoughts, we ask her to label them with a single theme. We encourage a funny title that is easily remembered. When Susie recognises a negative thought, she can ‘slot’ it into the theme/album. Susie calls her album ‘Fat Fanny’.

Other ways to categorise thoughts are: 

  • Creating a ‘book’ with each chapter containing different thoughts, and then giving the book a title.

  • Creating a TV series. Each series has several episodes. We can identify what themes appear and develop as the series continues, and which plots or characters commonly show up. 

We need to keep things light-hearted to help our clients in the process of defusion.

Jenny is overwhelmed with stress about her work, and about looking after her partner and three children, and her perceived failure in achieving her objectives in either sphere. Her stress increases because she doesn’t get to the gym often enough, and so Jenny feels her physical and mental health are doubly suffering. 

We discovered that Jenny had always liked superheroes, so we called her album ‘Superwoman’. The title itself is a gentle reminder of how absurd it is for anyone to be able to achieve the level of perfection Jenny felt so stressed about failing to reach. Individual tracks in Jenny’s album dealt with work pressure, troubles with one of her children at school, her guilt at not being home enough for that child, her guilt about not being able to relax with her partner at the end of the day, and her resentment that she could not devote more time to achieving professional ambitions.

Breaking themes into tracks, chapters, or episodes – with the understanding that they are all linked within that album or ‘box set’ – makes them easier to discuss. It makes it easier for our clients to recognise that their worries are related within a story arc and underlying cause.

Eddie was consumed with anxiety. It seemed that every aspect of his life generated cause for anxiety. He would come and say ‘I’m worried about finishing a work project’ or ‘I’m worried about a friendship’ or ‘I’m worried that no one will come to this party I’m organising’ or ‘I’m worried what to wear so no one will think badly of me’. We called his album ‘Oh, no!’.


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