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Tug of War Metaphor

The tug-of-war metaphor is helpful in explaining what defusion stands for and how we can let go of the struggle that we often hold onto.

This metaphor suggests that if we insist on struggling with a thought, then the thought will continue to control us. Our focus becomes the struggle, rather than what is important to us. When fighting with our thoughts, the things that are important to us remain out of reach. Focusing on what is important is very difficult to do while fighting with our thoughts.

The mind gives us thoughts and we tend to grasp hold of them and pull against them, and a struggle ensues. The focus then is on the struggle, rather than on what’s important.

Jacob has recently graduated from university and is looking for a job. He reads that there is an opening at the local school for a maths teacher. He wants to apply for the job but has doubts about whether he is experienced enough. Although Jacob is passionate about teaching children, he is caught up in thoughts about ‘I'm not experienced enough, the school is probably looking for someone with more qualifications, I’d never get the job anyway, other teachers are better than me’. As a result, Jacob fuses with these thoughts, assumptions and doubts and does not apply for the position.  

To demonstrate this metaphor, use a rope, towel, or other similar object. Give your client one end and start a tug-of-war. When doing this we can point out to our clients that there are a number of things we can do. We can: 

  • Call for reinforcements

  • Put all my weight behind the struggle

  • Step forward – but then the opponent steps back, which just moves the location of the struggle. 

The above steps result in either focusing on the struggle – and thereby missing opportunities to spend time on the reason for the struggle – or leaving the fight today knowing that it will have to be fought later (avoidance).

It’s another version of the old Wild West duel. The guys who shot it out in a dusty street lived or died – but whoever lived then had to watch over his shoulder in case someone else shot him. This is not an enjoyable or relaxing way to live.

However, there’s another option. We can let go of the rope. We can let go of the fight. Now, we can focus on what is important.

We can ask our clients and ourselves what would it be like if we didn’t have to fight. What would it be like if we simply let go. We can’t let go of the thoughts but we can let go of the fight. This frees us to give our attention to those things that are important to us.

Defusion is about seeing the struggle, noticing the thoughts, not getting caught up in the struggle, the fight. 

The tug-of-war metaphor is a playful one that helps reinforce defusion as a beneficial process in separating our thoughts from ourselves and making space for them.


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