Text: Matthew 5:33-37 Let your word be ‘yes, yes’ or ‘no, no.’
Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, said that the soul is died the colour of its leisure thoughts. We know that thoughts can torment or even persecute. They can race like a Porche 911 and become almost impossible to control. Are we at the mercy of our thoughts or can we do something about them? To think or not to think, that is the question (sorry Shakespeare)
Thought de-fusion is an important psychological technique. Thoughts and emotions are often closely linked. They can be ‘sticky’. TD is a way of separating or to de-fusing the thought from negative emotions. You might feel triggered by a distressing thought which spikes your anxiety or worsens your mood. An individual’s thoughts can be one-sided and lose perspective or become fixated. Or a person can become so preoccupied and not present to what’s happening in his or her life.
Negative thoughts can be emotionally bruising. This can happen when thoughts are taken too seriously.
Essentially thought diffusion does two things. It states the obvious: A thought is just a thought. Sometimes we give substance to negative thoughts as if the voice was that of a thundering Old Testament prophet. This leads to cycles such as I am a bad person if I think I’m a bad person. Traditionally CBT has disputed negative thoughts, but Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) encourages a person to simply let the thought be thought, observe it in a gentle and curious way, and not take it too seriously. After all a thought is just a thought. This breaks the cycle and provides an escape hatch.
Thoughts are what minds produce. It is like a counterfeiter who prints money, minds produce thoughts. For example, if I ask you to think about a pink elephant in a tutu. This is of course an absurd thought. Elephants are rarely pink and not graceful enough to be a ballet dancer. Nor do they have any motivation. I will stop my fanciful associations. Or if I say the moon is made out of Swiss cheese. This is to illustrate that a thought is simply a thought. It does not establish the reality of elephants in tutus or the essence of the moon.
Let’s try it. Select a negative thought about yourself which gets under your skin. Maybe something like ‘I’m a lazy person.’ Now simply observe that thought, be curious, and allow it to be just a thought.
Russ Harris in ACT Made Simple (2009), characterized cognitive de-fusion as: 1. Looking at thoughts rather than from thoughts 2. Noticing thoughts rather than becoming caught up in thoughts 3. Letting thoughts come and go rather than holding on to them. This can be a relief, like taking them off, like shoes that are one size too small for your feet.
Thought diffusion can use a visualisation technique which allows you to get even more distance from negative thoughts. Take your negative thought, for example ‘I’m a lazy person.’ Now imagine a plane sky writing those words above Gungahlin. See it spelt out in the sky and because it’s made of smoke it will soon break up and even disappear. This simple technique allows more emotional distance between the thinker and the thought.
How applied in psychology:
There is abundant scientific research which has established a connection between our thoughts and how we feel. If we focus on the future and what might go wrong, we tend to be anxious. If we look at past events with regret, we tend to get depressed. If we keep re-experiencing terrifying past events, we may have a trauma reaction, possibly PTSD. Voices and delusional thoughts are associated with psychotic episodes. On the internet you can access iStock has 55.600 visual illustrations of negative thinking! All royalty free (so that is a plus).
Generally, there are two therapeutic approaches to dealing with negative thoughts. (a) Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) would ask you to notice your thoughts, perhaps record them in a thought diary and to begin to actively dispute them with rational argument. It is a ‘talk back’ approach.
(b) Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) would encourage you to notice your thoughts, but with gentle curiosity to simply accept them as nothing more than curious thoughts.
Therapy will focus on ‘hot thoughts’, usually negative, which we are tempted to believe or take too seriously. It is helpful to notice how automatic they are. Noticing such thoughts, accepting them in a curious way, and then using thought diffusion to objectify and distance yourself from the thought.
Thought diffusion can also help to counter cognitive distortions such as all or nothing thinking, extremes of black-and-white attitudes and expecting others to mind read our thoughts to meet our needs. You can learn to practice thought diffusion when you find yourself triggered and possibly overreacting to something said or done.
Google thought diffusion techniques, the following are examples: (a) You can visualise folders with labels for the types of thinking such as predicting, regretting, comparing, doubting, and so on to bring attention to your thoughts and then file into the folder. (b) Thoughts can crowd your mind like browser windows or pop-ups on your computer. Imagine closing the windows by clicking the X on each of them. (c) Imagine yourself rising high above the earth. Notice how tiny your worries look from space.
How relevant to Spirituality:
There is a long history of critics of Christianity who have argued that the Christian faith is psychologically unhealthy. This would include the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. And they have a point. Too often Christian preachers are legalistic or moralistic with the result that believers, who take such teaching seriously, are plagued by guilt and low self-esteem. God is seen as a demanding judge, requiring perfection and threatening eternal damnation. Such thinking does not lead to spiritual health.
If you keep a thought diary, you can separate out thoughts that are essentially psychological from those that are spiritual. Consider which are helpful and those that are hurtful. To minimise the damaging results of negative thinking I think it is a good idea to notice both and then to use thought diffusion as a strategy to limit the impact of negative thinking.
Another suggestion. When you have a thought diary, imagine Jesus sitting beside you and either putting a tick or a cross against what you have recorded. This might help you to discern which thoughts are helpful or unhelpful to your spiritual growth.
Sometimes spiritual growth can be seen in terms of gardening. Plant the right plants in the right places, nurture those that flower and add fertilizer. Thought diffusion is a psychological technique which can help you to weed your spiritual garden.
It has been said that there are 413 Commandments in the Bible. Put that way, it seems impossible to think that keeping all of them is the only way to please God. But we can ask: Why did God give so many? Maybe there is at least one we can keep! This gentle humour has a light touch, and it is similar to what I’m trying to convey in this sermon.
The Rev Dr Bruce Stevens is an endorsed clinical and forensic psychologist and supply minister at GUC.