Cognitive Defusion in a Nutshell

“People become attached to their burdens sometimes more than the burdens are attached to them.” – George Bernard Shaw

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) encourages people to “defuse” themselves from maladaptive patterns of thinking through a process called cognitive defusion.  The idea is that we all have a tendency to over-identify with our thoughts, amplifying them in our minds to become “the truth.”  When we become so attached, or fused, to thoughts in this way, it is easy to see how they can feel so very powerful.

The truth is that thoughts are just thoughts.  This statement is not meant to minimize the emotional impact that thoughts can have or to negate the factual information often associated with thoughts.  These are both valid. The point is that thoughts are no more powerful than we will allow them to become.  They are words and pictures that float through our minds.  We are the ones who give them meaning.

Just because you “have a thought,” that does not mean that any action must be taken.  When thoughts seem frightening or powerful, there is often a sense of urgency associated with them that may prompt you to jump into action.  When thoughts “pop” into your mind or when you have thoughts that you cannot get out of your mind, it is worth applying principles of mindfulness, acceptance, and problem-solving to those thoughts before taking any action.

Cognitive Defusion

Harris (2009) explains that cognitive defusion means:

  • Looking at thoughts rather than from thoughts
  • Noticing thoughts rather than becoming caught up in thoughts
  • Letting thoughts come and go rather than holding onto them

Purpose of Cognitive Defusion

The general purpose of cognitive defusion is to:

  • Notice the true nature of thoughts – they are words or images in your mind
  • Respond to thoughts in terms of taking workable action – take action based on what “works” rather than what is “true”
  • Notice the actual process of thinking – recognize that thoughts do not dictate behaviors
  • Use cognitive defusion when thoughts are acting as a barrier to living in accordance with your true values

How attached are you to your thoughts?  Cognitive defusion does not imply that thoughts are somehow “bad.”  The ability to think and process thoughts allows us to function effectively in life.  Patterns of thinking become problematic when they are causing significant distress or struggle.  You can make the choice to begin to consciously notice your thoughts, rather than becoming entangled and fused with them.  Their “power” over you is a self-imposed illusion.  How long are you willing to continue to struggle?

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Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: At last…foooooood…:0)))) by law_keven / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Mehdi on December 7, 2016 at 4:58 pm

    Thank you 😊 I enjoyed reading the introduction.

  2. Gail on July 19, 2019 at 6:02 pm

    thank you for this information…I am returning to school as a mature adult to finish my degree..unfortunately addiction destroyed my marriage but I am learning lots about the human brain…

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