Thought-watching refers to a shift in your mind from “having” a thought, to “noticing that you’re having” a thought, or defusion from thought as described by Steven C. Hayes, the creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT. The shift from “having” to “noticing you’re having” this thought might not sound like much but it is a very powerful technique that you can use routinely to be more effective in serving your goals and values. From this observing position, you can consider why the thought is occurring, what factors have shaped it… why it is so troubling. This kind of reflection enables psychological flexibility and value-guided action, as described in ACT.
When you watch your thoughts, you can’t help but notice that they are subjective and shaped by things other than reality-as-it-is. Thoughts are not necessarily true, or the only truth, or the most important truth. The most important truth about where you are in this moment is the truth that points you in the right direction – the aspect of NOW that helps you choose a response that serves your goals and values.
Perception & Interpretive Error
In introductory psychology, we learn that sensation refers to the “raw data” of sensory experience – the light hitting your retina, the sound waves striking your ear drum. Perception is what your mind/brain does with the data so that this particular pattern of light is perceived as your lover’s face. Still more perceptual and associative processes add further layers of meaning to the data, such as your lover’s face – and she’s happy or perhaps disappointed with your gift. Perception is an active process that depends on prior learning rather than what’s actually in the data. Therefore, it’s subject to errors of interpretation and the further you move away from the raw data, the more chance of interpretive error.
The “default” position for the human mind is to be fused with our thoughts and therefore at the mercy of our idiosyncratic subjectivity. When we uncritically buy into our thoughts, they quickly trigger emotions, and reactions, including reactions that can be very unhelpful in light of our goals and values.
Although we do feel better when we detach from upsetting thoughts, we do not do this in order to feel better. Feeling better, particularly via detachment is NOT the point of this. We do this so we can become more in touch with the reality of right now and what we need to do vs what our mind is telling us we need to do. It is helpful to embrace the feelings we might have that are appropriate to what’s happening and what we need to do. This includes the fear we might have as we shift attention to the thing that we care about and the action in this moment that is going to move us in that direction.
Shift to Notice your Thoughts
Next time you are upset, frustrated, angry or afraid, bring your attention to the reality of your situation – to the raw data of sensation. For example, you are not moving, traffic is backed up for miles in front of you, and the clock is telling you you’re definitely going to be late. Broaden your attention to notice that you have some time you could be using to your advantage, or that you can see a few sailboats in the distance as you turn your head from the traffic. Accept your reality – imperfect as it is. Now watch your thoughts. Notice how your mind was just telling you, “I’m trapped! …this is a disaster!!”. Notice also how this is or was affecting your heart, your stomach, the muscles in your hand as you grip the wheel, the muscles in your forehead as you react to what your mind is telling you.
Embrace the feelings that are appropriate to this moment and your situation. Be willing to have those feelings. You may be sincerely sorry about your lateness and might want to express that to your waiting client. Now shift your attention again to any other relevant values and goals you have. That’s right, open the sunroof, breathe deeply, and use the time you have to plan your next appointment.
ACT Therapy Vancouver
Contact our office at 604 259 1236 to book an appointment or learn more about our Vancouver Act Therapy services.