Crucian carp fish hanging on the fishing hook close up.

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

Marcus Aurelius

When asked how we are feeling, most of us can adequately describe our emotions.  However, many of us have a poor understanding of what’s behind them, the source of our emotions.  As I referenced in several of my earlier blogs, (4/18/2023, 05/17/2023), certain emotions, specifically those associated with survival, are hardwired into both animals and humans. For instance, if you are taking a hike and a mountain lion jumps out of the bushes, you most likely will experience fear, which most would describe as occurring instantaneously and happening without any conscious thought. But if you are “stood up” on a date, or your spouse forgets your birthday, or your kid gets a failing grade, and you were asked how you felt, in my experience, most often, people would lead with, “I am angry.” Anger is an instinctive emotion, and has both a defensive and protective function.  But at its core, anger is also a complex emotion. When I ask clients to further explore their anger, that is, to describe associated feelings, many of them report feeling hurt, invalidated, disrespected, powerless, incapable, or ignored.  And while descriptive, these words still do little to reveal the source of these feelings, their preceding and concurrent thoughts.

In the example of a spouse forgetting the other’s birthday, an inquiry as to what thoughts the client is having might result in them responding: ”After all these years, all my dedication, sacrifice and caring, they don’t even remember my birthday!  I’m hurt. I feel let down, not valued, inconsequential, disrespected.”

Now let’s take the example of a high schooler getting a failing grade.  My parent clients might first notice anger.  But when we dig deeper, exploring what thoughts might be behind their anger, they might express worry for their child’s wellbeing, future ability to get a good education, gain meaningful employment, and ultimately, to have a rewarding and happy life.  Additionally, they might have thoughts that they are incompetent parents, that they failed their child, failed as a parent, and with this, may come feelings of sadness, shame, and regret.

Unworkable Action

All the above-described thoughts and associated feelings are quite human, and having these thoughts and emotions are not inherently problematic.  They are, for the most part, unavoidable.  However, in stressful and emotional situations, most of us become reactive rather than responsive, and this is where problems begin to arise.  When we find ourselves in stressful circumstances, most of us feel it is imperative to take control of what we perceive as an unacceptable or threatening situation.  Most will choose a course of action that we hope will put a quick end to the offense and reduce our immediate experience of discomfort.  In these challenging circumstances, the problem lies not in the presenting stressor, but that we react with unworkable action. That is, we act in ways that move us in the opposite direction of desired outcomes and away from our values, that is, how we ideally wish to behave.  

As an example, the spouse who felt invalidated or unvalued might become verbally aggressive, emotionally shut down and withdraw, or overtly seek to cause their partner some level of emotional pain.  But none of these actions will likely result in achieving their desired outcome of receiving more attention and caring from their partner. Unworkable action!

In the example of the teenager getting “bad” grades, most parents’ goal is to change their teen’s behavior.  However, the strong emotions that are elicited by their thoughts of worry might very well cause them to behave in ways that only create distance and result in a breakdown in communication between themselves and their child. Their concern and worry are often expressed as anger and intolerance.  Often, they will resort to punishment, a behavior modification tactic that has been scientifically and shown to be counterproductive in bringing about long-term positive change.  The bottom line, influenced by their thoughts and emotions, the parents’ behavior results in outcomes that are opposite of what they want to achieve. Unworkable action! (I will be addressing the topic of behavior modification in future blogs).

Cognitive Fusion/Getting Hooked

In some Eastern contemplative philosophies, having our behaviors controlled by our thoughts, is described as being “hooked” to our thoughts.  Like a fish at the end of a line, we are pulled around by our thoughts.  And the more we struggle, the deeper the hook sinks in.  In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a mindfulness-based approach to psychotherapy that blends concepts of Eastern thought with that of Western cognitive-behavioral psychology, the concept of being hooked is referred to as “cognitive fusion.”  That is, one becomes so attached to their thoughts and emotions that their behaviors, and often their perception of themselves, are dramatically influenced.

We can get fused to almost any thought that we have, and being fused is not always detrimental.  If attaching to thoughts moves a person to act with committed action in the direction of value-informed goals, this is certainly positive.  But more times than not, we fuse to our thoughts and related emotions and react with behavior that doesn’t coincide with value-congruent action.  From an ACT perspective, the most common thoughts we fuse to and result in unworkable action are, thoughts regarding the past, the future, our identity (how we perceive or define ourselves), our judgements, rules, reasons, and memories.

In addition to engaging in unworkable actions, when we are fused/hooked, we often become psychologically rigid.  That is, we lose our ability to step back from challenging situations and problem solve.   From an ACT perspective, nurturing psychological flexibility is the ultimate goal of therapy, equipping clients with skills that will help them navigate life’s never-ending challenges, and help them live the life they envision for themselves, their loved ones, and their fellow human beings.

Look for my coming blogs on cognitive defusion (getting unhooked), workability, fostering psychological flexibility and value-driven action.

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