Updated: Nov 9, 2022
By: Abby Emmert, M.A.
When you are explaining a thought about yourself or your body to a friend, how do you normally word that thought? Usually, it looks something like, “These jeans make my thighs look huge,” or, “I don’t think I can handle going out to dinner later.” Notice anything about the language in those sentences? Probably looks normal, right? If we break it down, though, you can see that the language used expressed these thoughts like you are the thought.
Separating You From the Thought
For example, “I think my thighs look big in these jeans,” is a lot different than saying, “Im having the thought that my thighs look big in these jeans.” Notice the separation of you from the thought? That's what we call externalizing a thought or defusing it! Defusing, or separating, from thoughts allows you to look at your thoughts as a separate entity from yourself, which can allow you the space and time to observe the thoughts objectively before reacting to them!
Let's Talk About Defusion
Now how does this tie into negative self-talk? Well, when we talk about defusion, we are arming you with the tools to seeing the thoughts you have as separate from who you are as a person so you can clearly identify if they align with how you want to talk to and think about yourself.
Negative self-talk is sneaky. It can slip in and disguise itself as just any old thought you have, the normal voice in your head, and before you know it, the negative narrative it is spinning if you is believed as a fact. When we practice defusion, we give ourselves the space to see each thought as a message coming in that we can either buy into or not before it becomes a belief we are full-blown living.
Alex's Experience Learning Defusion
Let’s take a pseudonym client, Alex, for example. Alex was told to write down all of her negative self-talk on a piece of paper. Her examples looked like this:
“I look gross when I gain weight.”
“None of my friends will like me if I stay in a bigger body.”
“I have never been good at school, the only thing I am good at is losing weight.”
“My eating disorder is the only comfort I have.”
After learning defusion, Alex was asked to re-write these sentences to observe them as thoughts that she has rather than parts of herself. Her new sentences looked like this:
“I am having the thought that I look gross when I gain weight”
“I am having the thought that none of my friends will like me if I stay in a bigger body.”
“I notice the thought that I have never been good at school.”
“I notice the thought that my eating disorder is the only comfort I have.”
Alex Successfully Learned to Challenge Negative Self-Talk
With the help of her therapist and the following tips, Alex was able to challenge these thoughts with evidence she has before responding to the thoughts as facts. In the past, Alex may have internalized the thoughts as facts and lived in a way that believed these things for true. Instead, Alex is defusing from thoughts like this when she notices them and uses her skills to challenge the thoughts before reacting to or believing them.
After defusing from and noticing your thoughts, here are some tips to challenge negative self-talk!
Treat your negative self-talk like a bully.
How would you respond to a friend that came to you and told you a bully told them the same thing you are telling yourself? Sometimes it is hard to identify how cruel our own negative self-talk and thoughts can be until we put ourselves in different shoes! Would you let someone talk to your friend that way? Probably not! Why should you allow the bully in your head to talk to you that way?
Buy your thoughts or return them.
When you notice negative thoughts popping up, think of them like items on the shelf at the grocery store. You walk in and there are options everywhere. You look for what you need, filter out unnecessary items, and put back or return anything you don’t need. Thoughts can be the same! They might come in hot and heavy sometimes, but you only need to buy into and take home what will really serve you!
Negative thoughts are just intrusive Pop-up Ads.
Have you ever opened a link on your computer and a bunch of ads pop up taking over your screen? You might try to close out of a couple but they just continue popping up so quickly you can't close them quickly enough. Thoughts can be the same! What works best when those ads pop up, though? You usually just need to sit back and wait for them to stop before you continue exiting. Think of your thoughts as those ads that pop up and as soon as you take space, they will be easier to exit out of and clear. If you engage with the first one, they will keep coming and you’ll be overwhelmed by everyone after that.
Who is this thought serving?
One of our favorite cognitive challenges with clients is to have them identify who or what the negative thought is serving. With our eating disorder clients, often the negative thoughts serve the eating disorder, which can be a clear sign that they don’t want to listen to it! Ask yourself what the purpose of the thought is, and who is it truly serving? If it’s really serving you and your best interest, how do you expect it to make you feel to be your best self? And if it's not that, then it’s probably not serving you!
Would the person you want to be like this? (my personal favorite…)
One of my favorite challenges for clients with negative self-talk is helping them imagine the person they want to be and the characteristics of that person. One small step you can take in moving closer to becoming that person is asking yourself if the person you want to be would put up with the thoughts of the person you are now is? Would they like this self-talk? Would they even have this self-talk? Usually, the answer is no. And, if it’s not kind, we don’t need it!
Closing Thoughts About Identifying, Defusing, and Challenging Negative Self-Talk
The road to identifying, defusing, and challenging negative self-talk and thoughts is hard! But we know capable warriors that have chartered this territory and seen the benefits of not giving into the false narratives they have been sold over time! We have all faith you can be among them. And, if you ever need help in this journey, just reach out! No one has to battle these grounds alone!
For more information on defusion, visit:
For more examples of cognitive defusion skills, visit:
Some of the skills in this article were created based off a training presentation by Alsana (https://www.alsana.com/).
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Recovered and Restored is an eating disorder therapy center founded by Gabrielle Morreale. We specialize in helping teens and young women heal from eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and binge eating disorder and treat disordered eating, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. We provide eating disorder therapy in the towns of Horsham, Upper Gwynedd, Lower Gwynedd, North Wales, Lansdale, Hatfield, Blue Bell, Doylestown, and nearby towns with eating disorder therapy. Also providing virtual eating disorder therapy in New Jersey, Delaware, and Florida. Some towns served virtually but are not limited to Pittsburg, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Center City, Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Mount Laurel, Cape May, Avalon, Brick, Dover, New Castle, Bethany Beach, Marydel, and Oceanview.