Tools for living with more ease, meaning, and fulfullment
Suzanne Manser, PhD
Licensed Psychologist

Tool of the Day:
Be Smarter Than Your Brain

We have an unfortunate tendency to believe our thoughts, especially the negative ones. If we have a thought that the person over there is looking at us funny, we believe it. If we have a thought that we are inferior to everyone else in the room, we believe it. If we have a thought that we’ve probably eaten too much today, we believe it.

A traditional approach to working with this in therapy is to challenge the thoughts. Gather evidence that the thoughts are not true. This approach can be useful, but here’s the problem with it: while you’re gathering evidence, you’re still focusing on the negative thought. You have to keep it in mind to match it up against the evidence. Focusing on the thought only strengthens it.


In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we use cognitive defusion. Start from the premise that the thoughts that come across our brains are not us and they are not Truth. They are just thoughts, generated by a brain that is taking in a lot of random and non-random information.


The brain just generates the thoughts. It is up to us to decide what to do with the thoughts. This is the part where we need to be smarter than our brains.


Once we understand that our thoughts are not Truth, we can get some distance from them, or de-fuse from them. Instead of being in the parade of thoughts, we can stand back and watch the parade. Seeing the thoughts from this distance gives us the power to decide what to do with each thought. Do we strengthen it or not? Do we pay attention to it or not?


How do we decide whether to pay attention to it? I’m so glad you asked! The determining factor is not whether it’s an accurate thought, but rather whether it’s a helpful thought. Clearly, we want to strengthen only the thoughts that serve us. If a thought is true but not helpful, why focus on it?


It can be tricky to figure out whether particular thoughts are actually helpful. For example, our inner critic persuades us that the mean thoughts are helpful, but they’re not.


When you're unsure, ask yourself whether the thought aligns with your values. Ask how it makes you feel about yourself, whether it feels inspiring, and whether it is in line with self-acceptance and self-compassion (which always serve us).


What happens if you find yourself focusing on an unhelpful thought (e.g., “No one likes me.”) and there is no helpful thought in sight to focus on instead? Move your focus to anything else that is helpful or even neutral. Notice the art on the walls. Sing your favorite song in your head. Remind yourself of your values or goals. Notice everything around you that is red. Think about your weekend plans. Notice how the air smells.


Of course all of this take effort, and of course we can’t assess every thought for helpfulness. But when we catch ourselves focusing on unhelpful thoughts, we can create some distance from them and put our focus elsewhere. When we catch ourselves focusing on helpful thoughts, let’s pat ourselves on the back and notice how it feels to be helpful to ourselves.

To practice: Close your eyes and imagine a conveyor belt running from one side of your brain to the other. Notice that your thoughts show up on the moving conveyor belt. Watch them going by, from one end to the other. Notice that you can identify them from a distance, without picking them up and focusing on them.


Take a few minutes to practice just noticing your thoughts as they show up, without picking them up. Once that feels reasonable, start noticing when thoughts are helpful. Still don’t pick any up, just identify the helpful thoughts as they go by. Once that feels reasonable, practice doing this throughout the day, and practice picking up and paying attention to the helpful thoughts.


For a more immersive experience, try this Leaves on the Stream exercise.

Somewhat Random but Helpful
Science-Based Articles


How Do Others Help Us Regulate Emotions?   


Stress Makes Life’s Clock Tick Faster, Chilling Out Slows It Down


Whether People Inform Themselves or Remain Ignorant is Due to Three Factors


Why Some People Find It Harder to be Happy


Eating Disorders Corner

“Food is not the enemy. Self-hate is.”
— TheLoveYourselfChallenge

 This corner is devoted to addressing eating disorders, disordered eating, and body image. I have specialized in treating people with all of the above since 1999. It is a large part of my work and my heart. This corner is for those of us on the journey of disconnecting our worth from our size or what we eat.

Food, Weight, and the Holidays


The winter holidays leading up to New Year's are a minefield for people with eating disorders and body image issues. All of the food and the having-to-dress-up-and-be-seen are intimidating for folx who don’t feel comfortable with their bodies or their relationship to food.


The diet industry preys upon our fears and hypes up all of the diets and things-pretending-not-to-be-diets. By New Year’s, we’ve decided that we do in fact need to diet to lose all of the holiday weight we gained because we couldn’t control ourselves.


If you find yourself in this minefield, I’ve got some thoughts. First, the diet industry is lying to us about “significant weight gain” during the holidays. The average amount of weight gained from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is about a pound.


However, the more worried you are about weight gain, the more likely you are to overly focus on the food portion of the holidays, which will almost guarantee that you eat more than you are hungry for, which will make you feel panicky. It’s not by accident that the diet industry is worth $71 billion.


The trick is to not overly focus on the food. I know it’s special, delicious food, and it’s hard not to focus on it. The goal is to appreciate it, eat the stuff you enjoy most until you’re full, and then stop eating it. The stopping part will be easier if you are focused on things besides the food, like listening to the story someone is telling, or gossiping with your cousin about your other cousin, or noticing everyone’s fashion choices.


Make a plan ahead of time. Think about how many platefuls of appetizers and how many platefuls of dinner will fill you up, who you can sit next to who will distract you, or even just remind yourself that you can have this food any time of the year. Preparation makes a difference when you are too overwhelmed in the moment to come up with a strategy.


I strongly recommend practicing body neutrality. Remind yourself that the purpose of your body is not to be thin or look pretty but to allow you to live and have all of the experiences.


Start noticing the experiences your body allows you to have: reading this, walking, petting your dog, cooking, eating, feeling excitement, watching a good movie, laughing. Notice what your body is doing for you instead of how it looks compared to the thin ideal.


Remind yourself that weight stigma is responsible for us feeling bad about our bodies. Weight stigma teaches us that being thinner is better and being fatter is BAD. It is a prejudice, plain and simple. Weight is not related to health or personality.


Remind yourself that diets don’t work. More than 95% of the time, you will gain the weight back within 1-5 years, and often you will gain more than you lost. The hope a diet gives you is false.


Bottom line: Figure out what else you are going to focus on besides your weight or the food. Keep returning to that when your attention wanders to unhelpful places.


Related articles:

How to Get Through the Holidays Without Focusing on Your Weight


Surviving Thanksgiving (relevant for other food-oriented holidays!)


Intentional Holidays: How to Build a Connected Intention



 Check Out These Podcasts 


Being Well Podcast with Dr. Rick Hanson
Practical tips and tools for being well


Maintenance Phase
Wellness and weight loss, debunked and decoded


Talking Brains
A podcast about therapy and what makes your brain happy


recently took a course with Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, the host of this podcast. Her podcast and website are great resources for information about living with ADHD.


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