Mindfulness of Conviction

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the concept of conviction and its relationship to anxiety.
  • Differentiate between cognitive fusion and cognitive defusion.
  • Recognize the role of mental filters in shaping perception and beliefs.

Conviction is the extent to which you believe in the truth of something. From a cognitive therapy perspective, it’s important to stop fixating on your intense anxiety and look at the thoughts controlling the anxiety, particularly the catastrophic thoughts. You are asked to test reality by systematically gathering evidence on the threats created by the thoughts, like a scientist would. During cognitive therapy, you essentially back away from the anxiety and began to focus on the thoughts instead. You’ve moved closer to treating your thoughts as the cause of your anxiety. Millions of people have obtained relief from their anxiety with the help of cognitive therapy.

But notice that your thoughts aren’t really the problem. The problem is…you believe the thoughts. You automatically grant them your conviction. The intensity of your anxiety and the intensity of your thoughts combine to produce an intensity of conviction. When you’re down the rabbit hole, where the catastrophic thoughts live, you completely believe what your mind is telling you. Like two molten metals poured together, intense emotion and intense thoughts bind each other—a state called cognitive fusion of thought and feeling—to produce an alloy called conviction. You already know that catastrophic thoughts take you “down the rabbit hole,” to an alternate reality where worst case scenarios always come true. And later, when then they don’t come true, you’re left with the anxiety. Your catastrophic thoughts repeat over and over again, bringing you to the point of panic. But you just keep right on believing whatever the mind tells you.

Cognitive Fusion versus Cognitive Defusion

Learning that your catastrophic thoughts are NOT reality is an important milestone in your recovery from anxiety. Because thoughts are not reality, you should question your thoughts. You should be skeptical, skeptical enough that you intercept these catastrophic thoughts before they take you down the rabbit hole of intense conviction and intense anxiety. Skepticism supports the general thrust of cognitive therapy: Reduce anxiety by using evidence to prove that the thoughts are false. Nothing wrong with this, and it works much of the time. Contact with reality is important, and it certainly doesn’t cost you anything to bring your thoughts more in line with reality.

However, there’s a better way, and it’s called cognitive defusion. In cognitive defusion, we recognize that between a set of mental filters always lies between the mind and reality. These filters bring meaning to raw experience. Imagine that two women try downhill skiing. The first woman bounds up and over mounds of snow, the roar of cold wind rushing by her face, a feeling weightlessness, and moments of being nearly airborne. Once safely at the bottom of the mountain, she’s ready to go again. The second woman is horrified, for exactly the same reasons. At the bottom, she swears never again to risk her life so foolishly. Same slope, same sensory stimuli. Vastly different interpretations. Which of the two women is right? Neither. There is no right and wrong answer. There’s only the mental filters that each woman brings to her experience.

What you perceive is not reality. You perceive only your mental filters. About nine percent of people with Northern European ancestry have red-green color blindness. they see red and green as the same color. But no child is ever born knowing they are colorblind. Likewise, every human being assumes that his or her own subjective experience is reality, unless informed otherwise. Whatever our perceptions tell us, we believe. Here’s a simple equation: Experience = Perception + Cognitive Filters. As with the women skiing in the paragraph above, your filters control not only what you perceive, but also what you find enjoyable and what you find threatening.

Once you know that these filters exist, you can begin to question them, doubt them, instead of automatically believe. When the catastrophic thoughts start, try shrugging your shoulders. Try saying, “Oh geez, here come the stories again. Been there, done that. Not doing it again.” When you notice anxiety flaring, have a moment of mindful awareness and say “Oh wait, wow…I’m in a state of total belief here. I must have given some catastrophic thoughts my conviction.”

A Continuum from Fusion to Defusion

Cognitive fusion and cognitive defusion represent opposite ends of a continuum. You already know what cognitive fusion feels like…it feels like everyday experience. You’re believing your thoughts as you go through your daily life. You’re going through your life as if there were no filters, as if what you experience is reality. At some level you know that things aren’t so simple. You know that our preconceived notions filter experience and help create what we regard as real. You know that all reality is subjective reality. Maybe you even remember what the comedian Robbin Williams said, “Reality…what a concept!” In everyday life, though, this distinction doesn’t really make much difference, so you mostly ignore it.

What does cognitive defusion look like?

Apparently, cognitive defusion looks a lot like a meditating Buddhist monk. There’s the awareness that our moment-to-moment existence is only an ever-changing kaleidoscope of appearances. The external world is one source of these appearances, populated by houses, cars, boats, trees, and so on, a constant stream. The internal world has its own source of appearances, with thoughts and feelings constantly streaming in to present themselves to consciousness. Although we identify this internal stream as our own, we don’t really control its content. Catastrophic thoughts rise and fall on their own. They don’t need permission from you or me.

We control two things in this worldview: First, we control where we put our attention. I decide what items from the internal and external streams to select out and amplify in my awareness. Second, we control the degree of conviction that we give to the thoughts that currently occupy our awareness. If catastrophic thoughts arise, first recognize that your mind is telling you a story about imminent disaster, and absorb the sense of threat and urgency, but without giving the story your faith or conviction as being the truth about your life or situation. If the story mutates to some other catastrophic idea, then likewise, you watch it appear, take center stage in the theatre of awareness, peak, and ultimately subside. Soon, another idea will rise up to replace it. The mind is inherently active, with thought percolating up into awareness all the time. That’s just what thoughts do.

The Mind as Storyteller

Your could even begin to cultivate a sense of curiosity about the mind’s stories. You could decide to become amused by them. “My car is going to die at the next stoplight? Well, isn’t that interesting, my mind really came up with an interesting story there! I can’t believe how good my sense of imagination is! LOL! And look, my mind is telling me that the cop is likely to arrest me, I could do time over this!! LOLOL!”

Across our lives, the mind is constantly spinning up narratives about the world and about ourselves. Some stories, like “I’m a smart person” and “The world is mostly a safe place,” help us move forward. Some stories, like “I am not good enough” and “The world is a threatening place,” keep us stuck. These stories are part of our internal stream of experience. All such stores lead to predictions about what’s going to happen. These predictions are part of the story, because they tell us how the story unfolds. If you believe that “I don’t have what it takes,” then you’re likely to fail. In fact, you’re likely to withdraw from any situation you consider to be challenging. Maybe you don’t take the initiative. Maybe your self esteem is so limited that anything is seen as too much of a risk. So you slump down and slink away, sorry you had any ambitions at all.

The Softer to Harder Continuum

There’s a direct relationship between your anxiety and your stories. Your stories predispose you to experience anxiety, and in turn, your anxiety affects how you experience your stories. Maybe you need to give a presentation for class. Imagining yourself standing in front of your classmates, you immediately notice your throat tightening a little. Then you think, “I need to be a more confident person.”

In a calm and relaxed state, self-doubt is experienced as the hypothesis “I need to be a more confident person.” At this point, your beliefs inform your experience, but don’t necessarily determine your experience. This relatively softer thought has the quality of “maybe so and maybe not.” You could, if you wanted, hold this idea in mind while you search your memory for experiences that bear on its validity. Maybe you determine that the hypothesis has merit, but it’s not especially threatening at this point, and you don’t experience any compelling reason to immediately address it. You’re technically in a state of cognitive fusion, but it’s a relatively softer form of fusion.

Notice what happens as your anxiety increases: The effects of cognitive fusion increase. In a highly aroused state, your self-doubt is no longer experienced as a hypothetical at all. Instead, the story becomes “I’m a failure,” experienced as completely real, as the final word on you as a human being. Because the story was experienced as ABSOLUTE TRUTH, the story has COMPELLING CERTAINTY, and DEMANDS your CLOSE ATTENTION, precisely because it PREDICTS AN OUTCOME which is INTENSELY THREATENING. As a result, the story COMMANDS you to TAKE ACTION in some way, and to do so URGENTLY.

All stories told by anxiety take on the characteristics shown in capital letters above. The exact content differs between stories. Nevertheless, all of these characteristics tend to occur together and unfold automatically. For one person, it’s “My engine will die at the next stoplight, resulting in life in prison.” For another person, it’s “I will fail my final exam and end up homeless.” For yet another person, it’s “The stove will catch fire and burn the house down while I’m sleeping.” Without you even realizing it, the intensity ramps up, quickly resulting in the appearance of symptoms, quickly resulting in intense cognitive fusion. You are riveted.

But notice also that each characteristic in capital letters above varies along a continuum from softer to harder. A HYPOTHESIS is soft, an ABSOLUTE TRUTH is hard. TENTATIVE is soft, COMPELLING is hard. DESCRIPTIVE is soft, PREDICTIVE is hard. CONCERNED is soft, an INTENSE THREAT is hard. SUGGESTS is soft, COMMANDS is hard. OPTIONAL is soft, URGENT is hard.

Let’s look at the entire continuum from soft to hard. Imagining yourself giving the speech, you recognize the hypothesis (not absolute truth) that you are not a very self-confident person. This hypothesis is merely TENTATIVE (not compelling), because it might be true or not. Moreover, while the hypothesis DESCRIBES you, it does not strongly predict an outcome, because you might speak well anyway. As such, the hypothesis evokes only CONCERN (not intense threat), and SUGGESTS (not commands) that you might want to practice beforehand, but that is OPTIONAL (not urgent). The soft and hard ends of the continuum both represent states of cognitive fusion, but the softer end is much more adaptive and flexible.

The next time you notice your anxiety, ask yourself where you between the hard and soft ends of the continuum. Can you identify the story that your mind is telling you? Next, assess your level of certainty in this story. Does your conviction that the story is true increase as your anxiety increases? Which level of certainty better reflects reality? To help recover from anxiety, begin to use the hardness and certainty of conviction as a cue that its important to step back and ask questions about your current perception of the world. Exercise mindfulness of conviction as an important cue that its time to back away.

Reading Comprehension Questions

1. What is an important milestone in recovery from anxiety?

  • A. Believing all thoughts to be true
  • B. Recognizing that catastrophic thoughts are fantasies, not reality
  • C. Embracing intense conviction and anxiety
  • D. Avoiding cognitive therapy

2. What is the goal of skepticism in cognitive therapy?

  • A. Increase anxiety levels
  • B. Skepticism shows us that thoughts are just thoughts, not reality.
  • C. Enhance cognitive fusion
  • D. Ignore reality

3. What do mental filters do?

  • A. Control our perception
  • B. Eliminate anxiety
  • C. Create absolute truths
  • D. Prevent cognitive defusion

4. What does cognitive fusion feel like?

  • A. Everyday experience, in that we believe what we experience is reality.
  • B. Mindful awareness
  • C. Cognitive defusion
  • D. Extreme doubt

5. What should be used as a cue to step back and question your perception of the world?

  • A. Softness of thoughts
  • B. The absolute certainty of complete conviction
  • C. Mindful awareness of anxiety
  • D. Avoidance of catastrophic thoughts

Answers

1. B

2. B

3. A

4. A

5. B

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