Cognitive defusion and ditching the internal editor

Photo by Quentin Ferrer on Unsplash

In my previous post I touched on what mindfulness is and isn’t by debunking some myths about mindfulness. Acquiring mindfulness skills doesn’t require a meditation practice, in fact, meditation is only a small subset of mindfulness practices. I would never recommend writers take up a seated meditation practice given the act of writing involves sitting for very long periods of time in isolation. Instead, the Focused Flow approach involves developing ‘mindfulness on the move’ and applying these mindfulness skills to overcome internal obstacles such as self-doubt, procrastination, and a harsh inner critic that often tries to edit the work before it’s even been drafted! A combination of these obstacles can even lead to writer’s block as described in the previous article.

To drop into the flow and optimise your productivity, it is essential to let go of the inner critic and maintain your focus on your writing goals. To enter the flow state, your writing goals should be challenging, but not so difficult they induce overwhelm, and not so easy so that writing becomes boring. For each writer, setting the scale of the challenge required will be different, but once you enter the flow state, the act of writing becomes a source of vitality and joy. Sometimes, faced with a blank page and a whole lot of notes or ideas, as soon as we begin typing, the inner critic pays us a visit and starts suggesting edits and changes before we’ve even completed the first sentence. Often, writing coaches refer to this intrusive commentary as the ‘internal editor’. Rather like the ‘I’m not good enough story’ mentioned in the previous article, the ‘internal editor’ can undermine our confidence and prevent us from getting off the starting block if we ‘fuse’ with the thoughts that arise and begin to believe in them. One alternative is applying mindfulness skills to detach from the internal editor and continue writing anyway.

According to the ACT model, we can learn new skills termed ‘cognitive defusion’ techniques which evolve from a mindful awareness that you are NOT your thoughts, you are NOT your feelings, and however overwhelming these internal experiences are, you CAN still choose to behave in ways consistent with your values and goals. It takes time to learn these skills, and it isn’t an easy or comfortable process at first. It involves facing the shadows that haunt your mind and directing a bright light onto them to expose the fears lurking there- including uncomfortable drivers of avoidance common to writers such as harsh self-criticism, severe self-doubt, and the dread of failure or rejection. When my coaching clients start learning these skills, they may make mistakes and give in to reactivity at times, but they do progress.

The path of progress is not straight, or linear, but cyclical. There are ups and downs. This is perfectly normal. Gaining these skills involves uprooting a lot of well-established coping mechanisms that have outlasted their usefulness. They may have had a tight grip on your mind, heart and body for a long time. So, if you decide to give these exercises a try, you must be kind to yourself when you fall back into old patterns, if you do. Once you recognise this has happened, that is an act of mindfulness! You then make amends with yourself, dust yourself down, and carry on. Any instances of reactivity or overwhelm will decrease in intensity over time. These techniques are designed to help you detach from the internal editor that plagues many writers, by helping you to undermine the power of unhelpful thoughts and arresting the development of overwhelming feelings so they no longer control you. In this post I’m going to suggest two simple strategies for defusing from the internal editor that will enhance your ability to drop into your flow state over time.

1. I am having the thought that….

First, bring to mind a thought you have often when you try to write that troubles or upsets you. It might be a self-defeating thought that prevents you from getting going on a project like ‘I’m too stupid,’ ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I can’t do this,’ or some other kind of self-limiting thought. Next, keep that thought in mind and focus on it intensely as you can for a few seconds. Notice how it makes you feel. Notice the sensations in your body, your breath, your heart rate, and your emotions. Use mindful awareness to really register how thinking this thought affects you bodily, emotionally. Jot these observations down. Next, take the thought and insert in front of it ‘I am having the thought that…’ Run it through your mind like this for a few seconds. Notice how this makes you feel in the same ways as above… use mindful awareness to really focus on any differences between how you feel now, and how you felt before. Jot these observations down.

Using the same self-limiting thought again, or a different one if you prefer, keep that thought in mind and focus on it intensely as you can for a few seconds. As above, notice how it makes you feel. Jot these observations down. Next, take the thought and insert in front of it ‘I notice I am having the thought that…’ Run it through your mind like this for a few seconds. Notice how this makes you feel in the same ways as above… use mindful awareness to really focus on any differences between how you feel now, and how you felt before. Jot these observations down. If you notice few if any differences, try the exercise again with another thought.

2. Thanking your mind

Another one that works for me, although it might seem a bit eccentric at first, is thanking my mind. This exercise is explained by ACT coach Russ Harris in the video below.

There are many other cognitive defusion strategies that can be used to detach from the internal editor. You could try Googling the term and finding other variations or look into my book that specifically adapts these exercises for writers. Try them and let me know how you get on. You can comment on the blog forum at Focused Flow or email me at info@focused-flow.com. I am building a unique set of resources for writers and welcome your contributions.

Author: Jo Nash PhD

I'm the founder of Focused Flow writing coaching. I have a PhD in Psychotherapy Studies from the University of Sheffield, UK, and am a trained mindfulness therapist, as well as a widely published writer. I am passionate about writing and have developed the Focused Flow model to help writers of all kinds overcome obstacles to the writing process and optimise productivity. I offer free tips and techniques to overcome obstacles to writing on this blog.

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