Sunday, 24 January 2010

Cognitive fusion and career change

I made a presentation at the brilliant School of Life last weekend. Very enjoyable it was too, with robust exchanges about the nature of careers, decision making and identifying purpose. One point of debate was about the role of cognitive fusion in career decision making. This is a new idea in the realm of careers, so I thought a post about this was probably overdue.

Then I procrastinated a while...

Cognitive fusion is defined as the ‘excessive attachment to the literal content of human thought that makes healthy psychological flexibility difficult or impossible’ (Strosahl et al, 2004).

To be blunt, I struggle to explain this idea quickly and powerfully to other people. So what do I do? I avoid doing it. I even avoid practicing it, because it makes me feel uncomfortable and a bit useless.

This gives a clue about what cognitive defusion is, and why its evil twin, experiential avoidance, is so harmful to career changers.

Then, my attention was caught by Oliver Burkeman's article in last week's Guardian. In it, Burkeman quotes Alfred Korzybski, who founded the philosophy of General Semantics and who describes language as a kind of double edged sword:

To think about and function in the world we rely on systems of abstract concepts, most obviously language. But those concepts don't reflect the world in a straightforward way; instead, they contain hidden traps that distort reality, causing confusion and angst.

Does this matter to career changers? I am arguing that it does. For example, take a common phrase such as 'I'm hopeless at giving presentations'.

Instead of seeing this for what it is - a subjective opinion - we tend to fuse with the idea. This triggers real-life thoughts and emotions, which in turn lead to avoidance of situations which invoke these feelings (experiential avoidance).

What's needed - and what I try to do with clients - is to create a little space between fused language and reality. For example, "I am a failure" becomes "I feel like a failure" or "I am having the thought that I am a failure".

This may sound insignificant, but it is a difference which allows people the space in which to extend their behavioural repertoire, and from there to choose behaviour more freely in line with their values.

Anais Nin once said "We see things not as they are, but as we are." Cognitive defusion is the first step to seeing thoughts for what they are, not as what they say they are.

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