As behavior analysts working in applied settings, we sometimes struggle to gain buy-in from parents, front-line staff, or even ourselves in the form of self-doubt in our abilities to reach treatment goals. Sometimes the struggle is justified, but other times it may be unfounded in the sense that the doubt or skepticism expressed in those with whom we work (or ourselves) may not represent actual experience, or direct-acting contingencies. If we can find ways to open ourselves up to direct experiences, despite having doubts or anxiety about our work, we will often find that the worry was for nothing – that our own thoughts and feelings were simply behavior, rather than accurate representations of direct experience.
This was the message from Katie Snyder, Joseph Lambert, and Michael Twohig in their 2011 article in Behavior Analysis & Practice. The process of opening yourself up to experiences despite having uncomfortable thoughts and feelings is known as defusion. As we have discussed here and here, defusion is simply the ability to see your own thoughts as Skinner himself viewed them – as behavior, or acts in context, rather than accurate representations of direct experience.
They note a common example of a behavior analyst working with a family whose child exhibits severe tantrums in the grocery store. As part of the treatment plan, the analyst might suggest ignoring the tantrum if it has been shown to function as a means to escape the store (i.e., escape extinction). A common reaction from a parent might be one of doubt. They may say that ignoring the behavior might lead to embarrassment in the store and other potentially aversive consequences that the parent wouldn’t have to face if he/she simply removed their child from the store.
Maybe the fears are accurate, but they could simply be barriers to acquiring adaptive skills. We know that the fears themselves are behavior. Whether or not such rules should govern behavior remains to be seen. The authors suggest that if one can encourage the parent to use defusion strategies that lessen the influence of such thought on his/her behavior, then significant treatment gains may be possible.
One strategy they discuss is to use a simple technique to reframe doubts in a way that highlights the fact that such thoughts are just behavior. Note the difference in thinking “if I ignore my child’s tantrum I will be embarrassed” vs “I am having the thought that if I ignore my child’s tantrum I will be embarrassed.” The former is a way of seeing the world through one’s language, whereas the latter is a way of seeing one’s language as part of the world. By adding “I am having the thought that…” one acknowledges that their thoughts are simply thoughts and nothing more. Such thoughts may or may not be worth believing.