When I read the Bible, I am amazed at the wisdom in the teachings of Jesus. I can learn a lot about how to live by putting his teachings into practice, and also by modeling my life after how Jesus lived.
Sometimes I wonder, however, if some of the teachings of Jesus can be misused by Christians and the church to promote a kind of cognitive fusion.
Cognitive Fusion and Defusion
Before I get into some examples, here is a quick primer on cognitive fusion and defusion. In traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a lot of emphasis is placed on the connection between problematic thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Problematic thoughts are seen as “causing” problematic emotions and behaviors. If you can change the problematic thoughts, the theory says, the emotions and behaviors will follow.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) takes a slightly different route. ACT says that changing thoughts is pretty tough to do, because we can’t really control our thoughts—they happen more or less automatically. Instead of trying to change our thoughts and feelings, ACT encourages us to accept them (even the problematic or painful ones). However, they do encourage us to take a closer look at the relationship between our thoughts and behaviors. Cognitive fusion occurs when our thoughts and behaviors are intertwined (e.g., I am feeling depressed, and my depression causes me to stay in bed all day). Cognitive defusion, on the other hand, is the process of separating our thoughts and behaviors (e.g., I am feeling depressed, but I can still get up, go to work, and call a friend). Cognitive defusion is generally associated with better mental health and well-being.
Jesus’ Focus on the Heart
Back to Jesus. In many of Jesus’ teachings, he is focused on the heart. For example, he says things like “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).
Or this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, you see Jesus making these distinctions. He contrasts his teachings about the heart with the other religious teachers of his day, who seem to be focused on outward appearances. Jesus is trying to hammer home the truth that life isn’t just about outward behaviors and going through the motions—your whole being (inside and outside) should be integrated and oriented toward God.
Moralizing Thoughts and Feeling
Here’s where I think Christians and the church take these teachings and go off course a bit: They take Jesus’ teachings on the heart and integration (which are important), and then go a step further and moralize one’s inner thoughts and feelings. For example, valid emotions such as anger are labeled as problematic. Developmentally normal experiences such as sexual attraction and fantasy are labeled as sinful. And, because most people struggle to control their thoughts and feelings, this sets people up for failure.
I think there is a balance here. On the one hand, there is wisdom in noticing and reflecting on your thoughts and feelings. For example, if you are experiencing a lot of anger toward your spouse, that might be something to look at and explore in counseling. If you are experiencing sexual attraction toward your co-worker, it is wise to be cautious about that. Thoughts and feelings do sometimes lead to behaviors.
On the other hand, it’s tough to control all your inner thoughts and feelings. This just isn’t possible. We are human beings, and we all experience thoughts, feelings, urges, and fantasies that would be problematic if we actually acted them out in the real world. For most of us, however, this isn’t necessarily a problem, because we have self-control and can practice cognitive defusion. In other words, we can experience a thought and make a decision to NOT act on the thought.
Instead of spending a lot of time worrying about our inner thoughts and feelings, it might be healthier to just notice and accept the thought/feeling, while at the same time recognizing that we can’t act it out.