ACT Book Summary: Pages 154 - 158

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Deliteralizing Language

Several exercises are described to help people improve their skill of looking at the process of language instead of looking from language.

  • Thoughts are used to structure our perception of the world. We don't even notice that we look at the world from our thoughts, because we believe them in literal way. To look at the process of language involves focusing attention on language as language, cryptic as this may sound. A bit of defusion from literal 'understanding' can be achieved by watching the direct stimulus functions of language like sound, the feeling of your muscles, the sight, etc.
  • An elegant way to watch your attention switch from the symbolic function of a word to some of its direct stimulus functions is by repeating a word over and over again for one or two minutes. This is the classic milk, milk, milk exercise (Titchener, 1916). Present it as an experiment or experiential exercise and help the client notice how the literal meaning of the word disappears and one can see the word as an instant of the language process.
  • I like the notion of skill learning here. Deliteralization is a skill you can practice, it's not another rule to follow. One can play with direct stimulus properties and thereby loosen the 'grand illusion of language' by realizing that the symbolized thing is not there at all. The only thing that's there is sound, movement, breathing and so on. And this is not a fact, but a skill, something you do.

Another skill that helps to defuse from nasty or frightening thoughts is practiced in the passengers on the bus exercise. In this exercise the relation between a person and his or her thoughts (or avoided inner experiences) is reframed.
These are the elements of the metaphor:

  1. You, the driver of the bus. You want to go places and do your job.
  2. The passengers are your thoughts and all kinds of inner states. Some are nice, some ugly, scary, nasty.
  3. The scary ones threat you and want to come up front where you'll see them.
  4. You take this very serious and stop the bus (you don't go anywhere anymore) and try to make a deal with them: they'll keep quiet in the back of the bus, only when you do exactly what they tell you.
  5. This means your route plan is greatly impaired and you're always on the watch inside the bus.
  6. What happens is that you let these passengers control the whereabouts of the bus. You, the driver, are not in control at all.
  7. Even though these passengers look scary, nasty, threatening etc. they can't take control (unless you let them). They can't make you do something against your will.