The Secret to Fighting Negative Thoughts
How to "decenter."
Posted November 26, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Decentering means being able to observe one's own thoughts or feelings.
- Once a person can observe their own thoughts and feelings, they can choose how to respond to whatever comes up in their mind.
- Decentering plays a large role in cognitive therapy and in mindfulness meditation practice.
It’s altogether too easy to criticize yourself, isn’t it? If you make a mistake—arrive late, say something you shouldn’t—your next thought might easily be something like “I’m so stupid,” or “I always do this.” But have you ever caught yourself having these thoughts, and then taken a moment to ask yourself why you’re having them?
If you’ve done this—if you’ve taken a mental step back from your immediate experience—then you’ve learned the trick of decentering. It means being able to observe your own thoughts and feelings; it’s the act of pushing back from how you feel to gain a tiny bit of distance, inside your mind.
Decentering has been fairly well studied in the world of experimental psychology. A 2015 review article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, written by Bernstein et al., defines decentering as “the capacity to shift experiential perspective… from within one’s subjective experience onto that experience.” Or, if you like, when you think to yourself “I mess up everything I do,” instead of fully believing that thought and accepting it as the truth of your reality, you merely recognize that you’ve had a thought about messing up everything you do. You don’t need to accept that thought, respond to it, or act as though it is true in any way.
Decentering may look and feel different to different people, but according to the 2015 review, three qualities are present in all decentering-related concepts: awareness of awareness (called “meta-awareness”), reduced identification with one’s internal experience, and moderated reactivity to one’s thoughts. Nina Josefowitz, Ph.D.—the author of CBT Made Simple—wrote in a 2021 blog post that decentering means “recognizing that thoughts are mental events that are not necessarily true and that you don’t have to react to or believe.”
And as Jay Winner, M.D., said in Psychology Today, learning that we don’t have to believe our own thoughts—that they might be subjective, inaccurate, or even unhealthy—lies at the heart of much of cognitive therapy and mindfulness meditation practice. Once you’ve recognized your thoughts, and have gained the ability to consider them without believing them right away, you’ll have the ability to choose how to react. Dr. Josefowitz writes in her blog that the best-case scenario might be to recognize that you had a negative thought, to note it in a non-judgmental way, and to let it pass by.
In the 2015 review article, decentering was described as a “metacognitive capacity” that has long been seen as playing a significant role in mental health. Dr. Winner agrees, noting that the ability to decenter comes with the understanding that your own thoughts, in and of themselves, do not have to cause distress. If you can let go of your thoughts when they are not good for you, then you could, for example, stop punishing yourself with self-criticism.
When decentering has been studied experimentally, by Ramona Kessel et al in 2016, people with the ability to decenter were shown to have lower scores on scales measuring symptoms of depression. Their self-focused attention was found to be significantly more functional and less dysfunctional; in other words, when the people in this study thought of themselves, they generally had more helpful, actionable thoughts and less of a tendency toward self-punishment. Other studies have shown that decentering can increase the salience of one’s important personal goals, such as weight loss: in 2018, Katy Tapper and Zoyah Ahmed published a study in Frontiers in Psychology suggesting that mindfulness-based decentering skills could help people resist eating high-calorie foods such as chocolate.
With plenty of psychological research behind it, and many writers declaring it a longstanding, essential component of mental health, it seems clear that decentering is not just a buzzword or a psychotherapeutic trend. The ability to take a step back from the contents of one’s own thoughts can help you advise yourself like a trusted advisor who knows what you’re going through and can tell you when you’re out of line. It’s altogether too easy to punish oneself with self-critical thoughts, or to create self-deprecating beliefs about the way we fit into the world, but gaining some distance from these thoughts and beliefs can be an important step toward better self-care.
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Bernstein, A., Hadash, Y., Lichtash, Y., Tanay, G., Shepherd, K., & Fresco, D. M. (2015). Decentering and related constructs: A critical review and metacognitive processes model. Perspectives on psychological science: a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 10(5), 599–617.
Josefowitz, N. (2021, May 27). Help Your Clients Use Mindfulness and Decentering to Put Their Negative Thoughts Aside. Retrieved from https://www.newharbinger.com/blog/professional/help-your-clients-use-mi…
Kessel, R., Gecht, J., Forkmann, T. et al. Exploring the relationship of decentering to health related concepts and cognitive and metacognitive processes in a student sample. BMC Psychol 4, 11 (2016).
Tapper, K & Ahmed, Z. (2018, April 24). A mindfulness-based decentering technique increases the cognitive accessibility of health and weight loss related goals. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, Article 587.
Winner, J. (2008, October 29). Decenter to be centered. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stress-remedy/200810/decenter-b…