Conversation 2: Action & Experience versus Thought & Emotion

Words Fuse Thoughts

Listen to this section as audio, or read below.

Words Fuse Thoughts – a recording of Julian McNally (9:05 min)

(“Words Fuse Thoughts” by RMIT Counselling and Psychological Services, Six ACT* Conversations, RMIT University is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

The first exercise is called “Milk”.

Exercise 1: Milk

Think of a glass of cold white milk.

Imagine holding it in your hand, freshly poured from the carton or bottle. You can see a few droplets that have splashed onto the side of the glass.

Now imagine raising the glass up to your lips, tilting it towards your mouth.

Now imagine feeling the cool milk on your lips and tongue.

Okay, are you salivating yet? Most people find that that’s what happens. They don’t just have the thought ‘milk’, they also have a version of the experience of ‘milk’. This is what we call fusion.

The word and the experience have become so fused that the word appears to function not only as a label for the object or event; it actually produces some aspects of experiencing the event. In the next part of the exercise, we’ll see if you can defuse to some degree from the word ‘milk’. The process of doing this is very simple.

Repeat the word ‘milk’ very quickly for around 30 seconds. Say it as fast as you can, only pausing to take a breath when needed.

[‘milk’ – 30 seconds]

What did you find?

Most people find when they do this that they’re suddenly very aware of how strange they sound, how hard it is to pronounce the word rapidly and accurately and that the sound of the word ‘milk‘ soon becomes almost meaningless.

Certainly it loses most of the connotations it had when I talked about the experience in detail.

View of beach and water
Photo by Anthony Tori on Unsplash







Exercise 1.5: Applying the Milk exercise to Thoughts

Now I invite you to try the same exercise with something a little more personal and emotionally involving. Ideally you should choose a single word, although a short two or three word phrase may be alright. This should be a word that is strongly associated for you with the barrier or obstacle I asked you to identify at the start of Conversation 1. That is, something you’ve struggled with for some time that stops you achieving a goal (or a quality) that is important to you. When you have identified the word or phrase, we can start the exercise. If the word can be one that you or others have used to evaluate you or your performance – for example, if you say to yourself “I’m just so lazy“, then “lazy” would be the word we’d use as a target. Or you might recall someone laughing at you and saying “you’re just so thick”, then “thick” would be the word.

A word of warning before we start though – don’t choose a traumatic experience or something related to mental health condition that you are or should be seeking treatment for. Examples of these might be conditions such as psychosis or obsessive-compulsive thoughts/behaviours, or experiences of physical or sexual abuse or natural disasters that you haven’t yet recovered from. These require a more personal, flexible and structured approach that only proper treatment can provide. Instead, choose something relatively ‘safe’ like a difficulty with concentration, time management or social skills.

Now I want you to imagine or remember an experience of dealing with this barrier and use the word or phrase you’ve chosen as a target to remind you of it. So you might recall a time you handed something in late, how you were penalised for it, perhaps had to explain to classmates or parents that you lost marks for lateness and recall the feelings you had at the time, all the while thinking ‘late‘. Now let yourself fully experience the feelings that happened at the time.

[PAUSE – 20 seconds]

Now on a scale ranging from 0 to 10 – with 0 being no distress, and 10 being unbearable distress – just write down how distressed you felt just now as you imagined or remembered this experience and applied this word to yourself. Now also on a scale of 0 to 10 – with 0 being not believable at all, and 10 being completely convincing – rate how much you believed this thought as you did the exercise.

Now repeat the process we carried out before with the word ‘milk’. That is, for thirty seconds say the target word out loud, as fast as you can without stopping.

[PAUSE – 30 seconds]

Okay. Now immediately rate the level of distress and the level of believability on the same 10-point scale as before.


As with the ‘milk’ exercise, most people find that this repetition reduces both the level of distress they feel and how believable the word is. In effect, they begin to see, and I hope you do too, that a word is just a word; a thought is just a thought.

The next exercise is Finish The Sentence.

Exercise 2: Finish The Sentence

I’m now going to say some incomplete phrases or sentences. If you grew up in Australia, you’ll probably be familiar with many, if not all of these phrases. Your task is to simply say the final word or words that complete the phrase or sentence. Ready? Let’s start:

Sticks and stones may break my              

Goldilocks and the three              

Once upon a              

And they all lived happily                            

Advance Australia              

Did you find that the words came to mind automatically, with no effort on the part of your mind? This is simply because of your conditioned verbal history. You’re used to hearing fairy tales that begin with ‘once upon a time‘ and end with ‘and they all lived happily ever after‘. It took many repetitions for you to learn to expect that final word. But now it’s so well-drilled that you have to effortfully work to come up with something else. Now try finishing these sentences:

I think I’m too              

I wish I wasn’t so              

I could be truly happy if              

You probably found those sentences pretty easy to finish too. And I’m sure you didn’t come up with sentences like “I think I’m too fabulous“, or “I wish I wasn’t so lovable and smart“. No, chances are your sentences indicated a negative evaluation of you and your qualities. Again this is relatively automatic for the same reason that your mind gives you ‘once upon a time’ instead of ‘once upon a pancake’. It’s what you’ve rehearsed and repeated many times.

Now, if I told you that tomorrow I’m coming round to your place with a thousand dollars in cash to give to you as long you say ‘pancake’ after I say to you “Once upon a“, do you think you’d be able to change what you say? I bet you would.

I bet you’d stay up all night practising the ‘milk’ exercise but with ‘once upon a pancake‘!

So, for a thousand dollars, you’re willing to see ‘time‘ and ‘pancake‘ as just words – and in the context of getting a thousand dollars, one is suddenly more valuable than the other and you’re willing to defuse from ‘once upon a time’.

Now be careful with this. My point is not to get you to simply change from automatically saying ‘I wish I wasn’t so lazy‘ to automatically saying ‘I wish I wasn’t so clever‘.

My aim is not change what your mind tells you, nor to change the automaticity of it. Rather, I want you to have the experience of choosing whether or not you go along with each thought your mind automatically brings you. These automatic thoughts and beliefs tend to just appear – immediate, fully-formed and with lots of credibility.

The next few exercises are designed to give you the time to see this mind of yours in operation mid-flight so that you can have a choice about how you respond to them.


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