Inside the Mind of a Metacognitive Therapist – Part 7 Detached Mindfulness
Inside the Mind of a Metacognitive Therapist – Part 7 Detached Mindfulness

Inside the Mind of a Metacognitive Therapist – Part 7 Detached Mindfulness

Detached mindfulness is being aware of having a thought while leaving it alone.

In metacognitive therapy, it is often helpful to practice a basic treatment component called detached mindfulness (DM) to facilitate meta-level change and to reduce The Cognitive-Attentional Syndrome (CAS).

This post is relevant to both therapists and clients who, somehow, are in contact with metacognitive therapy. This post explores DM as a concept and what it is like in practice.

DM helps a person to be aware of how he or she relates to inner experiences, which can help a person to step back from thoughts — to observe thoughts as inner events in the mind. It is an experiential exercise.

DM can be delivered and practiced in many different ways. Often I use metaphors and thinking modulation experiments to explore how it is possible to step back from thoughts.

DM is a useful tool that can be used to facilitate meta-level change. However, metacognitive therapy can be implemented without specifically practicing DM, and the practice of DM does not determine the success of an intervention. (1, p. 87-88).

DM can be misused as a thought control strategy, e.g. distraction, and for that reason, I always keep an eye on the client’s goal in using the technique to ensure that it is used appropiately. Remember, we do not use DM to get rid of thoughts. Instead we use it to train the observer perspective or to interrupt unhelpful thinking processes.

Examples of DM could be like: “Can you see yourself as separate from that idea?”, “Are you the belief or the person holding that belief?” “What are the advantages of practicing being separate from that idea?”.

Now, I am going to emphasize really important aspects of DM that I have borrowed from the handbook on the same subject by the original author of metacognitive therapy prof. Adrian Wells (1).

The concept of detached mindfulness

Here you get a conceptual definition of detached mindfulness (1, p. 74):

  • Meta-awareness (consciousness of thoughts).
  • Cognitive decentering ( comprehension of thoughts as events 
separate from facts).
  • Attentional detachment and control (attention remains flexible and not anchored to any one thing).
  • Low conceptual processing (low levels of meaning-based analysis or inner dialogue).
  • Low goal-directed coping (behaviors and goals to avoid or remove erroneous threat are not implemented).
  • Altered self-awareness (experience of a singularity in-consciousness of self as an observer separate from thoughts and beliefs).

In his book, Adrian Wells stresses how DM is different from mindfulness meditation that is used in other therapy contexts, such as the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (1, p. 79):

  • DM does not involve meditation.
  • DM does not require extensive and continuous practice.
  • DM does not require broader features of mindfulness such as 
increasing present-moment awareness.
  • Mindfulness in meditation tends to use body-focus exercises such 
as focusing on the breath to bring attention back to the present if it is captured by thoughts. DM does not have body-focused anchors for attention.
  • DM specifically concerns developing meta-awareness of thoughts rather than present-moment awareness.
  • Mindfulness has many meanings with a limited consensus. The definition and features of DM are more tightly specified in advance.
  • DM separates meta-awareness from detachment.
  • DM is specific about the suspension of conceptual processing.
  • DM is specific concerning the suspension of goal-directed coping.
  • DM is specific in the concept of separation of sense of self from 
mental phenomena.

To sum everything up, Adrian Wells states that (1, p. 87):

DM is a state of relating to inner thoughts and beliefs in a particular way. It is intended to increase flexible control over thinking styles and promote the development of a new model of the significance and importance of thoughts and beliefs.

This post is number 7 of the series “Inside the Mind of a Metacognitive Therapist”. You might want to catch up on the other parts as well.

The next post that I am going to write is about specific techniques to engage in detached mindfulness.


Reference: (1) Wells, A. (2009). Metacognitive therapy for anxiety and depression. Guilford Press.