Knowing and Mastering your Thoughts with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Our entire lives, we have been thinking – things happen, and we simply respond. External events are in control, other people are in control – they make us feel sad, they make us feel happy, they make us scream and shout and cry and jump.
But events do not, in themselves, determine the way we feel, the way we behave.
It is the way we see the event – our internal beliefs, thoughts, and the meanings we give it – that decides our emotions and our actions.
You can see this in a simple example. Coco has been desperately trying to get her husband to pay attention to her. But to her dismay, he is deeply engrossed in his work; he brushes her off with an irritated look on his face. Does she get angry? How rude! Does she get devastated and think about divorce? He doesn’t love me at all, if he can’t even spare me five minutes!
Perhaps she shrugs and brushes it off. Everyone gets stressed at work; let’s see how he behaves after he’s met his deadlines.
The Force of Thoughts and the Impact of Mastery
Our external world is a reflection of our internal – our emotions, our thoughts. True change has to begin from the inside out; there is no other way.
Emotional work – releasing and healing the deeper levels of our being, has been one of the biggest discoveries in my own journey. And yet there are times it is too slow; there are some situations it cannot apply to. I have been using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques for a while now on smaller issues – quitting smoking, boosting self-esteem, reframing painful events – but I only just realised how powerful it was.
A few weeks ago, I fell into a relapse in my depression. Emotional meditation didn’t seem to work, I just couldn’t let it go. In desperation, I ran away from it. I tried drowning it in alcohol or cigarettes – it just made things worse. I turned to CBT – and was amazed to find that I began to recover after intense examination of my sorrows.
I think this post will be one of the important in this website. As a result, I’ve let it run on into one long post. I know it will be hard to read and time-consuming to put into practice. But I sincerely believe emotional work and mental work can improve every area of our lives. You can go from horrible to good, from good to better. My examples cover a merely a tiny sample of what is possible. Combine this series with the emotional mastery series, and I believe there is no area of our internal world that is left unexamined, unhealed.
None of this work can be seen as quick fixes; they take real commitment and perseverance – but the changes are drastic and well worth it.
The Ancient and The Modern
The similarities between CBT and many spiritual traditions are striking – both agree that the larger the disparity between reality and what we think reality should be, the more suffering we have. The first step to mental mastery is to cease our inner resistance – to simply recognise the thoughts, and let the pain begin to fade away. Often times, this very act will be enough. Let the world be, accept our changes.
Let that be your first step. But for many, this might not be enough. Instead of ceasing the cognitions, we can change them, come to a different point of change.
The ABCs of Changing Our World
The basis of CBT lies in the ABC model. The A represents the Antecedent – the triggering event; the B stands for our Beliefs– our internal cognitions, and the C represents the Consequences – our feelings and behaviours.
It is the way we process the Antecedent that leads to the Consequences. And yet these processes are often unconscious, automatic. They are so deeply a part of us that we often do not recognise their presence.
And yet, how do we examine a butterfly if we do not know it is there, if we cannot catch it?
Knowing Yourself is True Wisdom
And this leads us to the first step: self-examination. Gnothi Seauton, said the ancient Greeks – know yourself. It is rigorous, yet the most rewarding process we can undergo.
Knowing your thoughts is a skill that has to be developed. Many do not even recognise that we talk to ourselves. Just as our nose has been in our view for so long that we don’t see it anymore, so has our self-talk has been so deeply ingrained, that we don’t know it is there. It is from this blindness that we have developed the false belief that the A leads directly to the C.
Things are complicated when the self-talk is negative; many call such thoughts the voice of our internal critic.
Many times the critic attacks below our awareness – perhaps you walk into a room full of strangers, and you feel your anxiety begin to rise. Why? You don’t know – and most people leave it at that – just a feeling, and they act accordingly. What if you focus on it, analyse it? What might you discover? You feel insecure in your ability to make friends; you feel ugly; you feel like a boring person.
Some thoughts are easier to recognise. You slip up and make an inappropriate joke; and you slap your forehead – Damn! I’ve done it again!
A Quick Time-Out
A brief moment of self-examination. Think of something that recently created a negative feeling, no matter how small. What happened? What were you feeling? What were you thinking, or what caused your feelings? What were the consequences, what did you do?
Some might find this easy, others might find it hard. Yet persist. Peel away the layers, again and again, refusing to be satisfied with a superficial answer, refusing to be afraid at what you might find. Write down all you’ve discovered.
And another powerful exercise: Do the same for an imagined future. What are your fears and beliefs there?
An example: many of my past relationships have been with the same people in different skins – they always followed the same patterns. When I imagined my next relationship, I found many fears and safeguards against being lied to and being abused again. Yet these lead to defensive behaviours the same behaviours that would in fact perpetuate my fears!
What would your challenging future situations be? A career change? A meeting with your spouse, your boss, an old enemy? People you find sexually attractive? A new relationship, if you are searching for one?
Carry It With You
Carry this skill with you wherever you go – practice constantly watching yourself, especially in times of distress. Learn to recognise the thoughts and the beliefs that underlie your afflictive emotions.
Here are some examples of situations you might want to focus on:
- You have made a mistake or risk making a mistake.
- You were criticised or risk being criticised.
- Interactions with people you are intimidated by.
- Interactions with people you find sexually attractive.
You don’t have to save it for the bigger issues you are dealing with; very often minor situations could reveal underlying insecurities just as effectively.
A personal example might be helpful at this stage to illustrate the process. I began with the A and the C, and I relived the event to capture my self-talk. This was then summarised into the middle section.
A large group dinner with people I am not familiar with, some of which are authority figures.
Beliefs / Thoughts:
I can’t speak to large groups; I would say something stupid and offend someone or embarrass myself. Irrational, because I don’t feel this fear in smaller groups. Such a thought could stem from a deeper insecurity: how interesting or boring a conversationalist I am, how “cool” my interests and life pursuits are, and so on. Another irrational belief would be that people in authority are somehow better than me. (Deeper beliefs will be covered in a future post.)
Feelings: Awkward, out of place.
Behaviours: Hardly spoke at all throughout the dinner.
Further feelings: Additionally, disapproved of myself for being “shy”, for falling back into giving way to authority figures.
The beliefs and thoughts took a while to analyse and recognise, for they were so automatic. All I felt at the time was a hesitance to talk, and a slight confusion as to why I felt shy. Again, I cannot stress enough the importance of practice if this step is hard for you.
Memories and Other Forms of Criticism
At this point, it would be helpful to go into more information on the internal critic. When I first began to analyse my thoughts, I focused merely on my thoughts – but our internal worlds are far richer and more vivid than we realise!
Every part of our internal world bears a message. Realise that your internal critic, the killer of self-esteem, of courage and joy, comes in so many forms!
- Sensations and feelings
- Narrations in your voice
- Voices of other people
- Imaginary people, enemies, and friends
- Fantasies and daydreams
How would we analyse those? Another example might help. The memory is my most common form of self-attack. I’ve mentioned a man many times before; a client who tricked me into giving him a free draft in my design business and vilely abused me when he didn’t like what I’ve done for him. He hurt me deeply – I replayed his words daily, nearly every waking minute for several years.
It confused me, for I have suffered far worse betrayals and insults. Why was this wound bleeding, why did it refuse to heal? And one day I realised the truth: so simple, yet I had missed it for so long! He wasn’t abusing me I was!
I had agreed with him without realising it. A piece of shit, he called me, and I agreed. He hung up on me, tossed me aside after using me, and I had unknowingly agreed with his unspoken message – that I didn’t deserve respect; that a favour for a complete stranger didn’t even deserve a “thank you”. That was my self-esteem, my self-image at the time. I agreed!
The entire two years, I have been letting my critic disguised in his voice call me a piece of shit; I’ve been living my life like one – it contributed significantly into my fall into depression.
Everything else – even fantasies and daydreams – are a treasure chest of self-knowledge. If it triggers a sense of discomfort – and pride is a negative emotion too – take note, and look deeply.
A similar process is described in this article, although it is more relevant to emotional work: Finding your core shames and pains.
Shelf-help: I cannot overstate the importance of doing this work. It is easy to get lazy; to leave these techniques on the shelf, never to be seen again. I came across CBT a long time ago, but worked at it half-heartedly for many months. A deep misery was required to truly motivate me; but I wish I had started earlier – I might not have fallen into the pit to begin with.
Too gimmicky: Another objection I had initially – I thought it all seemed too easy, too gimmicky, to be effective. This was the same reaction I had to emotional work, which later changed my life in ways I cannot describe. Similarly, CBT is a scientifically proven method, and I have used enough to say with confidence that you will get results if you put the work in.
Make it constant: Keep a journal in your pocket – capture your thoughts on paper at the earliest opportunity. Memory erodes, perceptions get distorted; time is always of the essence.
Mental work: We can’t do this mentally, at least not at the start, for our minds are where the distortions begin! Pen and paper is the surest method. Cutting corners or being lazy will only hurt you and slow your progress.
Silence your thoughts
And someone might think – This requires a lot of work, free time to examine. What can I do when I am in the situation itself?
The simplest method is the Stop-Breathe-Leave.
Stop: Simply pause, to prevent your instincts from taking over. Many undesirable behaviours can be prevented simply by taking a few moments.
Breathe: Breathe deeply into the emotion, the discomfort. Emotions come with physical sensations and tensions – breathe into the sensations, relax your muscles, and let the emotions die out through your conscious acceptance.
Leave: Some situations might require you to take a moment to consider your options and collect yourself. You might then breathe until you feel calm, or you might take a moment to do some distortion and disputation work.
A deeper example
Another example might be useful at this point. A few months ago, I had a series of rude comments. I’ve never had any before, and I was shocked to receive three in as many days. They were unfounded; for example, one accused me of ripping off my writing style from an author I had never heard of. Another accused me of trying to trick readers into think I was a monk (after reading from my own “About” page I wasn’t, strangely enough).
These attacks were unprovoked and seemed cowardly to me; I felt very hurt and angry. A sampling of my initial thoughts included:
- Who are you to invade my space and insult me?
- After spending two minutes and finding out from my own pages and articles I am not a monk, you decide I am trying to trick you into thinking I am a monk?
- What have I done to deserve this?
- F$% OFF! Leave me alone!
The Distortions have crept in
Feeling hurt and angry was probably a normal human reaction. But I realised a week later I was still stewing over it, and that my anger had long degenerated from the appropriate to the inappropriate. It had touched on some deep core sorrows – the same ones the abusive client had hit – but I also realised that much of my anger came from my sensitivity, and distorted thinking.
My new thoughts were very different from what they were originally; can you see the difference a mere few days makes?
- Nobody likes my blog.
- They’re all ungrateful bastards.
- Everyone thinks I am a fraud.
- I will be attacked again and again if I continue blogging, maybe I should quit before it happens again.
Keep things in perspective, they always say. And I was losing perspective very quickly, overreacting very badly. I didn’t realise how far I had slipped until I emailed a close friend and he talked me through it. With his clear and compassionate perspective on the situation, it struck me how far from reality my cognitions had become.
What was the truth?
- There will always be people who are just out to hassle and hurt, it is not a reflection on you.
- They are just three people out of thousands of satisfied readers.
Armed with a more realistic view of the situation, I suddenly realised how silly I was being. Did I really consider a long break, or even to quit blogging, because of three comments?
Distortions are Real!
And I have to apologise for adding that story to an already long post, but it serves a very important purpose. It shows that cognitive distortions, no matter how silly we might think they are, are very real to the person living them. I chose a relatively minor Antecedent on purpose; yet the distortions and consequences were rather big and disproportionate.
Please also note that I am not looking for compassion or support. I appreciate your sentiments, but I am not really bothered by rude comments anymore.
And this is also the start of compassion – for while I saw the attacks as unfounded, the commenters saw them as very valid. This realisation was the start of understanding, of compassion.
As you read through the example above, you might notice something interesting – and many CBT therapists hasten to add this point into their manuals – this is not a rediscovery of the “power of positive thinking”. Many forms of positive thinking involve trying to convince ourselves of something we believe is untrue. In my experience, and many will agree, that simply does not work.
CBT is rather about finding a perception that is as rational and realistic as possible. It does not gloss over the negatives, or pretend they don’t exist. We’ve acknowledged that people will hurt us, that disagreements and uninvited attacks will occur – but we do not give it power beyond what it really has.
Further Reading: The Danger of Positive Thinking.
With those two points in mind, it is time for the next step: recognising the distortions and finding out how to combat them.
Have you ever done something that you later regretted? That is a perfect example of the distortions disappearing naturally over time. We wake up and realise how silly we have been. Why not speed up this process, why not straighten out the distortions that time does not heal?
Every Cognitive Behavioural Therapy manual lists a few common distortions. I’ll list the most relevant from five or six different tomes, with my own interpretations and examples, with some ways to combat them.
1. All or Nothing Thinking
We think in terms of pure genius or pure fool, saint or sinner, success or failure; there is no in-between. There are drawbacks to both ends of the distortion, but most of the time we end up on the negative. Why? The moment we make a mistake – and we will – we slip into seeing ourselves as a failure. You could see this in my example: if I can’t please every reader every time, I am a total failure and should stop blogging.
Disputing: The emphasis here, and on many other distortions, is on precision! Realise there are gradations in everything you do. An 80% success rate is just that – it does not mean you are a failure. There is no one who succeeds all the time, and no one who fails all the time. There is no black and white – there is a long line, shades of grey, and all of us are somewhere in that line. No shade of gray is worth more than another.
A lecturer told me once: a million white swans cannot prove all swans are white. All it takes is one black swan to disprove that statement.
This distortion focuses on the opposite – the one black swan, out of the million and one, and uses it to prove the statement: “All swans are black.” More than 2,000 comments to date and a grand total of 4-5 negative ones. This is less than 0.25%, yet I was reacting as if every commenter had been negative.
On a broader scale, overgeneralisation means a judgement spills over to other areas of life. If I failed as a blogger, I will fail in everything else – so why try? Does this sound absurd? Hardly – I have a friend who once saw himself as a failure in life when he realised he didn’t fix a leaking faucet properly.
Disputing: Realise that nothing is absolute. Mistakes are inevitable. Negative people, setbacks, will always be a part of life. Look at the entire situation with an unbiased eye; look for the good. Be specific and precise – 5 rude comments is all it is.
3. Global Labelling
This distortion is very similar to overgeneralisation; the only difference is that it applies to labels. Based on one comment, I saw the reader as an absolute asshole. But he could have been a loving family man, a saint, for all I know. A more dangerous label applies to how we see ourselves. I was starting to label myself as a bad blogger. A far more pervasive – and painful – label, would have been to call myself a total failure in life. Many years ago, I had done the exact same thing over one broken relationship.
Disputing: The keys, once again, are truthfulness and specificity. Change “I am fat” to “I am 20 pounds overweight.” Change “I am a bad parent” to “I yell at my children whenever I am stressed.”
4. Mental Filter
This revolves around the information we receive and the way we digest it. We filter out the good and look only at the bad. You are throwing a dinner party; the food was excellent the entire night, but suddenly you realise that your dessert has gone stale. Immediately you forget everything leading up to this point – you are a horrible cook!
Disputing: Once again, taking a step back and looking at the big picture; remembering to look closely at details. Yes, the job interviewer mentioned a mistake you made in answering a question; but perhaps you have forgotten how impressed he was at your other responses.
5. Magnifying or “awfulising”
Remember the dinner party from above? Your boss is one of your guests – now, based on one bad dessert, he thinks you are a failure and you will never get your promotion! You will be toiling away at the lower levels of the company forever!
This distortion is a cousin to the mental filter – we magnify whatever negative event we focus on. Another example: I met a beautiful girl once who thought she was hideous because she didn’t have “enough curve” to her hips.
Disputing: Look at the big picture and at specifics rationally analyse whatever happened, have a closer look at the outcomes. Is it really as bad as you think it is?
6. Jumping to conclusions / Mind Reading
This can apply to events or people. We don’t know what will happen in the future, or what other people are thinking. Cole was rejected when he asked a girl out on a date; he automatically assumes – painfully – that he is hideous and unattractive. But what if she was genuinely busy, she already had a boyfriend, or she was just in a bad mood?
And this is the same for events: Cole’s car begins to rattle as he drives; does it automatically mean that it is going to explode?
Disputing: Realise that your guesses are simply guesses – they might not be right. Get some more information; it might shed light on the situation. Come up with alternative explanations for what happened.
7. Emotional Reasoning
You identify with your emotions – a very common mistake. You get a phone call – you have been rejected for another potential job. You feel worthless; you feel it is hopeless; that you will never find a job. You take your feelings for the truth, and decide to give up completely.
Disputing: Realise that you are not your emotions. You feel unworthy, ugly, stupid yes; but it is just a feeling, one that passes. Your feelings don’t determine what you are.
Personalisation sees everything as a reflection on you; the universe revolves around you. Your car has broken down; it is your fault and you must have done something to deserve it. A friend walks past without saying hi; she must have done it on purpose to make you angry! Your child does not do their homework properly; you must be a bad father!
A commenter accuses me of something I have not done; it was more a reflection of his distortions. There is no realistic reason for me to feel guilt – and yet I did.
Comparing yourself to others is a good sign of this distortion too. She is smart, he is handsome – that’s them. Why bring yourself into it?
Disputing: Many actions are a reflection on the other person, many events are just general. You meet a stranger, he shouts at you, but he was just angry and you just happened to be in his way. Perhaps he hates everyone who has blue eyes – why take it as a reflection of your value?
9. Should Statements
This deserves a whole post in and of itself, but a brief description is needed here. This distortion revolves around “musts” and “shoulds”. People should always be polite. I must always be on time. I must always get good service from the guy who sells me lunch. Food should always taste good.
Disputing: Realise that the world is never set in stone. It would be nice if burgers always taste good, if people are always polite. But that will never happen, and accepting that will remove much of our anguish. Besides, it will be boring if everyone was nice and sweet all the time!
10. Control Fallacies
Control fallacies are split into two: One puts you in charge of the whole universe. You hold yourself responsible for everything that happens. You take responsibility for the bad behaviour of every guest at your party. It is your fault entirely when your wife comes home drunk again. Your husband falls and trips, you begin to apologise.
The second version puts everyone but you in charge. You lose your job – it is your manager’s fault. You spend too much money on a night out – it is the bartender’s fault. You break your diet – your colleague shouldn’t have been eating fried chicken, he put the idea in your head! They’re all teaming up to get you.
Disputing: Recognise that influence is not control. You have a part to play in your child’s grades, in your wife’s alcoholism. But ultimately they are in control of their own actions. It is the same the other way around. People can influence you, events can throw you off course, but you have to take responsibility for your own actions.
Once we have learnt to recognise the distortions, therapists recommend expanding the model to the ABCD model, where D is for Disputation.
This step involves installing a more rational and realistic manner of thinking. We talk back – dispute – the critical and negative self-talk that has invaded our minds. We take back control of our emotions and feelings.
Expand the journal you have been taking. Add two new columns: Distortions – which distortions have applied, and Disputations, a rational replacement for your beliefs. Again, this might take time to learn, as it is a new skill, but it is not as hard as it seems. Given time, it will become automatic.
A continuation of my rude commenter example:
Distortions and the relevant Disputations:
All or Nothing Thinking: A 0.25% negative comment rate is very impressive, given the experiences of other bloggers I have spoken to.
Mental Filter: What about the hundreds of emails that I have received thanking me for positive changes I have made in their lives?
Emotional Reasoning: Just because I felt that I would always be under attack doesn’t mean that I will!
Some might think: but this only applies to thoughts! How does this help us in the real world?
Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, expands the model with an E for Energisation. With a more realistic perception of the event, we are energised into positive action.
Our internal world determines how we respond externally. Jack’s daughter does not do well on her exam; he begins to feel like he is a failure as a father and that she is stupid.
He begins to wallow in self-pity, losing himself in alcohol. Perhaps he gives up trying to teach her; maybe he gets angry and gives her a spanking. What would that do for her future grades, her mental health, and family relations?
What if he found the cognitive distortions, and installed a more rational response? He might have realised he had filtered out the good things he had always done for her; that he was a good father after all. He might have realised that she wasn’t stupid – she was a child after all, and children do get lazy. Perhaps he realised he was magnifying the mistake – a failed exam wasn’t that big a deal.
Without the anger and clouded judgements, his actions will be far more positive, more productive.
Expand your journal again with yet another column. What ways could you energise yourself, what positive actions could you take?
Further Reading: Surrender and Joy in the Pursuit of Excellence.
A Healthy Supportive Voice
To finish off the post, I would like to give an additional suggestion for disputing, taken from Self-Esteem. This is the adoption of a healthy supportive voice. As we have mentioned, much of our critical self-talk comes in the form of voices or memories or visualisations. Creating a healthy counterpart will make this mechanism work for you. Instead of a rude and angry voice, why not a loving or supportive one? Instead of using the image of an abusive teacher to shout at yourself, why not use the image of your mother to nurture you?
I was unknowingly using this a while back. I visualised myself – an older, calmer, and wiser version – talking compassionately and kindly to a young teenage boy who was going through the same troubles I am now.
Find your own image, or voice, one that works for you. It could be plain – a father figure, a mentor; or it could be fantastic – perhaps your favourite movie star, a superhero, a guardian angel. There is nothing to be ashamed of, let your imagination soar!
Mastering Yourself is True Power
“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”
~ The Tao Te Ching
I hope this post provides a good overview of CBT techniques; a modern approach to knowing yourself by monitoring your own thoughts, and mastering yourself by taking back control of your internal world.