Is it possible, yes. It may be difficult at first (and in some circumstances), but with practice it will get easier.
What am I talking about? Changing your thoughts and beliefs, of course!
We have been talking about cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for the last few weeks, and it is finally time to talk about the goal of CBT, which is to change one’s maladaptive thoughts.
As mentioned before, CBT assumes that thoughts, behaviors, and emotions are interconnected, and that furthermore, thoughts cause behaviors and emotions. Therefore, to change our feelings and actions, we need to change our thoughts.
In my first article on CBT, I suggested some exercises to you, to help you become more aware of your own thoughts; you need to be aware of your thoughts and beliefs before you can consider changing them.
Then in my previous article, I linked you to a worksheet I had created; completing the worksheet has hopefully allowed you to see for yourself whether your thoughts have a causal effect on your feelings and behaviors.
But how are you going to change your thoughts, and what are you going to put in the place of your old thoughts?
The first step in challenging one’s thoughts is to put them under a microscope and look at them like a scientist. To look for what is rational, for what is backed by evidence…and what is not.
Once we find irrational beliefs, we will replace them with rational ones. This takes practice, but will get easier over time.
Let us now continue with our case study example of Jane, and see how she might approach this exercise.
As you might recall, Jane had been invited to the home of her good friend, Fiona, where she was subsequently informed that Fiona was planning to move away in just two weeks. Jane had felt rejected by the short notice regarding the move and had left her friend’s home right away and refused to return her calls later.
This is how Jane completed this exercise:
Thoughts: Fiona does not care about me and has rejected me.
Evidence: Why didn’t Fiona give me a longer notice that she was moving? This is potential evidence that she does not care about my feelings.
But still, she did give me notice. She even invited me to dinner to give me the news in person.
Furthermore, I have known Fiona for many years and and can recall many instances where I felt that she did care for me. And quite a lot!
Conclusion: Fiona knows I’m sensitive and she could have given me more advanced notice about the move, but I seem to be using that one piece of evidence (of her not caring) against a mountain of evidence accumulated from many years, evidence that shows Fiona cares about me, is accepting of me, and cherishes our friendship.
I do not know why she didn’t tell me earlier that she was moving but I owe it to our friendship to see her again, apologize, tell her how the notice of her moving away had made me feel, and give her a chance to explain her situation.
What do you think of how Jane evaluated her thoughts? If you liked her approach, you can try it yourself: Take any distressing event, perhaps one from last week’s completed worksheet, review your thoughts about the event, then evaluate your thoughts carefully in light of the evidence.
If you would like a more structured approach, the following five questions might be helpful. Focus on one particular belief, and ask:
- What would it mean and what would happen, if this belief were true?
- What is the evidence for/against this thought?
- Does all the evidence considered support my belief?
- Based on the evidence, how else can I interpret these events?
- What would this new interpretation mean? What emotions/behaviors would follow?
As you complete this exercise, you may notice certain tendencies; for instance, the tendency to overgeneralize based on only a couple of negative events (e.g., you say that your friend, who has been late only twice, is always late).
Overgeneralization is one of the many cognitive errors that we commit, errors which I will discuss next week.