Now that you’ve gotten a pretty good idea of what CBT is and how it might work, let’s take a more in-depth look at understanding how negative thinking and interpretations of the things around you affect you. Let’s start with the kinds of negative thought patterns that are related to feeling rotten (I know – great way to start, huh?) Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck are two guys in our field that are pretty much the founding fathers of CBT. They both start with types of negative thinking or information processing – Ellis calls these “irrational beliefs” and Beck calls them “errors in information processing.” (Ellis, by the way is the dude who came up with the terms “stinkin’ thinking,” “catastrophizing,” and “don’t ‘should’ on yourself” – the man is blunt, but he does know how to turn a phrase!) The gist of these is that we get caught up in unrealistic ways of thinking, interpreting and perceiving ourselves and the world around us.

Ellis has 11 “irrational beliefs” that he describes:

  • It is essential that a person be loved or approved of by virtually everyone in the community
  • A person must be perfectly competent, adequate, and achieving to be considered worthwhile
  • Some people are bad, wicked, or villainous and therefore should be blamed and punished
  • It is a terrible catastrophe when things are not as a person wants them to be
  • Unhappiness is cause by outside circumstances, and a person has no control over it
  • Dangerous or fearsome things are cause for great concern, and their possibility must be continually dwelt upon
  • It is easier to avoid certain difficulties and self-responsibilities than to face them
  • A person should be dependent on others and should have someone stronger on whom to rely
  • Past experiences and events are the determinants of present behavior; the influence of the past cannot be eradicated
  • A person should be quite upset over other people’s problems and disturbances
  • There is always a right or perfect solution to every problem, and it must be found or the results will be catastrophic.

These are pretty harsh statements, don’t you think? While some may be true in part, having these roiling around in your mind as absolutes can really make it hard for you to see things as they are. Beck’s list is somewhat similar (but shorter!):

  • Arbitrary Inference: Coming to a certain conclusion without any evidence or in the face of evidence to the contrary. (Example: “I’m an idiot.”)
  • Selective Abstraction: Pulling out one little bit of a situation and ignoring other meaning ful pieces, followed by labeling or interpreting the whole thing based on that one little bit. (Example: I got a “C” on my exam. I’ll never get into grad school. I’m going to flunk out, I just know it.”)
  • Overgeneralization: Making a general rule out of what really should be an isolated incident – then using it over a whole range of situations. (Example: The driver of that car was an idiot – he cut me off! Ah, he’s from California…the people there don’t know how to drive. I’m sure he’s a hippie, too.)
  • Magnification: blowing something out of proportion (Example: You ruined this whole trip by not sharing a room with me. This whole thing is just a mess now.) Minimization: the opposite of magnification – making things that significant seem insignificant or nonexistant. (Example: An abusive spouse, who after hitting someone says, “It was just a tap. It wasn’t anything.”)
  • Personalization: Thinking it’s all about you, even when there’s no reason to think so. (Example: “Oh it just figures it would rain. It’s MY prom day, and of course, there’s bad weather.”)
  • Absolute and/or dichotomous thinking (Also called “black & white” and “either/or” thinking): Not seeing the “gray area” or middle ground, and categorizing people, “I’m the worst mother in the world” or “Nobody will ever like me” or “I’m a failure.”)

Another type that is common here – and probably falls across a lot of these categories is the “should.” Ellis had a phrase that I love: “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself,” and I have to tell you that as true as it is, it’s also hard to break the habit of shoulding. And, quite frankly, not all shoulds are harmful – some of them are the glue holding our society together: we should follow the law, we should not harm other people, we should respect other people’s boundaries, etc. However, there are a LOT of shoulds that can and (pardon the pun) should be examined – do they help us or not? Even becoming aware of all the shoulds is a tough process – a lot of them are so ingrained in how are and who we are that we don’t even think of them as “shoulds” anymore. Things like, “I should not complain, even when ________ hits me,” or “I should not air my family’s dirty laundry” (even when doing so would stop abuse). “I should be over it by now” “I should be a better ________” ” I should do _______ better/more often/less”…you get the idea.

Beck thinks that, with people who are depressed (and my guess is that this this true for people in a lot of situations), there is a cognitive triad that is essentially a cycle that is on a downward spiral. The first part of the triad is seeing the self as being fundamentally flawed or defective. The second piece that the person interprets things as being negative, even when they’re not or if there is evidence that they aren’t. Life here is always getting in the way and is never good, so the everday aspects of living feel overwhelming and impossible. The final piece of the triad is that the future is probably going to be bad, and the person expects failure to happen.

I don’t know about you all…but I see myself in a lot of this. “Stinkin’ thinking” and “shoulding” is easy to slip into, easy to make a habit out of. It’s especially true when there are others who get let off the hook and gain from us doing this –  they tend to reinforce us thinking this way. There are ways out, though – and as I said earlier, it takes commitment and practice. On that pleasant note…on to the next bit, which will be a lot more upbeat.

So, next up: Dealing with Stinkin’ Thinkin & the Shoulds (sounds like the name of a rock band, doesn’t it? “Stinkin’ Thinkin’ & the Shoulds”)

Please Note: The content on  this blog is intended for informational purposes only. This is not therapy, and if you wish to work in therapy, please contact your local mental health agency or your physician for a referral.

If you are in crisis or danger, please call 911 for immediate help. Please, again, realize that seeking out help really IS a sign of strength and not a sign of weakness. You don’t have to be alone in facing these things – there are people who care and who will help. Email me at: theothersideofthecouch@live.com

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