By Nan Little
One morning I woke up and realized that I hated my life. Everything about it seemed wrong. I had a college degree in English that I was putting to excellent use as a waitress. I was seemingly chronically single. My days seemed to consist mainly of killing time in bars telling everyone who would listen that I was a writer, although I hadn’t put a pen to paper in over a year and a half. I felt like a failure, and had almost convinced myself that it would always be that way. Looking ahead and seeing nothing but time to be filled, I thought about suicide a lot. This was what the end of my rope looked like. A drastic change was needed, so I quit my job, moved home, and hauled my happy, fat, and desperately confused self into a therapists office.
I sat there for that first session in cut off jeans and unwashed hair telling her all about what was wrong with the world. I had been wronged. Nobody loved me, my family had issues, I was a failure as a writer because the world wasn’t set up for my way of life. Everyone was making so many demands on me to be a certain way, to live a certain life, and I couldn’t seem to make it work. My failures were everyone else’s fault. Well, that and the fact that I must just be wrong and a generally bad person to deserve this kind of treatment. Sitting there crying and looking like the mess I felt like, I wanted to learn how to be whatever it was that the world wanted me to be so it would give me what I wanted.
I did have something to learn, but it wasn’t the lesson I came looking for. The problem wasn’t that I was a bad person who deserved my shoddy treatment. My problems weren’t my situations, the people in my life, or the seemingly endless stream of catastrophes (what do you mean you don’t want my phone number? We just had an amazing conversation in a bar for two hours!) that befell me on a daily basis. The problem was how I viewed myself and the world. The voice in my head was filled with very irrational messages, and it was stuck on repeat.
What Is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy?
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the idea that our feelings are governed by our thoughts about situations, people, and events in our lives and not those things themselves. Rather than focusing on changing the external forces we see as screwing up our lives, CBT focuses on changing the way we think to help us feel better. By learning to think differently, a person can develop rational self-counseling skills that can be used to deal with life.
How CBT Works
First a person needs to learn the irrational assumptions through which they view situations. Using the Socratic method is one way to do this. By questioning our thoughts about a situation that is upsetting us and trying to view the situation later through facts, a person will most likely realize that they are upset for no reason. If a person is upset because a friend isn’t returning a phone call, they are probably assuming that the friend is mad or has suddenly decided they hate the worrier and never want to speak to them again. If the person then asks themselves, “Why would they be mad?” and comes up with no reasonable answer, they can then ask, “Is it possible they are just very busy?” Through this method of questioning the assumption, the person realizes that they probably have no reason to be upset about the problem of the unreturned phone call. They have realized that the irrational thoughts were actually why they were even upset. As we gather new information about a situation, we might find that our original assumptions are wrong.
Once a person understands their irrational thought patterns, they can use this information to modify their behavior as they deal with the situations and events of their life that might be causing them problems. Immediate emotional reactions to situations are created in an area of the brain known as the limbic system. This area of the brain moves fast and reacts to situations based on instantly made impressions. This is helpful when a speeding car is coming at us and we need to freak out and run, but more complex situations need a reaction based more on knowledge, facts, and experience. In these situations speed is not a virtue. The part of the brain used to process these facts is the prefrontal cortex. Unfortunately, this area of the brain takes longer to react, giving people the opportunity to act impulsively in situations using irrational assumptions. If a person can learn to modify the impulsive behavior they display in situations using this shoot-from-the-hip mentality and wait for the prefrontal cortex to kick in (in other words, think things through), they can modify the effect the situation has on their emotional state and, sometimes, the situation itself in a more positive manner.
How does one achieve this behavior modification? Different methods work for different people. For me, it was all about learning more rational self-talk. Instead of reacting by instantly, almost subconsciously thinking, “He doesn’t like me, so I must be the fattest, most hideous, least interesting person on Earth!”, I had to force myself to question that thought. Maybe he had a girlfriend. Maybe he was gay. Maybe he’s just not looking right now. Once viewed through these more rational possibilities, the situation didn’t devastate me as it once had. I’m not saying that every guy would want my phone number unless one of those factors were in play, but letting every man’s disinterest bring me crashing down was just as ridiculous. At first modifying my mental reactions to things was a very conscious thing. I had to think about how to think. After a while, though, it became second nature.
For me the problem had been nearly debilitating depression triggered by my mental reactions to external things. For others who deal with anxiety in certain situations, other methods of behavior modification are helpful. Modifying self-talk is still essential, for it is the path to realizing the fallacy in thinking. With anxiety, a fear of some kind is the result of this irrational thought, and simple behavior modification can help overcome this anxiety. A fear of elevators can be extinguished if the person guts it up and rides the dang elevator over and over until the idea of a horrendous accident is overridden by the fact that nothing catastrophic happened as they rode. The idea behind this is that, if one gives in to the irrational ideas that have been identified, real change will never occur. Real change only comes about through questioning one’s assumptions that are causing the pain and realizing they are bunk.
Get Started With CBT
Here is an exercise that can help in seeing the relation between thoughts, feelings, and the resulting behaviors in situations.
Using a graph like the one above, you can track from the beginning how your thoughts affect your feelings and then, in turn, your behaviors. If you realize that the originating thought about a situation is irrational, you can realize that the resulting feeling and action are also irrational, and then you can modify your emotions and behavior accordingly.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is therapist directed, and to fully experience the entirety of this approach a person should do so under the guidance of a counselor. A lot can be gained, though, from realizing the faulty assumptions one is working under that cause them to become overly upset about everyday life situations. By changing one’s thinking, a person has taken the first step to feel better about what might seem like a crisis almost immediately. It’s not just positive thinking. It’s questioning the underlying assumptions that make people view situations differently from how they really are. Learning to base feelings on the facts makes a person better equipped to deal with the ups and downs of life.