Finding out about our negative automatic thoughts, cognitive distortions, and core beliefs is the first step toward changing the way we think, feel, and behave in situations that are causing us problems. Once we figure out how to recognize these thoughts, we can neutralize them using various methods. One of these is the method of Socratic questioning.
When someone is going through the process of cognitive-behavioral therapy under the guidance of a therapist, the therapist will breakdown his or her thoughts through Socratic questioning. Someone can also use this method independently once they’ve established on some level that they have these faulty automatic thoughts and core beliefs. Whenever a problem arises, a person can stop and begin to analyze their thoughts about the situation rationally.
Socratic questioning follows a basic process that can be applied in all types of situations. Starting with a specific question or topic (in this case, one of those pesky thoughts, beliefs, or distortions), the person keeps asking questions about the problem, each question building on the information provided by the previous question until a resolution can be reached.
The process starts by clarifying the issue. When we’re agitated over a problem, often we can’t get a handle on what exactly it is that is even bothering us. The problematic automatic thought behind the issue might fly through our heads without notice. By clarifying the problem, we figure out exactly what the automatic thought was that started all this in the first place. We might start by taking the automatic thought and ask ourselves, “What do I mean by that?” Then we would ask, “What’s my point?” and, “How does each part of the thought relate to the other parts?” This sounds like a very clinical way to deal with our random thoughts, and it is. It is helpful, though, in our attempt to get to the bottom of why we think or feel a certain way. If the thought is short and not very detailed, we might ask ourselves to expand on it and explain it to ourselves further. How could we put it differently? As we answer each question, that answer helps us to ask the next question in the process.
Next we probe into what lies beneath the thought. What are we assuming when we have the thought? What could we assume instead? So, the thought is based on this assumption. What other assumptions could we use instead? Why do we take our original assumption for granted? Is our original assumption always true? These questions are very important because they will make it easier to see if we’re operating on faulty assumptions.
Some other questions that are useful in dealing with automatic thoughts are:
- How do I know this is true?
- Is there any evidence in favor of what I believe to be true?
- Is there any evidence to the contrary?
- What other information do I need to make a more reasonable conclusion?
- Can I see any problems with my reasoning here?
This process will take the powerful emotional response to the original thought and neutralize it, making it easier for us to come at the problem from a more objective, reasonable direction. At first the process of questioning our thoughts will feel unnatural, but eventually it will become a habit and a useful tool for dealing with situations that are problematic.