As a cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT), my goal is to teach people that a life free of depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions is within their reach. I believe that most people are apprehensive about beginning therapy, either because of something they saw on television portraying therapists as unethical buffoons, or due to a bad experience with a therapist that wasn’t a good fit for them. When someone tells me that therapy was ineffective for them, I am distraught. As a CBT therapist, people often tell me that they did little more than vent to their therapist, and never actually found ways to change the problems that they were seeking help for in the first place.
Because of the frequent lack of success with talk-based therapy, a solution-focused, time limited form of therapy that could produce empirically supported results was needed. In other words, therapists and their clients wanted a more effective form of therapy that provided concrete solutions in a shorter time period, using a framework that could be explained and reproduced by other therapists. And so cognitive behavioral therapy was born. The goal of CBT is to truly give people tools to effectively overcome their obstacles and reach their goals. These should be strategies that they can clearly understand and implement, in order to begin living the life they want.
It is important to understand that CBT is actually the theoretical umbrella for a variety of models of therapy, including cognitive therapy, rational emotive behavioral therapy, and exposure and response prevention, just to name a few. While each of these models uses different terminology and puts their own spin on how the concepts should best be applied, there are several fundamental tenets, or principles, that exist across the board. For example, a CBT therapist would state that we don’t have random feelings and emotions. Events and daily occurrences, good or bad, don’t have the power to make us feel happy or sad. We don’t wake up on the “wrong side of the bed.” Rather, it is our interpretation of these experiences that leads us to conclude how we feel. Our thoughts, what could be referred to as our internal dialogue or our self-talk, is what truly shapes our reality and is, consequently, the basis for our emotions.
Let’s imagine the emotional state of a man who was fired from his job. CBT doesn’t assume that he will feel depressed just because he lost his job; his ultimate reaction is tied to how he perceives this experience: If he interprets this event as failure, then he is likely to feel discouraged and helpless. However, if he sees this as an opportunity to explore other careers or begin that business he has always dreamed of, then his emotions will reflect his positive and optimistic outlook.
This begins with identifying toxic thoughts and challenging their validity. CBT operates on the belief that our thoughts shape our feelings. One of the main tasks of CBT is to identify and record our negative thoughts. This powerful tool allows us to challenge the validity of these destructive thoughts that become our reality. Millions of people suffering with depression or anxiety are controlled by debilitating thoughts, making them feel hopeless and helpless. The process of reframing these thoughts teaches people to learn meaningful ways to see the “glass as half full versus half empty.”
While CBT does consider a person’s history as relevant, particularly for how it may have shaped our thoughts and perceptions, CBT is a solution-focused approach. As such, the past is only reviewed inasmuch as it is necessary to set goals. From a CBT perspective, people may have been victimized in their life, however, it is a choice to stay in this role. Seeing ourselves as a victim causes us to believe that we deserve to be treated as one, what I often refer to as the “door mat syndrome.” Challenging yourself to believe that you are worthy of respect results in attracting people who also see you this way. This shift in mindset, in how we see ourselves and the world around us, is truly what makes CBT so powerful—particularly as it forces us to change our thoughts and behaviors.
Behavioral change occurs in many ways. One individual may want to improve self-esteem, reframing negative self-talk and ceasing to use food as comfort. Incorporating exercise, activities that make him/her feel confident and proud, and setting healthy boundaries within relationships are all forms of behavioral change that can be implemented. Concurrently reshaping both what we think and what we do can have an empowering effect on even the most pessimistic person. I see it as a “checks and balance system” in fighting the war on negativity.
In short, CBT offers the individual concrete tools that he or she can utilize to get back in the driver’s seat and start living a life well deserved.
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