How CBT can help with Maladaptive Thinking

I can’t quite remember where I heard it first but it has fascinated me for a long time. The quote went ” You know you are getting old when you look in the mirror one day and find your parent looking at you”. As time marches on, this gem becomes more and more relevant but looks are not the only attributes we carry with us as we progress through various life stages. Without wishing to provoke debate on nature versus nurture and whether we are born with a genetic toolbox to start off in life, it is clear that we are, in our early years like the proverbial sponge, soaking up influence from the environment and people around us, notably our primary care-givers. This influence, good or bad, dictates our thought patterns as we grow up, affecting our window on the world and forming the basis for relationships with peers and others. What parents do and don’t do, say and don’t say, provide their children with the experiences that children interpret into beliefs. Those beliefs, in turn, then determine their behavior and emotions and, ultimately, their lives-for better or for worse. Worse still, apparent good intentions by parents when disciplining a child can lead to problems later.

Most parents at this point would probably respond: ” Isn’t our job as parents to get our children to behave, to teach them, and to make them happy?” If you succeed in achieving what you wanted, and, as a result of your interaction with your child, he or she forms negative self-esteem beliefs, such as, I’m not good enough or I‘m not worthwhile, or negative beliefs about life, such as, What I want doesn’t matter or I’ll never get what I want, was your behavior really “successful”? In other words, is what you achieved short term with your child worth the long-term cost? Optimum is when a child is taught that it is safe to express feelings, explore and see the world as a trusting place through guidance from parents. While a child’s behaviour is important, coaching and guiding are more likely to produce a more-balanced adult.

So what do we do if our parents weren’t the coaching and guiding sort, had problems of their own or are carrying their own negative influences from the past and this has left us as adults with attitude problems? Most self-help literature will advice us to “change the way we think to change our life”. This is indeed good advice but often easier said than done and is often thrown to the wayside when attempts do not bring immediate results. Then the typical dysfunctional thought patterns such as all or nothing thinking, generalisation, mind-reading and “victim” mentality amongst others return. To change this style of thinking takes considerable time and effort and that is exactly what is needed to “cure” this.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The premise of CBT is based on an assumption that an interpretation of an event is crucial because it determines how we fell and act. Where beliefs and thought patterns are unrealistic (see below), this can quickly lead to depression, anxiety and phobia. CBT aims to alleviate emotional distress through confronting and challenging errors in thinking. It does so by identifying and exploring the way a client views and interprets the world and situations around them. These errors can be tested with the client against objective reality, that is, how likely it is. The client can then slowly start to assess himself and the world more realistically as most dysfunctional thinking is based on hypotheses and not facts. The background to CBT is therefore founded on three main assumptions :

  • Feelings and behavior are directly affected by the way a person thinks.
  • Negative and unrealistic patterns of thinking give rise to emotional disorders.
  • Altering these thought patterns can reduce emotional disturbance or distress.

The 10 most common cognitive distortions 

CBT postulates that most people display common errors in thinking and this is magnified when emotions are stirred or a triggering event occurs. The following is a very brief summary of the 10 most common cognitive distortions.

  1. All or nothing thinking. I also call this “black or white” thinking. Everything is all good, or all bad. There is nothing in between.
  2. Overgeneralization. You tend to view any single negative thing as an eternal pattern of negativity. If one bad thing happens, the world is obviously coming to an end.
  3. Disqualifying the positive. You can’t accept anything positive ever happening. So if something good happens, you always find a way to turn it into a negative thing, or explain why it was a fluke or it doesn’t count.
  4. Mental filter. You filter out all good qualities of something so you can focus on the negative. In this way everything becomes negative.
  5. Jumping to conclusions. You become a mind reader and a fortune teller. You interpret everything in a negative way without any supporting evidence.
  6. Catastrophizing or minimization. You blow minor things out of proportion, and minimize positive things.
  7. Emotional reasoning. You assume that your negative emotions and feelings reflect actual reality. If you feel bad, everything is bad.
  8. Should statements. You try and mold the world to your vision of reality, instead of accepting the world’s reality. A very common version of this in relationships is, “If he (or she) loved me he (or she) wouldn’t ….”
  9. Labeling and mislabeling. Overgeneralization in the extreme. You actually believe the overgeneralization and make them reality in your own mind.
  10. Personalization. You take things personally. You become very defensive at even the slightest perceived criticism.

Sadly, people who display these cognitive distortions assume that their internal world reflects external reality and they rarely question that assumption. They believe them to be true, logical and accurate. In therapy, a key factor is for the therapist to teach the client in these cases that :

  • Reality is different from our “perception of reality”
  • Our individual experience of reality is shaped by sensory input but more importantly by interpretation.
  • This can result in “distortions of reality”
  • Distortions are often based on internal cognitive processes rather than on gathering factual information.

Over a period of time, the client can distance themselves from these distortions. CBT is especially suitable for online therapy.

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Dr. Nicholas Jenner

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a counseling psychotherapist in online private practice working with individuals, couples and groups, dealing with codependency issues, severe depression, bipolar, personality disorders, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and other mental health issues. He has been practicing online for many years and recognized early that online therapy was a convenient method for people to meet their therapist. Working outside the box, he goes that extra mile to make sure clients have access to help between sessions, something that is greatly appreciated. He also gives part of his spare time up to mentor psychology students in a university setting.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Helen Rogera

    Great article. Helpful info. Thank you.