While I worked as a counseling assistant in my undergraduate fieldwork, one of my clients summarized the idea of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and the focus on maladaptive thoughts perfectly. When asked to describe his goals for therapy he exclaimed, “No more stinkin’ thinkin’!”. Stinkin’ thinkin’, clinically referred to as maladaptive or automatic thoughts, is the focus of the ever popular model of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). CBT is something that I often integrate into my own style as a therapist because I believe that great deal of how we think, feel, and behave can be drawn back to these maladaptive thoughts. Through this model, we can examine these thoughts and try to reframe them to create a new perspective that can bring about change of all sorts.
Allow me to offer a little background on CBT. It is popular for a number of reasons; the most notable are its empirical data on its effectiveness, its built-in time limits, and its goal oriented framework. All of these are attractive to potential clients who do not have endless time and funds for intense, insight-based therapy. All of these are also attractive to insurance companies that can reimburse for each session while knowing that treatment is limited and progress is being made.
The central tenet of CBT is the formation of a maladaptive thought. Maladaptive thoughts are formed as a way to cope with a triggering event that can cause anything from sadness, anger, hopelessness, to worthlessness to many more. These thoughts or beliefs are formed after an event (lost job, broke up with spouse, relative or loved one passed away etc.). These thoughts then cause a feeling which then subsequently causes a behavior. These thoughts or beliefs are flawed because they often overcompensate and cause negative feelings and behaviors that can become self-fulfilling. Read the following in a linear progression starting with Event and ending with Behavior.
It’s easy to say, “That’s obviously flawed thinking, I would never fall into such a trap”. I invite you to think about your past experiences that have made you feel like you are unlovable, unhirable, doomed to fail, worthless, obsolete, or always at fault etc. Were you making an accurate assessment of yourself based on that one instance, or were you overgeneralizing?
Consider how that diagram might read if the individual's though/belief more accurately reflected the specific circumstances of this one event rather than one that is overgeneralized. For instance, "I was not prepared this time. Going forward I will set goals, timelines, and will work harder to apply for that promotion again" or "I was told that this had nothing to do with my ability. They could not give me the promotion based on budgetary reasons". The following feelings and behaviors may still reflect disappointment, but the outlook is now empowering and no longer hopeless.
These thoughts can be formed in any instance under any circumstance. Their power and destructiveness lies in their ability to influence feelings and behaviors to prove themselves true. An important identifier for one of these thoughts is when an absolute is used. For instance: 'this always happens to me' or 'I am never going to achieve that'. Once you have found where you have applied these absolutes you can ask yourself, “What are some other reasons this event might have happened?”
Given these newfound alternative explanations, does that change how you feel?
If you would like to begin exploring and reframing your maladaptive thoughts, please feel free to contact me and schedule your first session.
Read on next time to explore how maladaptive thoughts can manifest into Narratives
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Reference: Corey, G. (2009). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education.