Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Types of Unhelpful or Irrational Thinking

In the modern world of counselling and psychotherapy, a leading tool used by therapists is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).  This works by the client being shown by the therapist the link between events that happens in our life, our beliefs associated with those events and our resulting emotions and behaviour.

A key aspect of CBT is the Types of Unhelpful or Irrational Thinking that we might employ when we try to process what is happening.  These engrained faulty patterns of thought often prevent us from seeing things as they really are and can make a situation worse.

In no particular order, let’s start with `All or Nothing or Black and White` thinking – this is perfectionism.  All or nothing thinking is extreme thinking that can lead to extreme emotions.  People either love you or hate you.  Something is either perfect or a disaster.  Imagine you are trying to eat healthily in order to lose weight or to get fit but you give in and eat a doughnut.  All or nothing thinking may lead you to conclude that your plan is in ruins and you might as well eat the other eleven doughnuts in the pack.  Another example might be the shiny new car on our driveway, which is our pride and joy.  In a supermarket car park someone opens their car door heavily and puts a ding in the side of our prized possession.  With All or Nothing thinking, our car is ruined and might as well be scrapped. Our world is not black and white.

Next we have Overgeneralising - sweeping statements.  This is the error of drawing global conclusions from one or more events.  We tend to assume irrationally, that if one thing goes wrong everything else will.  For example, you get into your car to go to work, it doesn’t start.  You think to yourself `Things like this are always happening to me.  Nothing ever goes right`.   Other examples might be `It’s not safe to step outside your door these days` or `They’re building everywhere, there’s no green fields left.  If you find yourself with thoughts that involve the words always, never, everybody, nobody, the world is…, all, none, people are…you may be overgeneralising.  Be specific about the situation.

Another unhelpful way of thinking is Mental filtering – focusing on the negative.  Glass half empty.  Mental filtering is a bias in the way you process information in which you acknowledge only information that fits with a belief you hold.  For example – you believe that you are unlikeable and really notice each time your friend is late to call you back or seems too busy to see you.  You tend to disregard the ways in which your friend acts warmly towards you on other occasions. 

Our next unhelpful way of thinking is Mind reading – and that is assuming you know what others are thinking.  With mind reading the tendency is often to assume that others are thinking negative thoughts about you.  For example – you are chatting with someone in the street and they look over your shoulder as you are speaking, breaking eye contact and yawn.  You conclude that the other person thinks your conversation is dull and he’d rather be talking to someone else.  In CBT the theory is that there is always another way of viewing things, so the person you are talking to may be yawning because they slept badly and looking over your shoulder because they are expecting their bus to arrive.  There are countless possibilities and probably don’t involve you. 

Fortune telling – This is very much like our previous example.  You think you know what is going to happen.  You probably don’t possess the powers of a superhero that allows you to see into the future but still think you can do it.  For example you have invited your boss and her husband for dinner.  You are worried by this and decide that it is going to be a total disaster.  They won’t like the food, your house and you won’t know what to talk about.  Fortune telling can stop you taking action and can work like a self fulfilling prophecy.  

An interesting but maybe a harder one to identify is Personalization and blame -removing yourself from the centre of the Universe- you see yourself as the cause of some negative external event.   Taking excessive responsibility for bad things.  Significant negative events are very rarely down to just one person.  For example you feel guilty because a friend lives in chaos and turmoil and you can’t sort him out.  You think `If I was really a good friend, I’d be able to help him`.

Now we get to  Awfulising or Catastrophising - exaggerating the importance of something.   Thinking that a situation is worse than it is.  Awfulising is taking a relatively minor negative event and imagining all sorts of disasters resulting from that one small event.  Some people seem to have a tendency to look on the black side.  You are waiting for your teenage daughter to return home at night.  She is a little late, by which time you have imagined she has been kidnapped by the local mad axeman, involved in a serious accident or has run away with her boyfriend to a hotel in Cornwall.  CBT is evidence based and so it’s likely that you haven’t any to support these fears.

A unhelpful way of thinking which is quite subtle and crafty in it’s action is - Emotional reasoning - assuming your negative emotions are how things really are.    This is confusing feelings with external reality.  An example of this could be - your partner has been staying on late at the office with a colleague for the last month.  You feel jealous, suspicious and mistrustful.  Based on these feelings alone you conclude that your partner is having an affair with their colleague.  One might feel that Birmingham is the capital of England but feeling that, however strongly, doesn’t make it so.  Stay with the facts and evidence.

A common thinking error is Labelling and mislabelling – This is using imprecise and emotive language to describe an event or person.  If you label other people as ` worthless ` or ` a waste of time ` you are likely to become angry with them.  Or perhaps you label the world as ` dangerous ` or `totally corrupt`.  The mistake here is to label something that is too broad and complex for a definitive label.  You read a distressing article in the newspaper about a rise in crime in your town.  The article activates your belief that you live in an unsafe place, which contributes to you not going out and about.

Our final unhelpful way of thinking is all about Making Demands  - Thinking Inflexibly.  Take a few moments and ponder on how often you use   `Got to` ` need to` ` have to` ` should` `must` ` oughtto` statements.  These can result in guilt about yourself.  “I should have looked after my parents better”  “I ought to make more of myself”  `I Have to go and visit my Gran in the nursing home`.  These statements are extreme and rigid and bring with them problems.  The inflexibility of the demands you place on yourself, the world around you and other people often means that you don’t adapt to reality as well as you could.  For example – You believe that you should never ever let anyone down; therefore you don’t put your own welfare first and end up stressed and depressed.

So there we are – a brief rundown on some of the unhelpful or irrational ways of thinking.  The idea is to be aware of them and try to reduce their use, as each day most of us will employ three or four of them without consciously knowing.  Eradicating them entirely from our life may be a tall order but awareness is everything.

 

Taunton Somerset Counselling David Trott

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