Reconceptualizing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: How Changing the Way We View Distorted Thinking Can Help Us Heal

Our culture is prone to igniting battles. Thus, we get caught up in the dualities of black and white thinking. And this is as prominent in academia as it is in our mundane lives. In a conversation on our podcast with the stoic philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, we learned that we were erroneously trained to think about our minds. He noted that while we’re used to conceptualizing reason and affect (one’s emotions) in a dualistic framework, wherein reason is meant to subdue the chaos of irrationality, in reality, both are supposed to “work in harmony for a healthy mind.”

I took that to mean that, rather than attempting to subjugate one’s emotional side, reason is, in part, meant to validate it, to see what’s right about it. When we conceptualize the two as being at war with one another, we notice the shame which accompanies reason’s inability to understand, and tendency to criticize, its counterpart. For, if reason has to subdue affect, it does so through argumentation, convincing its host of his intellectual errors, implying that feeling what he’s feeling is a purely irrational response. “You shouldn’t be sad because…” And this is the way we often frame Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), as a war between reason and intuition, with rational living constituting its pinnacle.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, whose practitioners have often been critical of CBT, argue that shame ensues when a client ins’t able to reframe their cognitions to better fit reality and/or when she feels ashamed of having those irrational thoughts to begin with. So, they prescribe sitting with those thoughts and simply observing them without judgment, accepting them as they come and go. In their framework, this activity takes the enormous amount of pressure to change one’s thoughts away from the client and, thus, reduces the potential for shame. And while I agree with their critique, I believe that the solution lies in the middle of acceptance and change.

In my conception of the bubbles, which I mentioned in a past article, the smaller bubble of self-doubt, as opposed to the bigger bubble of self-esteem, is supposed to encompass your distorted thoughts, the cognitions that make you doubt yourself, the ones that tell you that you’re a failure or a loser and whatever else that’s negative. I conceive of it as being smaller because of its relatively, when compared to the bigger bubble, limited strength to conquer your thoughts and feelings, thus causing you to ruminate. The reason why that bubble is smaller, at least ideally, is because the person with a solid sense of self doesn’t take her distorted thoughts too seriously; however, that doesn’t imply that she simply brushes them aside or eliminate them through reasoning.

Our intuitions are as strong as they are because they contain grains of truth, and when we launch missiles at them, we never fully eradicate them. But, that shouldn’t be the point. When we conceive of our intuitions as enemies, we fuel perpetual internal inflicts. And our minds are locked in as two rivals who fail to empathize with one another. Yet, it’s the empathy which heals. For, to exhibit reverence for your intuitions is to honor yourself. Your cognitive distortions aren’t distortions in the sense that they’re simply holding you back from perceiving reality; they’re actuality affording you some truth. When your mind tells you that you’re a failure, what it should mean (if it were closer to reality) is that you’re a failure in that moment, but that doesn’t wholly disqualify the over-generalized intuition. So, it would make sense to take it seriously, at least to some extent.

In creating the middle ground between acceptance and change, we accept the partial validity of our intuitions and slightly alter them to form more accurate reflections of reality. (Additionally, you can view the alteration as an addition, wherein you’re simply adding onto your intuition, i.e. I’m a failure… in that moment.) In accepting their partial validity, we acknowledge why it’s so difficult to simply change them; you can’t make yourself believe something other than what you think is, at least, partially true. And, the harmony which ensues from the integration of reason and affect is related to the one stemming from the combination of reason and intuition; for, your intuitions often form the bases of your feelings. In essence, what we’re looking for, as Daniel Kahneman advised, is for what’s right about our intuitions, not what’s wrong. And although this reframe seems minor, my intuition tells me that it’ll change the outcome of most treatments. You aren’t stupid for believing what you do, and you aren’t weak because you can’t convince yourself that you’re something that you’re not.

Bursting the Bubble of Inadequacy: Shifting Our Distorted Beliefs to Love Ourselves

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