Problem: You always think the worst. If your spouse comes home late, you assume she’s having an affair. When your boss is quiet at work, you’re convinced she’s annoyed with you. If a friend hasn’t called in a while, you think he’s avoiding you. These constant negative thoughts are making you miserable.
Solution: Learn the techniques of cognitive therapy to overcome your negative or unrealistic patterns of thinking. Cognitive therapy is an effective, short-term approach to counseling that addresses how people process, that is, think about and perceive the world and people around them. A cognitive approach to therapy is based on the theory that your thoughts and attitudes create your moods. Another way of looking at this is that it is not necessarily what happens in your life that makes you happy or unhappy, but rather your unrealistic or exaggerated thoughts about what happens.
For example, it is not reasonable to assume that your spouse is having an affair because she comes home late from her office. There are probably a dozen reasons why she could be late, including traffic tie-ups, work problems, socializing with friends, losing track of time, etc. But, if you have a longstanding pattern of automatic negative thinking, you do not even consider reasonable, realistic causes. You think only of the worst-case scenarios.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that if you act on these negative assumptions by blaming and mistrusting, you will hurt yourself, and your relationship with others. While you focus on things that aren’t really happening, you may be missing important things that are happening.
Cognitive therapy is a healthy solution for people who are unhappy because of unrealistic or exaggerated thinking habits.
“Cognitive therapy is a teaching therapy,” says Dr. Stephen Batoff, a Pennsylvania cognitive therapist affiliated with the International Association for Cognitive Psychotherapy. “It teaches people specific strategies to break life-long habits of negative, destructive thinking. These strategies become new habits, tools people use very effectively once they learn and apply them.”
One method is to teach the client to become aware of his or her negative response to a comment or situation, write down the triggering incident and negative thoughts about it, and then write down more positive, constructive replacement thoughts.
Here’s an example: If you made an error in a work project, rather than catastrophizing, “Oh no! I’ve completely messed this up! My co-workers will think I’m an idiot. My boss will never trust me with an assignment like this again! I’ll never be able to fix this!” be proactive.
First, tell yourself, “Okay, I have made a mistake. I know I can find a way to fix this myself, or, if not, I may need to ask for suggestions from my colleagues and perhaps the project leader. If it can’t be fixed, then I have learned what not to do in this kind of situation, and perhaps that information will be helpful to my project teammates.”
That change in attitude and thinking allows for a productive solution to the situation. If you go to the project leader with suggestions for possible solutions to your error, while he or she may not be happy about it, they will most likely respect that you were forthcoming, and had thought about remedies to the problem thereby turning the situation into a more positive, productive one.
This form of therapy can be a life-changing experience for those who are burdened by unrealistic or negative thinking, which is a self-sabotaging mechanism, often leading to dysfunctional behavioral coping methods like over-eating or substance abuse with the ultimate possibility of creating depressive moods and anxiety.
Habitual negative self-talk and thinking can be treated successfully with cognitive therapy because it is focused and results oriented, helping people quickly learn to think clearly and realistically about their lives.
Based in Rockport, psychotherapist and life coach Susan Britt, M.Ed., a former university director of counseling and career services, teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflicts, clarify and achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Questions and comments may be addressed to her at firstname.lastname@example.org and by telephone 978 546-9431.