Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Our thoughts are what limit us
Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an approach in Psychology that makes a great deal of sense in my life and I see it work in my practice. The focus is on our thoughts and how they impact on our functioning. One of the greatest life lessons I’ve learned is how our thoughts are what limit us (or enrich us).
We are trained to believe that our situation is the reason for our negative emotions:
- We are anxious because of an upcoming exam
- We are angry because a taxi cut in front of us in traffic
- We are depressed because we did not get the promotion we were hoping for
Yes, these situations may be triggers for our emotions, but they cannot be the only reason that we feel a certain way. If this were true, we would all react in exactly the same way to the same situations!
Take an exam for example. It is quite normal to feel anxious about an upcoming exam. After all, we need a certain amount of anxiety to motivate us to study! But can we say that because of an exam (the situation) we will all have the same amount of anxiety? Of course not. It is our thoughts about the exam that determine our emotional and behavioural response.
Some of us may have negative, irrational and unhelpful self-talk:
I’m never going to get through all this work. I’m going to fail. I’m stupid. I can’t handle exams!
This self-talk will make us feel despondent, depressed and anxious. Others, while acknowledging that studying is difficult, may have more rational and helpful self-talk:
I have so much work to get through. It is going to be difficult. I can only do my best. I’ve done this before. I can handle it.
It is obvious that the more rational self-talker will have less anxiety. They may experience nervousness (a more helpful negative emotion), which is normal in an exam situation. They will be less distressed, be able to concentrate more and perform in their exam to a more optimal level.
We are trained through self-help books and motivational speakers to always think positively. Yes, I agree to a certain extent. I believe a positive or optimistic outlook has helped me overcome so many challenges. However, I believe being rational and realistic is more important. Will everything go my way? Will people always like me? Will a taxi never cut in front of me? Will I always get above 80% in an exam? No, it is unlikely. We cannot live in a “cotton wool” world where we are sheltered and successful all the time. If we work on only being positive, we may feel even greater negative emotions when things do not go according to plan.
Again, don’t disregard positive thinking, but work towards those positive thoughts being more rational and realistic.