In my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist, I often encounter people who have misconceptions about cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). One of the most common misconceptions is that CBT is all about just having people think positively in the manner of the baseless positive affirmations made by the Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley. This misconception is typically accompanied by the erroneous notion that CBT requires clients not to think about or deal with genuine negative events in their lives.
Not surprisingly, people with these views usually have a negative attitude toward CBT and choose to avoid working with therapists who practice CBT. As someone who is certified in CBT and practices it regularly, I must admit that if these people were accurate in their views of CBT, I would also avoid this form of therapy like the plague!
Fortunately, CBT does not focus on simply having a person think of baseless positive thoughts or on repeating bland positive affirmations. Nor does CBT ask that clients disregard negative thoughts or avoid addressing negative events and influences in their lives. In the following sections, I will discuss the real focus of CBT which can be characterized as the power of balanced thinking.
Balanced thinking: The focus of CBT
The focus of CBT is on balanced thinking. Balanced thinking entails thinking about all the information and evidence in a situation which affects a person’s emotional state. That is, the person considers both negative information and positive information. Contrary to misconceptions, CBT does not advocate thinking of positive information in place of or in disregard of negative information.
There are important reasons for people to pay attention to both negative information and positive information. First, it is important to pay attention to negative information because many times there are problems and stressful events in people’s lives which they need to address. Disregarding such negative information would not make any sense in helping a person to feel better.
By the same token, CBT also helps people to consider the positive information in a situation. Contrary to misconceptions, the positive information to consider is that which is supported by evidence rather than information based on blind positive affirmations which have no basis in facts or evidence.
The reason to consider genuine positive information in addition to genuine negative information is that most people have a tendency to think about only the negative information when they are experiencing distress. This exclusive focus on negative information results in the person experiencing greater intensity of the difficult emotions they feel in these situations. Among these emotions are sadness, anxiety, anger, frustration, guilt and embarrassment–to name just a few.
On the other hand, the intensity of these emotions decreases when the person considers genuine positive information in conjunction with genuine negative information. This balanced thinking approach makes it easier to cope with the situation emotionally which then makes it easier to cope further with the situation behaviourally through action and problem-solving.
The thought record: A CBT tool which facilitates balanced thinking
The thought record is a CBT tool which trains a person to use balanced thinking. This tool involves a person keeping track of situations which lead them to experience intense and difficult mood states along with the negative ‘hot thoughts’ causing this emotional distress. Inherent in the use of thought records is a focus on both negative information and positive information which are supported by the available evidence.
The simple process of of including all information supported by the evidence, both negative and positive, helps a person to reduce the intensity of the difficult emotions they experience in stressful situations. This benefit occurs because adding positive information supported by evidence corrects for the negatively distorted mindset which fuels intense emotional distress.
Thought records also help a person to feel better by requiring that all information, both negative and positive, be scrutinized by evidence. This further benefits a person’s mood state because often people’s negative beliefs are not supported by evidence once they have been subjected to empirical scrutiny.
Once the person has examined all the information supported by the evidence, both negative and positive, the reduction in the intensity of their difficult emotions then makes it easier for them to take action to address the genuine negative elements of the situation which are supported by facts and evidence.
The disadvantages of non-balanced thinking
Contrast the benefits of balanced thinking with the disadvantages of non-balanced thinking. First, focusing solely on positive information results in a person failing to identify and take action to address negative situations in their life which are contributing to their emotional distress. Secondly, focusing only on negative information leads to the person having a negatively biased view of the situation which adds to their emotional distress. In turn, this makes it more difficult for them to take action to address the problems and stressful events in their lives.
Is there a good time to focus either on the negatives or the positives?
Although it is a misconception to state that CBT focuses only on positive information, there are times when it is appropriate to focus on positive information. For example, I recommend that my clients regularly take time to write down and think about things they are grateful for as this exercise has reliably good effects on one’s mood.
I also encourage clients, especially those with low self-esteem, to remind themselves of their positive characteristics as this exercise has been found to have good effects on self-confidence. I encourage athletes and other performers to remind themselves of their positive attributes and performances so that they perform with a positive mindset which is conducive to giving a good performance.
Having said that, please note that in each of the above examples the focus is on positive information based on facts and evidence and that this positive focus at certain times still allows for focusing on evidence-based negative information at other times. The latter focus may entail a person acknowledging and taking steps to improve in areas where they need work or on acting to address problems and stressful situations in their lives.
Enhancing your enjoyment of life: It’s all about balance
In short, CBT promotes a balanced approach to thinking about and acting on information—a balance between negatives and positives. As with other forms of balance, practicing balanced thinking will enhance your enjoyment of life.
May you practice balance in your thinking…and in your life.