“Is it accurate? Is it helpful?”
Like all cognitive behavioural therapists (CBT), I often ask these two questions when talking to a client about their thoughts and beliefs. Regarding accuracy, you might look at evidence for and against your thoughts and beliefs.
However, there is more to CBT than rationally assessing such matters. It’s also very important to assess whether your thoughts, beliefs and behaviours are helpful.
For example, let’s say you’re going through a tough time and you’re beating up on yourself. You think, “I’m never going to change my stupid ways, I’m useless”.
Is that thought accurate? I’m pretty certain it’s inaccurate. It’s an exaggerated, black-and-white sentiment, and I’m sure we could quickly find a lot of evidence to the contrary.
However, let’s leave that aside for now. Without even assessing the truthfulness of this belief, ask yourself: is it helpful? I think it’s extremely unhelpful. Firstly, it’s going to make you feel bad about yourself, causing you unnecessary emotional pain.
Secondly, it’s going to sap any motivation you have. As a result, you’re more likely to stay stuck, rather than make the changes you want to make.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES
A simple CBT strategy when assessing the helpfulness of a particular belief is to look at the advantages and disadvantages of holding this belief.
In their book Cognitive Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques, CBT experts Michael Neenan and Windy Dryden give the example of a client who adheres to the thought, “Being on my own keeps me safe”.
Are there advantages to thinking this way? Absolutely. The client lists four advantages: “I won’t get rejected any more and feel terrible”; “I won’t have anyone bossing me around”; “I can control my own life”; and “I won’t have to worry about becoming jealous and my emotions running riot”.
But what about the disadvantages? After thinking about it, the client realises that they won’t have any more relationships; that they will miss out on opportunities to learn to be more assertive in relationships; that their life will only be easier to control because it will be emptier; that all they will have to worry about is becoming an emotional desert; that the road ahead appears to be a solitary and bleak one; and that they ultimately want a life with relationships, not one without relationships.
After doing this exercise, the client saw their belief was an unhelpful one. As a result, she wanted to learn to be more resilient in coping with the difficult aspects of relationships. She saw she could also feel safe in a relationship if she learned to take the rough with the smooth and not see the end of a relationship as some kind of catastrophe. This involved changing her beliefs about rejection (“He’s rejected me but I’m not going to reject myself because of it”); understanding that rejection is a loaded term; and seeing that relationships often fizzle out, as opposed to inevitably ending in rejection.
Working on becoming more resilient is very valuable work, but it could not have been done without the client first seeing that her thoughts and beliefs weren’t keeping her safe – they were making her feel unhappy and fragile. They were, in short, unhelpful.
Similarly, a perfectionist person might adhere to the belief, “I must give 110 per cent in everything I do”. This rule has certain advantages – for example, you might say you have achieved a lot in your life; that it motivates you; that you get approval from others.
However, it also has obvious disadvantages – you might be exhausted all the time; you might be on edge and unable to switch off; you might be constantly checking your work for mistakes; you might never be satisfied because you are aspiring to impossibly high standards; and so on.
There are advantages and disadvantages to holding all kinds of beliefs and behaviours. If you take the time to do this simple cognitive exercise and assess the merits and demerits of your own beliefs, behaviours and habits, you might find the disadvantages very much outweigh the advantages.
If so, resolve to make a change. Aim to think and act in ways that are helpful, not unhelpful.
(First published in Southern Star on 13/10/2022)