Once people begin challenging cognitions that lead to unpleasant emotions, they also naturally arrive at new conclusions. Often times, cognitive therapists refer to this step as “developing alternative thoughts.” Unfortunately, people can abuse this step by trying to develop new conclusions too early in the therapeutic process. Consequently, they may identify new beliefs that they think they should wholeheartedly believe without doing the work to actually arrive at the new conclusions. In a way, people attempt to jump from A to Z without doing the important work of B through Y. Furthermore, people often arrive at beliefs that are erroneously over-positive or too simplistic; as a result, the thoughts become unbelievable and are often dismissed.
While the term “identifying alternative thoughts” is often used in cognitive therapy, I prefer the phrase “arriving at new conclusions” because it implies the work it takes to change your way of thinking. Consider the following example.
Arthur believes “I am a failure.” He decides to experiment with cognitive therapy by connecting situations, thoughts, and emotions. Arthur makes the following connections:
Situation: He is late to week and misses a meeting.
Thought: “I am a failure”
Emotions: Depressed, disgusted, anxious
Situation: He gets his daughter a gift she doesn’t like.
Thought: “I’m a failure”
Emotions: Severely disappointed, depressed
Upon using Socratic questions and identifying cognitive distortions, Arthur realizes that thought “I am a failure” is unrealistic, unbalanced, and oversimplistic. He then attempts arrive at new conclusions.
At first, he misunderstands the assignment and attempts to force conclusions like “I’m not a failure” or “I’m a success” into his mind. While seeming along the right track, the overly simplistic nature of such thoughts may put Arthur near where he started. To attempt to think the opposite or merely “think positive” after years of automatically assuming an identity epitomized by failure, it would be quite difficult for Arthur to wholeheartedly believe either thought. In other words, Arthur attempts to jump from A to Z by skipping B through Y. He did not arrive at the conclusion that he is “not a failure” through logic and consideration of reality, but instead Arthur attempted to assume a belief that he thinks he should believe. Furthermore, while the thought “I am a success” is wonderfully positive, the notion itself is still erroneously oversimplistic and in turn unrealistic and unbalanced.
Sometimes other maladaptive thoughts may arise when people move too quickly to overly positive conclusions and the following connection may ensue:
Situation: Arthur thinks he is a failure after his daughter doesn’t like the gift
Thought: “I shouldn’t think I’m a failure”
Emotions: Ashamed, disappointed, disgusted, hopeless
The layers of thought can get complicated and confusing, but if you follow the process, you can see how they also deepen the layers of unpleasant emotion.
Once engaging in Socratic questioning, identifying cognitive distortions, and accepting reality while committing to change, Arthur may develop more complicated conclusions that eventually lead him to truly believe he “is not a failure.” For instance, he may think, “I’m having the thought that I’m a failure, which is not necessarily true. What’s my next step to commit to change?” Such a notion is more realistic and integrates acceptance that the initial belief exists so that Arthur does not “beat himself up” for having habitual, automatic thoughts in difficult situations. Furthermore, by acknowledging the thought and then challenging it, Arthur is actually moving from A to Z through reasonable steps, rather than trying to “fake it ‘til he makes it.”
Another, equally effective, thought process may include “I did not perform according to my expectations, but that doesn’t mean that I’m a failure on the whole. While it is disappointing, I can move on and learn from this.” Again, such a notion offers a more balanced, realistic alternative thought, and is much more likely to lead Arthur to eventually believe that he is not a failure.
What other directions could Arthur take in challenging the thought “I am a failure”?