Would you really tell that to a friend?
This article is an introduction to cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is a tool cognitive behavioral therapists use to alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems.
We generally believe everything that we think, and this can sometimes cause real problems when those thoughts are distorted, or we’re filling in the gaps in our knowledge with misinformation.We are constantly telling ourselves things all the time, a running commentary buzzing around in our minds. It’s how we make sense of and interact with the world. Unfortunately not everything we tell ourselves is necessarily helpful, or even true. “I’m too fat…” or “I’ll never get this job,” “why bother…” – Sound familiar? Cognitive therapy, developed by Aaron Beck in the middle of the last century, identified this problem and developed a very straightforward solution: to look at our thoughts rather than looking from our thoughts. It’s a process cognitive scientists term metacognition. It refers to the ability to examine our thinking process rather than assume every thought we have is true. It is the foundation of cognitive therapy.
To illustrate how dysfunctional thoughts cause problems, let’s use an example. Peter, a college student, has a crush on a young woman he sits next to in class, Kim. Peter has wanted to ask her out all through the last term, and now he only has one class left with her before the summer break. Committed, he decided he would ask immediately after class. While trying to pay attention in class, Peter had an onslaught of self-defeating thoughts, such as “She’ll probably turn me down” and had lots of images in his mind of her laughing at him and ridiculing him in front of the whole class. This heightened his anxiety to a fever pitch, so much so that his mind “froze” and when he approached Kim. His mind went blank, and she gave him an uncomfortable smile and wished him a nice summer vacation.
Had Peter used a little metacognition, he probably would have noticed that his thoughts were mood-dependent, meaning that they are thoughts triggered by anxiety, rather than by the actual evidence around him, which is that Kim seemed too nice to try to humiliate him. In reality, it would probably have been highly unlikely for Kim to try to hurt his feelings by ridiculing him. But his thoughts triggered more and more anxiety until he couldn’t think straight.
One tool to accessing that elusive metacognition is to ask yourself, “What would I tell a friend if he were in this situation?” It’s very simple, but helps to take all of the emotions we have wrapped up in our own situations, and de-personalize them a bit. Here’s how it might go:
Friend: If I ask her out she’ll probably turn me down and laugh at me in front of everyone. That would be humiliating.
Peter: Well you don’t know if she’d turn you down, but what I do know is that you really don’t stand a chance with her if you never try. And do you really think she would laugh at you? I don’t think that happens very often. She’d probably politely make up some excuse, and it wouldn’t be great, but it certainly wouldn’t be humiliating.
A simple method, yes. But it is a very effective one at helping us to take a more realistic perspective. It’s interesting how we have more access to our own wisdom when we remove ourselves from the situation. The next time you notice an inner monologue of self-defeating thoughts, ask yourself, “What would I tell a friend if he or she were in my shoes?”