What is CBT?
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a therapeutic approach which can help us understand, challenge and overcome our personal issues.
CBT takes the stance that our personal problems are either worsened or caused by the way we think about them and the way we act in response to those thoughts. It’s an approach that places our own perception and interpretation of situations at the forefront of dealing with our problems.
CBT for understanding our difficulties
CBT is all about breaking complex and often overwhelming experiences down into their component parts to make manageable steps towards challenging and overcoming them. It does this within a CBT cycle of elements:
- The Situation is the factual, actual world. The indisputable details—the time, the place, the people involved and the task at hand.
- Our Experience is formed from our perception and interpretation of the situation; the assumptions around what the situation means, and predictions of what’s going to happen in this situation. Our experience is a complex relationship between these thoughts, and our behaviours and our feelings in response to these ideas. These three ingredients of experience tend to feed each other within an unhelpful cycle and are the focus of CBT self-help work.
- The Outcome is what happens in part, or in full, as a result of our perspective of the situation, and how our resulting feelings are expressed and how we act in response to these thoughts through our behaviours. The outcome then becomes a new situation for us to experience, and so begins another circuit within a CBT cycle.
CBT for understanding our experience
Our experience is shaped by what we think about our situation and how we feel and what we do as a result. It’s a complex interplay of thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
- Feelings: These are often the ingredient we’re most likely to be in touch with, or at least recognise, first. There are four main feelings; happy, sad, angry and scared. They are emotions and physical sensations and reactions; crying, feeling tense, shaking, feeling nausea, needing the toilet. We feel in response to what we think about a situation.
- Behaviour: This is what we do in response; shout, swear, avoid, withdraw, use substances, hurt ourselves or others. We behave, not in reaction to the actual situation, but our thoughts about what is happening in the situation.
- Thoughts: These are the main focus of CBT and the source of our issues. If we’re experiencing difficult feelings and behaviours it’s probably because of the way we’re perceiving the situation. We’re likely to be thinking in unhelpful ways. We think up reasons to explain why we’re experiencing personal problems—when there’s little to no supporting evidence; think in general terms—connecting disconnected events and defining people and life with limited descriptions; think personal problems mean or say something negative about us, others and life; think personal problems are better or worse than they are; think about how often or infrequently we can expect to encounter our personal problems; think things should or shouldn’t happen in particular ways; think about things in ways that reinforce our existing ideas; we overthink!
Our problems are perceptions
Many of the difficulties we experience in life are usually—in part or in full—down to the way we are perceiving the situations we are in. An example of this is how one situation can be experienced in different ways. Consider a joke, for example. We don’t all have the same sense of humour, so a joke in of itself is not funny; it’s our unique make-up which determines whether we find it funny. In response to the classic “a horse walks into a bar…” you might grin in anticipation of the punchline if you’ve heard it before; roll your eyes if you’ve heard it too often; if you’re a health and safety officer you might be thinking that’s not sanitary, and if you’re a horse you might find it offensive.
The following two examples are two different people encountering the same situation in using IT software, but having very different responses and experiences:
This first person assumes it’s their fault, and you can see how it affects their feelings and what they do.
This second person will not even consider that it’s their fault. In both situations the reason the software is providing the wrong result is ambiguous and unknown (at first), the individuals assumed the cause and responded to their interpretation.
The problem with perceptions
We all have little detectives, scientists and philosophers within us—trying to understand what’s going on. However, our inner investigator and explainer can misread situations or be a little lazy in interpreting them, and over confident in their understanding. We don’t really question or reconsider the conclusions we come to, and we might have go-to explanations (unhelpful thinking habits) we whip out to explain things to ourselves. After all, we’re on the go and we don’t always have or give ourselves time to think situations through on their own merits. Much easier to tag it, bag it, and move on. These unhelpful ways of thinking can influence how we feel about our situations and what we do about them. Our perception also helps us gather evidence to back up our pre-existing ideas. In our first example, this situation adds fuel to their belief that they are useless, and in the second example the person rejects the actual cause and sticks to their own belief.
How can CBT actually help us?
To benefit from CBT the one thing you’ll have to be prepared to do is accept the reality that when we have emotional problems we usually have a measure of responsibility in them through the way we’re thinking about the situations we’re in and what we’re doing (or not doing) about them. This isn’t about the dead end of blame—it’s about recognising what is within our power to change.
The three steps CBT takes in approaching personal issues are to understand, challenge and change:
- Understand: The CBT approach and its techniques can help to zero in on the unhelpful thoughts and behaviours behind the difficult feelings and situations we’re experiencing, helping us to break down complex experiences into easier to manage pieces, to recognise how we’re shaping our experience.
- Challenge: Once we have an understanding of what’s problematic we can use CBT techniques to challenge these unhelpful ideas, considering alternative explanations and actions that are a better fit for our experiences and how we want things to turn out.
- Change: Armed with our recognition of what helps, along with new perspectives and alternative responses, we have to put them into practice, learning from successes and set-backs with equal measure—going back to the first in our three steps: understanding.
If you have found this blog post interesting, and would like to read more, this is going to be semi-regular series, so check back here for more self-help posts on specific problems you might relate to. Alternatively, if you can’t wait and you want more detail, or perhaps just to show your appreciation of these free posts, then head on over to the Amazon kindle store to buy a copy of my book. You can follow these links for the UK and US stores. Thanks for reading.
Next post: It’s OK to Feel Your Feelings