Several months ago I wrote an article called The #1 Reason Angry Couples Stay Together that got a lot of people’s attention. It became quite successful and resulted in a lot of big websites copying, pasting and quoting its content. Mostly because pairing two volatile topics like strong emotions and high-conflict couples means there’s lots of advertising money to be had when angry and dramatic people post angry and dramatic feedback in the comment sections.
Getting called lots of colorful names on Facebook was another perk. Not to mention having your childhood, parenting skills and professional credentials called into question.
(I’m such a rebel-rouser)
At the very least, the article got people thinking. And that’s the whole point of life, right? How we think about it, what it means to us, and how we define ourselves in the world and in our relationships. After nearly a year and a half, I still get email about that article. “So how do I know if I should stay in my marriage, or leave?” or “How can I stop myself from bringing up past grievances every time we argue?” or “A lot of articles talk about how to change your thoughts, but how do you do this?”
These are great questions. And they deserve answers.
Which brings us to the point of today’s article: how to change your thinking. Healthy thoughts are the foundation of all-things mental health. And why we go to therapy.
The idea behind therapy is that most of our decision making comes from unconscious aspects of our mind. As long as these parts of our mind are unconscious, we’re unable to exercise control over them. The primary purpose of therapy is to help us become aware of these sections of our unconscious, accept them and then begin exerting control over them. ~Mark Manson
Let’s start with the facts: Most people do not like to think about their emotions. They’re fine with talking about them, but not with feeling their feelings (Feelings are generally one word responses which reflect emotional states such as happy, miserable, proud, etc. Thought: “He makes me so angry I want to punch this wall.” ). Or people mistakenly focus on the wrong thoughts in an effort to feel better. And sadly, some have next to no idea what’s going on between their ears on some days. You can blame Cognitive-Dissonance for that:
Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc. For example, when people smoke (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition). Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance).
Makes sense, right? Who wants to wallow in pain when you can troll online for pictures of a puppy in a onesie?
Which is why I’m investing a ton of effort writing this for you, when I could be enjoying my Saturday morning doing enjoyable things that normal people without blogs do.
Don’t cry for me Argentina — I’m choosing to write this because it’s going to find the right people who will once and for all stop believing their feelings control them. I’m also going to condense it and make a few bucks posting it on a Big Boy website 😛
Last week I attended a conference to earn continuing education credits for my psychotherapy license: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: The Basics of Helping People Get Better. In all honesty, I brought my income tax materials along fully prepared to be bored mid-way, and ready to get a leg up on the upcoming visit to my CPA. Boy, was I wrong…
The presenter, Dr. Aldo Pucci, Psy.D, DCBT, all but eliminated the need to care about itemizing deductions or checking the mobile for youtube.com’s latest cat GIFs.
I couldn’t have been more grateful.
I. What is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy?
In a nutshell, CBT teaches us that our thoughts influence our feelings, which then influence our behaviors.
Thoughts ———> Feelings ———> Behaviors
For example, on the day of the conference, I woke up feeling under the weather.
Thought: I really don’t feel like sitting in a workshop all day with a dry subject like CBT. I need to prepare my taxes!
Feelings: Rushed, resignation, fatigue.
Behaviors: Hit the snooze button, moved slowly, and arrived at the workshop 15 minutes late.
*Note: The following information is based on Rational Living Therapy, a very systematic, comprehensive cognitive-behavioral approach developed by Dr. Aldo Pucci.
II. Characteristics of Rational Living Therapy (RLT):
RLT is based on the Cognitive Model of Emotional Response.
Our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not people or things. Bear with me on this one, because it’s important and often misunderstood.
For example, your teenager is caught smoking Marijuana at school. You have to leave work to pick him up from the Dean’s office.
On the way to the school you think, “He makes me so angry. Sometimes I want to ship him off to one of those wilderness programs in Arizona, or Iowa, or Timbuktu to teach him a lesson!”
You’re feeling angry, resentful and embarrassed.
What you do: You arrive at the school and start yelling at your kid. You then threaten to take every Apple product away forever; hell — he can’t even eat apples anymore. Lastly, in a fit of exasperation you look at the Dean and say, “Where’s the campus aides? If you had more supervision around here, kids couldn’t sneak out of class and use drugs in the bathrooms, am I right?”
Now this reaction might seem perfectly reasonable, however, you made a classic, but common thinking error and that was thinking with your gut and not with your head.
You feel like a failure because you believe you’ve tried everything to get your kid on the straight and narrow, yet, he still defies you.
But just because you feel something does not mean this is proof that your thoughts are correct.
Counseling Enemy #1: “You can’t control your feelings. Your feelings don’t lie.”
And that my friend, is simply untrue. We can control our feelings because our feelings are the result of our thoughts. And sometimes our thoughts are just plain bogus.
Take panic attacks: “My heart is pounding in my chest and my breathing is rapid and shallow. These feelings are consistent with how I’ve felt before when I’m having a panic attack. I feel anxious, therefore I’m being threatened. I better get out of here fast!”
According to Dr. Pucci’s model, just because you feel anxious does not mean there is a bear chasing you. Rather, you are unintentionally panicking yourself.
The good news is you created this thought of danger in your mind and you can uncreate it. It’s going to feel uncomfortable because you have years of experience thinking the way you do, but practice is the way to overcome faulty thinking.
For example, if I gave you a pen and asked you to put it in your non-writing hand, how would that feel? Pretty uncomfortable, right? What would make writing with your non-dominant hand feel more natural? Exactly — lots of practice and repetition!
III. Rational Living Therapy uses the Socratic Method
This entails asking a lot of questions. Therapy is not about telling the client what to do or how to think, but asking questions so the client can start to think and do differently on their own. Remember, therapists are great tools for guiding, but we can’t do the work for you.
~What are your ideas as to why you think you’ll never get a date?
~What evidence do you have that you’re undatable?
~Have you ever asked a woman on a date before?
~How many times have you been rejected?
Stoic philosophy says there’s three types of problems.
1. Practical: this is a situation where you have a goal but there’s a barrier to achieving your goal. You can’t have a problem if you don’t have a goal.
2. Emotional: your reaction to the situation.
3. Imagined: you’ve invented this situation in your head.
Practical problem —> Car breaks down
Emotional reaction —> Upset
The car breaking down does not cause you to get upset, but your reaction to the situation does. The car could care less whether you get upset and kick its tire — it’s still not going to run. You can get as upset as you want, but this will not change the fact that you are about to hand over a large amount of your vacation fund to the mechanic.
Using a more emotionally charged example, let’s refer to the drug example above.
Practical problem —> Son uses drugs
Emotional reaction —> Angry
Now here’s where things get tricky. Ask yourself this vital question: Is your problem one of want or need?
Want is something you desire.
Need is a basic need for human survival, like air, food, water or medication.
Do you need your son to stop smoking pot? No. Whether he blazes until the cows come home is not going to threaten your survival.
You want him to stop using because you love him and don’t want to see him self-medicating and jeopardizing his future (he may care less about getting clean, but you can’t let his lack of motivation get in the way of your goal).
However, if you continue to over-react and think with your gut, you’re not going to have the mental and physical energy required to focus on options for helping your son get sober.
When you choose to think more calmly and rationally you are putting yourself in the best possible position to care, because you may as well.
Categorizing your goals based on want versus need helps you keep them in perspective and avoid catastrophizing.
IV. Rational Living Therapy is based on the present
As a psychodynamic die-hard, this was hard to swallow. It’s not that the past is unimportant, but RLT is interested in what is maintaining the problematic thinking.
V. Self-help assignments are a central feature of Rational Living Therapy
The work outside the 50-minute hour is of utmost importance to master the art of rational thinking. One assignment is recording what you want to Do more of, and what you want to Do less of, and what you want to Emotionally feel more of, and what you want to Emotionally feel less of, and so on.
Another assignment is writing your life goals. Record not just what you think is possible, but what you really want, without filtering your dreams and aspirations.
The classic CBT self-help assignment is recording your Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors.
VI. The ABCs of Emotions is a core value of Rational Living Therapy:
A = What I’m Aware of (the situation)
B = What I think about A
C = How I felt/What I did
We have three types of thoughts:
1. Positive: I feel happy.
2. Neutral (or calm): I don’t feel happy or mad, maybe somewhere in-between like sad or irritated.
3. Negative: I feel angry. I feel depressed.
Let’s analyze a different situation, since I’m so dope at breaking down dysfunctional duos.
Mike comes home to find his wife Ann has not returned from work.
A = The situation: Mike looks at his phone and doesn’t see a text from Ann that she’s working late.
B = Thoughts: Mike thinks Ann is cheating on him. After all, before they got married she had an affair with a senior partner at the law firm where she worked.
C = Feelings and Behaviors: Mike feels angry, hurt, rejected, nervous and out of control. He calls Ann’s mobile device and it goes to voicemail. He leaves a frantic, hostile message accusing her of infidelity. When Ann returns home she tells Mike she decided to go for a run before coming home and that’s why she’s late. She then ignores Mike’s demands for more of an explanation and goes into her office and closes the door. This makes Mike more suspicious, certain that she is talking to her lover.
Caveat: Most of us are good at identifying the A and C, but not B. Part of the reason is many of our thoughts are automatic, and some operate at a sub-conscious level. Complicating matters is we all play to a hidden script of core beliefs or underlying thoughts, referred to here as Reflex Thoughts, which drive our behaviors.
For example, Mike’s Reflex Thought might be that when his wife doesn’t spend the majority of non-working hours with him, it must mean he’s unworthy of being loved, and he’s less of a man than others. This is a highly undesirable thought which causes him to feel extremely upset and depressed.
When this Reflex Thought is triggered, it produces an INSTANT emotional reaction that corresponds to the stories he’s telling himself.
To test-drive the reality of your thoughts, ask The Three Rational Questions:
1. Is my thinking based on fact?
2. Does my thinking help me achieve my goals?
3. Does my thinking help me feel the way I want to feel?
Let’s say Ann is cheating on Mike. This means that his thinking is based on fact, therefore this is a rational thought.
Mike’s goal is to be in a safe, secure marriage, so thinking that he’s unlovable or undesirable are unwanted thoughts.
Mike does not like feeling suspicious, angry, depressed and rejected.
Three “yes” answers means that your thought is rational, and you should keep it. One of more “no” answers means that your thought is irrational, and a replacement thought is in order.
Mike has two choices: Stay in the marriage and work on the problem areas (provided Ann is willing to do so), or get a divorce.
Let’s say divorce is out of the question because Mike believes:
“Divorce means I’m a failure.”
“I’ll never find anyone else to be my wife.”
“I don’t want to be a 70 year old man, alone and possibly ill.”
Now we start to break down Mike’s Reflex Thoughts about divorce. Remember we need to ascertain if these thoughts are based on wants or needs.
—Because there is no such school or university that grades relationships, Mike will not get an “F.” The fact remains that many successful people are divorced.
—Mike does not need to stay married in order to survive, so this is a want. The task of looking for someone else is difficult and it would likely entail a lot of energy, but it’s not the worst thing in the world.
—Mike may end up alone and ill at 70, or he may not. In the meantime, he can focus on fostering deeper connections with those around him, and making healthy living a priority.
Once Mike sees that his rigid thinking is holding him back and causing unnecessary misery, he’s able to adopt more flexible, healthy thoughts about his situation.
Because Mike chooses to stay in a relationship where he may “share” his wife with another man, the focus becomes on the thoughts which lead to his decision and what these thoughts and subsequent behaviors will mean to him and his newly defined version of marriage.
Mike’s New ABCs:
A = The situation: Whenever I spend time with my wife, or when I think about her.
B = New thoughts to practice: “I refuse to think in a one-dimensional way about marriage and divorce. Instead, I will remind myself that I’m choosing to stay in my marriage because I believe we can work on regaining intimacy and trust. We may end up divorcing at some point, but I’ll find someone else eventually. If I don’t remarry, it doesn’t mean my life is over.”
C = As a result of my new thinking, I’ll feel and do this: Feel calm and confident. Treat Ann kindly, and show her trust.
Mike will then practice these thoughts at least once per day for a month until they make sense for him. If practicing feeling confident in his marriage is hard, Mike will practice acting “as if” he believes the new thoughts until they feel comfortable to him.
Whew! Tough and heady stuff, no doubt.
Changing your thoughts takes diligence, time and effort. Thanks again to the wonderful works of Dr. Aldo Pucci.
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Yours in healthy, realistic thinking,