Another CT Myth… Put on those Rose-Colored Glasses

Here’s another one of the most common misunderstandings about Cognitive Therapy: 

Myth: Cognitive Therapy simply teaches people to put on “rose-colored glasses” and see everything in a positive light, even if a situation really is negative.

Fact: Cognitive Therapy does not try to teach people to view things more positively. What Cognitive Therapy does is teach people to view things more realistically. When someone has a psychiatric disorder, he or she often sees situations in a distorted manner (for an explanation of distorted thoughts, see the comment from Judith S. Beck at the end of this blog post).

For instance, someone suffering from an anxiety disorder might think that something awful has happened to his or her loved ones every time the phone rings (even though, time and again, this is not the case). The person might have anxious thoughts whenever the phone rings, followed by distressing physical symptoms like clammy hands, light headedness or difficulty breathing.

A Cognitive Therapist would work with this person to help him/her evaluate whether or not he/she is viewing the situation of the phone ringing in a realistic light, to understand why he/she is afraid of the phone ringing, and to come up with alternative possibilities (“Maybe that’s just my husband calling to say he’s stuck in traffic.” “Maybe that’s just the doctor calling to confirm my appointment,” etc.), and then to monitor what really does happen when the phone rings in between therapy sessions.

Cognitive Therapy would help the individual to evaluate which possibilities are more realistic, to come up with responses to distorted thoughts when they arise when the phone rings, to improve the person’s physiological response, and also to address key underlying beliefs that person might have, such as “If something actually did happen to my husband, I’d be devastated. I wouldn’t survive.” An individual suffering from an anxiety disorder like this is not viewing the situation of the phone ringing in a realistic manner, and is unduly suffering because of it.

On the other hand, if an individual comes in for CT treatment to address a problem such as dissatisfaction with his or her job, he or she might be viewing the situation in a perfectly realistic manner (i.e. perhaps the situation really is not good/doesn’t pay enough/isn’t that interesting for the person, etc.). The Cognitive Therapist in this scenario would not try to teach the person to see the situation more “positively.” Instead, the Cognitive Therapist would accept that the person really does not like his/her situation, and would find out what the individual’s goals are, or help him/her develop goals, such as “To gain advancement within the same company” or “To find a better job somewhere else.” Then the Cognitive Therapist would work with the patient to address any “unhelpful thoughts” or underlying beliefs that are preventing that person from reaching for his/her goals, such as, “I’ll never get promoted. If I ask for more money, they’ll just think I’m greedy,” or “I’ll never find a better job – it’s no use looking.”

When people come in for therapy they’re usually having some distorted or dysfunctional thoughts (but that doesn’t mean that everything they think is overly negative or distorted). Cognitive Therapy works to address only those views that are actually distorted or dysfunctional, and that are causing distress and suffering to the individual. CT does not try to get people to think more positively, but to think more realistically. And Cognitive Therapy works with the person to enact change in his or her life (It’s not all just a matter of adjusting the thoughts in your head!).

In other words, CT does not tell people to put rose-colored glasses on. It’s more like helping people who already have on really dark sunglasses to take them off…

CT Myths: Three of the Most Common Misunderstandings about Cognitive Therapy

Myth: Cognitive Therapy (CT) is all about changing your thinking, and does not involve behavioral change.

Fact: Actually, Cognitive Therapy (developed by Aaron T. Beck, M.D. in the 1960s) addresses your thinking, emotions, behaviors, and physiological symptoms (if applicable). Cognitive Therapy (CT) is called Cognitive Therapy because it is based on the premise that your underlying beliefs about yourself, others and the world influence the way you perceive situations, and prompt you to have certain thoughts, emotions, behavioral responses and physical symptoms. CT treatment actually starts by addressing present problems and helping patients to have a better week — patients often begin evaluating their own thoughts and doing some behavioral experimentation very early on.

Myth: Cognitive Therapy only deals with surface layer problems, and it doesn’t do much to change the root of people’s problems.

Fact: Cognitive Therapy treatment starts by addressing present problems as a way to help patients gradually change their underlying problems. Cognitive Therapists work to understand patients’ ‘core beliefs’ — how they view themselves, others and the world. These beliefs are often formed in childhood and are deep-seated. And these beliefs pop up in every day situations in the form of anxious or depressed thoughts that lead to negative feelings and behavioral reactions to situations. Cognitive Therapists work with patients to analyze what’s happening in a given situation, come up with alternative responses, experiment with implementing new ways of thinking and acting, and gradually begin to change their responses to situations. When patients see how their reactions, mood and other symptoms can improve once they begin viewing situations in a more realistic light, they gradually begin to chip away at their ‘deep-seated’ core beliefs. In other words, Cognitive Therapists recognize that the best way to help patients alter their deep-seated beliefs and their current distress is to take action now, in the present, so that patients can see the effects of changing their thinking and behavior, and start to develop more positive and realistic outlooks after seeing the results in action their own lives.

Myth: All Cognitive Therapists do the same kind of therapy. So if I already tried a Cognitive Therapist and it didn’t help, that means that the treatment itself doesn’t help.

Fact: Not all therapists who call themselves Cognitive Therapists, or Cognitive Behavior Therapists are really trained and qualified to practice Cognitive Therapy (CT). As CT becomes more and more well known, due to the many studies that have shown it to be effective, more and more therapists are including CT ‘techniques’ in their practices, and some may call themselves Cognitive Therapists even if they do not have much training in Cognitive Therapy. Just because someone uses some part of CT in their practice, does not mean that he or she is actually delivering overall CT treatment (which is an integrative form of therapy that requires mastery of many different therapeutic techniques, and understanding of individualized treatment approaches for different disorders). We recommend that patients who are interested in CT treatment search for an ACT-Certified Cognitive Therapist. The Academy of Cognitive Therapy is the only Cognitive Therapist certifying organization that reviews therapists’ knowledge and ability before granting certification.