December 6, 2009

Out, Out, Belief System!

One important therapy tool in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is exploring thoughts and beliefs that contribute toward an emotional or mental health disorder.

Thoughts can be viewed as relatively simple ideas or statements that guide our self-talk. For people suffering from depression, for example, these thoughts tend to run toward negative, discouraging themes. They may seem quick and random, such as,

I'm never going to get this right!

Or, What is wrong with me?

Or, There's no point in trying.

Cognitive therapy involves paying attention to these automatic negative thoughts, or cognitions, and coming up with healthier alternatives. That is, ultimately changing them or replacing them with more accurate, positive, uplifting, and/or calming thoughts.

Often, in therapy, we CBT psychologists look a little deeper for underlying belief systems that influence our clients' moods and actions.

These belief systems, or beliefs, for short, can be made up of a single powerful statement, such as the following examples,

I'm destined for failure.

I can't say no. I hate letting other people down.

Nobody will ever love me.

Something is wrong with me.

Or they can be made up of a series of thoughts that clump together:

Why is my life so hard? At this rate, I'll never get ahead. Why keep trying? It's no use. Every time I take one step forward, something happens that sets me back. I may was well give up.

Belief systems are typically made up of a complex pattern of thoughts that group together to feed and maintain the one, highly charged belief.

Let's take for example a common underlying belief found among people experiencing anxiety and depression symptoms:

Nobody loves me.


I am unworthy of love.

This belief is usually fueled by dozens or hundreds of smaller impact thoughts.

Look at me! I'm in terrible shape.

She won't come back, I just know it.

I need him. There is noone else out there for me.

I'm not going. What's the use? There's no point in trying to meet anyone.

I'll never find anyone else.

Why would anyone want to go out with me? I have nothing to offer.

I feel so fat and horrible.

I'm disgusting. No wonder he hasn't called me.

All of these thoughts could be related to the core, underlying belief, Nobody loves me. Or, I am unloveable.

One of the keys of CBT is uncovering dysfunctional belief systems, bring them to the light, and helping the client let go of their powerful hold, and move forward.

Sometimes dysfunctional beliefs are formed in early childhood. An abusive, neglectful parent can contribute to their formation. A group of teasing, bullying kids in the neighborhood can do the same.

Sometimes beliefs get started in adolescence or later in adult life, say, when a cherished lover or spouse is abusive, unfaithful, or abandons.

Whatever their origins, the good news is they can be outed and purged using CBT techniques.

More examples of dysfunctional belief patterns to come.

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