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…