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…

8 replies
  1. Kevin Benbow
    Kevin Benbow says:

    Personally, I have found that using cognitive restructuring techniques can sometimes reveal that a client’s automatic thought is in reality somewhat realistic. At this point, rather than try to dissuade the client of his or her belief I find it practicical to explore possible solutions that might be useful to help the client resolve the difficulty (e. g., perhaps a spouse really is cheating and the evidence points in this direction . . . .maybe the client’s supervisor really is being unfair toward the client). Thus, CT, in my opinion, seems to rely on basic research techniques of testing hypotheses. Rather than trying to get a client to trust a cheating spouse or accept unfair treatment, seeking a positive way to address the spouse or boss, or change one’s situation altogether are examined.

    Just my $0.02.

  2. CT Today
    CT Today says:

    Judith Beck says:

    I’ve found that there are several things therapists can do when they find out that a patient’s automatic thought is true or that his/her prediction is likely to come true; I’ve described this in Cognitive Therapy for Challenging Problems — The first is to see whether the patient has drawn an inaccurate or dysfunctional conclusion.

    For example, accurate automatic thought: My husband is an alcoholic.
    Dysfunctional assumption: Everyone will think I’m inferior.

    The second is to do some problem-solving. For example, perhaps this patient might join Al Anon, ask family members or friends for help, etc.

    The third is to come to a level of acceptance about problems that can’t be solved and work to enrich other aspects of the patient’s life.

  3. Sam
    Sam says:

    This is *not* what I experienced when I saw a cognitive-behavioral therapist.

    I was having misgivings about my career choice.I was 22 at the time, just out of college, having majored in something my parents choose (My parents threatened to stop helping me financially if I majored in a topic I was fascinated by and was good at which was geology) . I was in a lousy job with an abusive boss. The shrink kept saying, “You can be anything you want to be.” When I said that this statement makes logical sense whatsoever (for example, I am a slow runner and would not pass a PT exam for the police academy), he kept repeating this as if it was a mantra. He refused to help me develop strategies for leaving the particular job and perhaps going back to school and doing graduate level work. That shrink had his rose colored glasses bolted onto his head. I canceled my second appointment and found someone else. (By the way, I use the techniques and lessons taught in CBT routinely. They’re now habits of mind. I had to discover them for myself.)

    I have a friend who saw a CBT therapist through a nationally renowned psychiatric hospital for OCD. My friend had been in college during the late 1960s, when there were a lot of religious cults on campus. The therapist tried to teach her mindfulness meditation, which, to her, felt way too much like the sort of thing the Buddhist and Hindu religious cults on her campus taught. The therapist was not willing to change his approach, to introduce her to the Stoic philosphers and other Western thinkers whose practices are similar to mindfulness. My friend found that the program felt too much like cult indoctrination and left. He is now doing a do-it-yourself form of CBT, relying on CBT books and workbooks purchased over the internet.

    I wish cognitive-behavioral therapy as described on this site was available. Too many CBT therapists are not well-trained and refuse to think!

  4. CT Today
    CT Today says:

    Sam, thank you so much for your comments. You raise several important points. We think it’s very important for consumers to know the difference between therapists who really practice Cognitive Therapy and therapists who say they practice it without having sufficient training, and without really delivering the full treatment. We always recommend that patients interested in Cognitive Therapy should search for a Cognitive Therapist certified by the Academy of Cognitive Therapy.

    For more information, you may also want to see the post on the difference between Cognitive Therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy. In any case, it’s wonderful that you and your friend were both able to teach yourself CBT techniques.

    Thanks again for your great comments…

  5. Kevin Benbow
    Kevin Benbow says:


    When I found that one of my daughters had ADHD I decided to look for a local therapist. There were two in my area who seemed to take a cognitive approach to treatment and were covered by my HMO: I chose the first one on the list and made an appointment.

    My family and I are all atheists. Upon entrance into the clinic I noticed that the therapist was wearing a large cross. Not wanting to have a bad experience for my little girl, I raised this issue immediately. The therapist told me that “my beliefs would not be a problem.” She then proceeded to share a Bible story with my daughter as a part of treatment. I asked her if religion was going to be a regular component of treatment and she told me that “most children know this Bible story.” Needless to say we did not return.

    Later we went to another therapist in town who advertises very loudly that he has a Ph. D. My wife accompanied us, and he only allowed my daughter in the room for about 5 minutes. He then asked her to wait outside while he gave us “advice.” At one point he told us to “throw a glass of water on her when she acts up.” I informed him that if I did that things would get worse. His response? “Hold her under the shower.” I’m not kidding nor exaggerating.

    The disturbing thing is that these folks hold themselves out as using cognitive methods. As an atheist, I have routinely referred my clients to see priests and pastors for spiritual concerns and because I used to be a devout Christian myself (I have an undergrad degree in pastoral studies) I have a wealth of Bible passages that I can use with my deeply religious clients. My past experience allows me to understand where they are coming from without demeaning them. To me, this is the spirit of collaboration that should characterize CT: Albert Ellis calls it “being an authentic chameleon.”

    As for the Ph. D. who likes to throw water on kids. . . . .he has been on probation twice with our state board.

    Moral of the story? My hope is that the academy will play a role in weeding these people out who are engaged in false advertising. I’m only about 3 months from independent licensure and hope to start a formal CT training program soon. In the meantime I’m seeing great results using straightforward CT as shown in Dr. J. Beck’s books (Basics and beyond and challenging problems).

    I know this is long, but I feel compelled to share one more thing: I opted to break cognitive restructuring into a series of steps that can be taught to a group. I am just finishing with my first group and all participants (except one) who have been regular attenders are showing differing degrees of improvement with their depressive symptoms. I’m excited as this week I will administer the BDI to see where they are. My assistant and I are already thinking of ways to improve the delivery of this material.

    It’s a great era in which to be a counselor!!

  6. CT Today
    CT Today says:

    Judith Beck says:

    Thanks for your interesting comments. Sorry you had such poor therapeutic experiences with your daughter. Glad you’re having success with your own clients!

    Judith Beck

  7. Jayshri Balaji
    Jayshri Balaji says:

    It is shocking to hear that at this day and age one would prescribe punishment to correct behavior. It would have elicited a very negative reaction even if this was a suggestion from a layperson. It sounds outrageous when delivered by a Ph.D As rightly put, there should be a system to weed out people that might prescribe detrimental approaches. I am just thinking what would the consequence have been if this was suggested to a naive, ‘do not question the approach’ kind of a parent.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Two days ago, we received a great comment that said, “This is *not* what I experienced when I saw a cognitive-behavioral therapist… I wish cognitive-behavioral therapy as described on this site was available. Too many CBT therapists are not well-trained and refuse to think!” (you can read Sam’s full comments about the kind of ‘CBT’ that he and his friend received on this post – his is the fourth comment down).  […]

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