Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Are You Making A Hell Of Heaven?

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The poet John Milton, in his epic poem “Paradise Lost” (1667), stated — through the voice of his character Satan — “the Mind is its own place and, in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

I can think of no better or more eloquent statement to summarize the teachings of cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT]. CBT operates on the premise that our thinking is the precursor to moods and emotions, which is then the basis for a lot of behaviors, both heavenly and hellish. It is not the outer event that makes us feel any particular way but how we interpret and evaluate that event that makes us feel happy or sad, depressed or joyful, frightened or safe, energized or lethargic.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is not positive thinking. It is more about realistic thinking.

Our thinking determines whether we feel as though we are in heaven or hell. We could be in the middle of a snow storm, cold and wet, and feel as though we are in heaven —  or hell. Likewise, we could be on a tropical beach during a sunset and feel depressed — or elated. It depends so much on the workings of our mind.

The underpinnings of CBT go back a long, long way, including phrases such as the Christian-based “as a man thinketh, so is he” and the Buddhist-based “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts.” CBT is an outgrowth of rational emotive therapy [RET], now referred to as rational emotive-behavior therapy [REBT]. Dr. Albert Ellis popularized it using his classic book, “A New Guide to Rational Living,” which outlined the basic tenets of RET. Today, scores of books are available on CBT including the well-received “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by Dr. David Burns. Considering CBT is one of the most effective evidence-based, non-medicinal treatments for depression and anxiety, it’s worth some investigations. A great deal of good, easy-to-read literature on the subject is available freely on the Internet.

CBT lays out several fundamental faults in thinking, referred to as distorted or irrational thinking patterns that can easily cause a person to feel depressed, anxious, frightened, frustrated or angry, to name a few of the more common negative emotions. Through awareness of these distorted and irrational patterns of thinking that are often well-established in the mind from years of repetition, change can begin. Once a person becomes aware of these thoughts, therapists can challenge to try more reasonable, realistic patterns of internal dialogue, referred to as “self-talk.”

Everyone engages in self-talk. It is as normal as breathing. The problem is the content of our self-talk. We are often terribly unaware of what we are telling ourselves. Self-talk occurs subconsciously and quite rapidly. Unbeknownst to the conscious mind, our self-talk can be excessively demeaning, demanding, degrading, coercive and downright mean. The result is often depression, anger, sadness or frustration. Self-talk can even prompt a person into violence. In fact, many domestic violence prevention classes base their curriculum on CBT information.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is about realistic thinking and reality-based self-talk. It can help us feel better and is instrumental in changing our hell to, if not heaven, at least a more comfortable, pleasing place to be.

Published by

Ken Fields

Talkspace Therapist