We often believe we are at the mercy of situations and events. The long line at the bank made us upset. What that person said got us depressed. There are so many situations in our lives that have the power to make us feel happy or sad, angry or calm.
And yet, is that really what is happening? Does the situation actually control our moods and emotions?
In the field of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [CBT] there is a common homework assignment. In this assignment, you take a sheet of notebook paper, make three vertical columns and identify the left one as A, the middle one as B and the right one as C.
The A column is for the Antecedent. This is the situation or the event that makes us feel the way we do. Column C is for the mood or emotion, brought on from that situation in column A.
We typically believe A causes C. The situation causes the mood or emotion. But there is this middle column, B. This column is our belief about the situation. Our belief is what translates, filters and gives meaning to the situation that gives rise to our moods and emotions, as well as decisions and behaviors. It is this B column that CBT explores and examines – and provides tools by which the belief can be changed. When the belief about the situation is changed, the mood or emotion we experience is also changed. And then our decisions change. We act differently.
Belief about situation
As a practical example, let’s look at a typical situation such as traffic jam. You’re in a traffic jam, and you are becoming increasingly upset. In traditional CBT fashion, we would write down in the A column, “traffic jam.” In the C column, we write down our mood or emotion such as angry. (Note: we do this exercise after the fact, not while we are in the car driving!)
In the B column we write down our belief about the situation; perhaps we believe being in a traffic jam is not fair, it is wrong, it should not happen, it’s the fault of the city planners, it is going to make you late to work, and if you are late to work, your job is in jeopardy, which then means you will be viewed as irresponsible, and if you are irresponsible, then you are weak, and unprofessional, and maybe worthless.
But beliefs are not facts. They are more like opinions — they are often arbitrary, there is often no evidence to support them, they can even be inaccurate to the point of being falsehoods, lies. Our beliefs — erroneous, arbitrary or factual — are fairly well established and give meaning to the situation. Based on that meaning, we have a mood or an emotion from we which we make decisions and act. Given the power our beliefs have on our moods, emotions, decisions and behaviors, is it not worthwhile to question them?
Looking at our beliefs is an important step towards mental health. Our beliefs about situations can make all the difference. It is here, in working with Column B, where a trained Cognitive Behavioral Therapist is helpful.
Working with a CBT therapist can assist you in discovering the erroneous or dysfunctional beliefs and work with you to shift them towards a more rational and functional view of a situation, yourself and your world.
From that we become empowered. Our situations no longer control our moods, emotions, decisions and behaviors. We are more in command. We could even find ourselves less angry, perhaps calm during a traffic jam, not to mention the various challenging job related and relationship situations in which we find ourselves engaged daily.