Jay was feeling depressed about life in general. In particular, he was feeling discouraged about not having a girlfriend. His best friend had recently gotten married, and Jay said that the wedding made him depressed. “I’m the only one who didn’t have a date for the wedding. I must be a loser.” Jay thought his social situation and the wedding in particular were making him depressed.
Jay decided to talk with a therapist, who turned out to be a practitioner of cognitive therapy. The therapist asked Jay to recount what he was thinking whenever he wanted to ask a girl out. Jay sighed. “Every time I want to ask a girl out, I think to myself, She is never going to want to go out with me and If she says yes, it is only out of pity.”
Jay was in a no-win situation. If the girl actually consented to going out with him, he then thought, “She won’t like me when she gets to know me. I’m such a loser.” He was paralyzed in every social situation by his negative thoughts. Jay’s depressing thoughts ultimately made him…depressed.
We tend to think that what is out there makes me feel good or bad. We think that situations affect our moods and our reactions. In fact, as Father Emmerich Vogt, O.P., founder of the Twelve Step Review, often says, “Happiness is an inside job.” How we feel depends on us.
And—even more radical—how we feel often depends on how we think.
At the core of cognitive therapy is the assumption that our thoughts and our feelings are significantly intertwined. We may believe we are thinking or behaving rationally, but in fact, many times we do not! (This is certainly consistent with the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin!)
Cognitive therapy teaches that, at times, we think and behave irrationally, and therefore must monitor our thoughts and our belief systems in order to have a healthy emotional life! Just being aware of the connection between thoughts and feelings in many cases helps people turn their lives around!
In1967 Dr. Aaron Beck, the primary founder of cognitive therapy, published the results of a five-year research project outlining the use of cognitive therapy for depression and other problems. Many research studies have since shown that cognitive therapy is effective in treating many different types of depression and in fact, is in many cases as effective or superior to other types of therapy (including medication) with depression, anxiety, and other disorders.
Cognitive therapists observed a curious dynamic in depressed clients: the clients felt depressed, hopeless, etc., but when the therapist asked them what they were thinking, they often said things like, “I am going to fail” or “I am always overwhelmed” or “I can’t handle this because I am so incompetent.” These clients were feeling depressed, not because of their current life situations, but specifically because of the way they labeled these situations: “I always fail in situations like this” or “People always let me down” or “I’m never going to find someone to love.” In other words, their thoughts were depressing them, not their actual situation!
Try this sometime when you find yourself experiencing a suddenly overwhelming bad mood, or sadness. Ask yourself: What was I just thinking? Perhaps you were just beginning a new class and you looked at the reading list and said to yourself, “I’ll never be able to keep up with this class! It’s just too much work!” You then felt a huge weight upon your shoulders, a feeling of despondency and helplessness.
Or, you meet a pretty girl at work and you want to talk to her, maybe ask her out for coffee, but you think to yourself, “There’s no way I can just go introduce myself. She is going to think I am an idiot.” You then feel uncomfortable and sad, discouraged.
Or, you blow the diet you’re on with a large slice of cake. You say to yourself, “It’s no use. I’ll never lose any weight” and you give up.
A cognitive behavioral therapist would have you take note of such thoughts, possibly jot them down for a week, and then would slowly try to unpack the belief system or core beliefs that underlie these negative thoughts. The core beliefs might be something like “I am inadequate,” “I am unlovable” or “I never succeed at anything.”
Judy’s negative thoughts
Judy was a teacher in her mid-thirties. She came to therapy because she was feeling discouraged and down about her present life and about her future. Cognitive therapists asked Judy to write up a list of problems. She listed being depressed and passive, disorganized at work, dissatisfied with her job, socially isolated, hopeless about meeting a future spouse, and unassertive. Some of the negative thoughts that accompanied these problems included: “I am overwhelmed,” “I will never find a life partner,” “I am too tired to go out after work,” “I want to marry and have children, but I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone.” And “It doesn’t matter what I say, I will never get what I want anyway.”
These thoughts were causing not only occupational problems (she was distracted and disorganized, as well as passive, at work) but also created social problems (she was too tired to go out, and she was unassertive in social situations).
It turned out that, underlying these frequent negative thoughts were what cognitive therapists call “schemata” about herself, others and the world. These automatic, negative thoughts formed a set of core beliefs– “schemata”–which would be activated during times of stress or other life situations. Judy’s thoughts included the following:
“I am undeserving, inadequate, and incapable of success”
“Others are undependable and unsupportive”
And “The world is unrewarding, demanding, scary.”
It turned out that Jay also had a negative core belief: “I am inadequate; no one can love me.”
A healthy individual will have realistic and generally positive “schemata,” whereas Judy and Jay had negative views of the self, others and the world. Though Judy and Jay were not consciously aware of the triggering of their negative schemata, self-defeating and highly critical thoughts would automatically arise in certain stressful situations such as asking someone out on a date or having to be assertive at work.
Cognitive therapist Jeffrey Young, PhD, of Columbia University Medical Center conducted research on the origins of maladaptive schemata. He discovered that when certain core needs were not met in an individual’s childhood, unhealthy schemas are developed as a means of coping. These are “broad, pervasive themes regarding oneself and one's relationship with others, developed during childhood and elaborated throughout one's lifetime, and dysfunctional to a significant degree." Young has identified 18 of these self-defeating themes, including: emotional deprivation, abandonment, entitlement, defectiveness/shame, subjugation, punitiveness, dependence/incompetence, failure, and so on (www.schematherapy.com).
When faced with certain situations (perhaps asking someone out, applying for a new job, or meeting someone who triggers painful childhood memories), our schemas are activated. Instead of facing each situation as a new situation (living in the present moment), we immediately return to the pattern of coping we are most familiar with; for many, these are negative, self-defeating thoughts. Judy, for example, realized that she had developed a negative way of thinking about herself as a way of coping with her abusive, angry father and her passive and helpless mother. Instead, we need to think differently.
Jay’s therapist listed the negative thoughts that Jay told him would pop into his head, unbidden. He asked Jay if these statements were true. “Is it really true that you are unloveable and inadequate?” he asked. Jay’s therapist pointed out all the successful things that Jay had done, and how he was a good friend to many: you graduated cum laude from your university, you have a good job, you are a responsible and faithful friend, and you’re a good Catholic! Jay finally realized that his negative core beliefs were not true! Now, he needed to stop the automatic thoughts from rushing in whenever he was under stress.
We need to recognize when self-defeating thoughts automatically rush in and take over, high-jacking our moods and our lives. The key is to recognize the discouraging thoughts as well as the situations that trigger them and replace them with more accurate and supportive thoughts. Like an uninvited obnoxious guest, we need to get rid of those self-defeating thoughts. Hire yourself a new bouncer: a big 250-pound lineman who will kick those thoughts out before they cause trouble.
But as Jesus told us in the parable of the unclean spirit, you don’t want to leave your house (or your mind) empty. “When an unclean spirit goes out of someone, it roams through arid regions searching for rest but, finding none, it says, ‘I shall return to my home from which I came.’ Finding it clean and put in order, the unclean spirit will then go and bring back “seven other spirits more wicked than itself” to move in and dwell there! (Luke 11: 24-26).
Recognize the self-defeating thoughts and the bad schemas and replace them with the way God sees you, with His plan for your life. In therapy and in prayer, seek to know the mind of Christ (CCC 2046) and to experience God’s infinite and unconditional love for you—because you are a beloved child of God.