Change Your Feelings by First Changing Your Thoughts

by | Feb 5, 2019

One of the most common theoretical approaches used when counseling children and families is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. At its core, CBT seeks to understand the connection between our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions–or, in other words, it’s believed that the more we understand how each one of the three components affects us, the more control we can gain over our reactions. In fact, CBT famously draws these components as a triangle, illustrating that how we think affects how we feel, how we feel affects how we behave, how others behave affects how we think, and so on.
Let me explain. As people, one of our most common automatic assumptions is that an external action directly informs how we feel. For example, you fail to respond to a message that I sent you four days ago and I feel hurt by it. Or, your child comes home with yet another “bad day” report and you feel discouraged. Or, your spouse forgets to complete the errands you asked him or her to do countless times and you feel angry and exasperated. CBT would tell us that it is the thought(s) that we have about those situations, not the situations themselves that are causing those feelings. For example, when you don’t answer my message, maybe the automatic thought of, “I’m not that important to you” pops into my mind leading to me feeling hurt. When your child comes home with that teacher’s note, maybe your brain tells you surreptitiously, “these problems never happened before the divorce. It’s my fault he can’t behave now…” When your spouse doesn’t do what you asked, maybe you think, “why am I the only one that ever does anything around here?” It’s no surprise, then, that without planning to do so, you begin to speak sharply to your spouse. 

OK, so now that you have a bit more insight into the connection between your thoughts, feelings, and behavior and how they connect,  you are probably wondering what to do about it. While the CBT trinity of thoughts/feelings/actions would suggest that each of these components is equally important and equally capable of affecting all the others (and I would agree), my favorite place to start to create change is with our thoughts. Why? They are the easiest things to start changing. And (here’s the big takeaway!) if we can change our thoughts, then we can change our feelings and our behaviors. If we can help our children change their thoughts, we can help them better regulate their emotions and behaviors. 

One way to do this is to become more aware of the mental tricks our brain plays on us, otherwise known as cognitive distortions. As the name might suggest, cognitive distortions are thoughts in which the truth is warped or hidden to some degree. It is important to be able to identify and challenge distorted thoughts when they occur–both for you and your child–in order to obtain a more neutral, balanced way of thinking and therefore reduce reactive feelings and behavior. To return to the examples in the beginning of the article, if I think that I’m not important to you, I’m going to feel hurt. But if I’m able to replace that thought with a more realistic one, such as, “I know that my friend has been really stressed this week and I know that our friendship is important to her. She’s probably not responding right now because she’s studying too much,” I’m going to feel a lot better. Similarly, if I think that my spouse never does anything around the house, I can challenge that thought (and prevent an angry outburst) by thinking, “actually, he/she did a lot with the kids this week. It’s frustrating that they forgot to do what I asked, but there were a lot of other things that they did get done.”

Here are four common cognitive distortions, modified from a list by the Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center, along with common examples that you can start to work on in your own family:

  1. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words such as “always” or “never” when you think about it.
    • Parent version: “My kids never listen to me…”
      • Remedy: “Turning off the T.V. seems to be a struggle every time, but my kids listened the first time today when I told them it was time to go home from the park.”
    • Child version: “You never give me what I want!”
      • Remedy: Help your child realize they’re disappointed about one particular thing in that moment, but that there have many other times when they were able to get their way. 
  2. Personalization and blame: Personalization occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control. Some people do the opposite–they blame other people or their circumstances for their problems, and they overlook ways that they might be contributing to the problem.
    • Parent version: “If only I didn’t work so much, I would have been able to help my son study for the test better so that he wouldn’t have failed.
      • Remedy: “I feel guilty about not being around more to help my son study, but every time I offered to help him over the weekend he kept playing his video game. I can’t do more than what he’s willing to do for himself.
    • Child version: “I don’t know why Ms. Jones got me in trouble today. I didn’t even do anything!”
      • Remedy: Help children realize their contribution to the problem. Sometimes I’ll ask kids about a “responsibility pie” and how many slices of the problem “pie” are their fault versus how many slices are the faults of others. Often, they’re able to better acknowledge how their behavior may have contributed to the final outcome.
  3. Jumping to Conclusions: You interpret things negatively when there are no facts to support your conclusion.
    • Parent version: “He is going to be in so much trouble! I told him to get his homework done first and there he is in his room on his phone!”
      • Remedy: “It really looks like he’s playing a game, but I remember he told me that he needed to look up a bunch of pictures for his science project. Let me go in and see what he’s really doing before I start yelling.”
    • Child version: “Mom, I cannot go back to school tomorrow! I just know that everyone is going to be talking about how I dropped my lunch today in front of the whole cafeteria!”
      • Remedy: Help your child look for proof for or against their automatic thought, or any exceptions to it. How do they know that’s what will happen? Has it happened before? Has there been a time when someone did something embarrassing in school and the kids didn’t talk all about it? Are their people who wouldn’t talk badly about your child?
  4. Mental Filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively, so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened.
    • Parent and child version: “Today was terrible!”
      • Remedy: Intentionally seek out and make note of the positive or neutral events that happened independent of the negative ones. Perhaps your toddler threw one long, extended tantrum all day long. What about the fact that she ate her breakfast before starting to cry? Perhaps your 3rd grader had a miserable day at school. What about the fun free time she had after school? Help kids look for ways in which something isn’t completely ruined simply because of the negative parts.

I would invite you to read the full list here and look for ways in which you and your child or teen might be letting cognitive distortions impact feelings and behaviors in a negative manner. I often tell my clients to familiarize themselves with the list of these tricky types of automatic thoughts, and then pay extra close attention over the course of the week and see which ones they catch themselves doing more often. Practice on your own and with your children calling out these thoughts and replacing them with more balanced, realistic ones. You’ll be surprised how quickly a difference it can make in cooling down reactive feelings and behaviors! And, if you are getting stuck, a therapist can help! Click here to learn more about how the therapists at Family Therapy Center of Bethesda can help!

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