Feelings and Thoughts: Two Different Things

Regulars here at Life’s a Beach! know that I describe myself as a cognitive therapist. Has an impressive scientific ring, don’t you think? But aside from sounding official, just what is it? People ask me, “Cognitive therapy is all well and good, and I’m fine with finding the nature of errors in my thinking. But what about the underlying causes of my problems?” Bingo! The error in this question proves exactly why cognitive therapy is important.

Cognitive psychology assumes that ideas are the cause of emotions. If your emotions are disturbing, they’re reflecting your disturbing thoughts. Think of emotions as sort of a printout of your beliefs and ideas – some valid and some maybe not so valid. So how do you know the difference? After all, illogical thoughts and contradictions can create some pretty misleading printouts.

The process of answering these questions is, in fact, the cure. For example, let’s say you’re afraid of snakes. Your fear stems from the belief that snakes could kill you. A closer look at the facts, however, reveals that while some snakes can harm you, many cannot. They also do good things, such as killing disease-carrying rodents, that might lead you to feel friendlier about them. And there are steps you can take to avoid contact with the harmful ones. The point is this: The root of your fear is your exaggerated belief that all snakes are harmful.

So you ask, “How can learning about snakes address my fear?” This is the same as saying, “How can studying geometry help me to better comprehend geometry?” Granted, you might find geometry difficult, but what other way is there to understand something than to study it? You just need to be a bit more careful about studying our slithering friends.

People apply different rules to their emotions than they do to pretty much anything else. They employ reason when buying a car, or tiling a floor, or getting the best deal at a hotel. But when it comes to emotions, thought and study are the last things we think of. Some might say that it’s “simplistic,” but when I ask what they’ll do to figure out their feelings, somehow that’s mystical or mysterious. Well, it’s neither.

The vast wasteland of daytime TV (not to mention jokes about outdated Freudian psychoanalysts dozing in their chairs) have trained people to think that the underlying cause of their emotions is always family issues. “My mother treated me cruelly. As a result, I don’t trust others.” A competent cognitive therapist will not ignore that statement, but will certainly point out that that was then, and now is now. The question is, “What false ideas and beliefs do I carry with me as a result of the past that are now affecting me in the present?”

One of those mistaken beliefs could be that, “Everybody is like my mother and will therefore be cruel.” Not so. The world is full of all kinds of people. Some are more manipulative than your mother, and some are not. If human beings can train themselves to stop being racist, for example, they can certainly train themselves to treat people as individuals; some of whom are worthy of trust and some not. This can be done by taking risks, observing the results, and correcting the mistaken emotions based on those results.

Therapy essentially means change, and like any change, cognitive therapy is not always easy. But what’s the alternative? You can certainly change yourself without a therapist, but with a therapist you’ll get some guidance and direction. Either way, you’re changing your thoughts; hopefully for the better.

Your thoughts affect much of what you do and all that you perceive. The emotions and feelings that arise from these thoughts and perceptions give you the opportunity to use your mind to discover what they are, compare them to the facts, and then act on them – with or without a therapist.