The Range Of Results You May Get From Challenging Your Counterproductive Thoughts And Beliefs

One method to deal with the unhelpful, maladaptive thoughts and beliefs that fuel your fears, insecurities, and low self-esteem is to logically examine them, find how they may not make sense, and replace them with more balanced, useful alternatives. It's a core part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The fancy official term for it is Cognitive Restructuring.

No approach works 100% of the time. Sometimes when people try a much-recommended therapy like CBT and it doesn't click for them, they can worry they're a lost cause. I wrote this article to give you a more realistic idea of what you can expect if you try this method, and to reassure you you're not broken or doing something wrong if it doesn't miraculously cure you.

I find the results of cognitive restructuring vary on a thought by thought, or belief by belief basis. It's not that it doesn't work on any of someone's insecure or fearful thoughts, or on all of them. This is because different thoughts and beliefs have different mental processes supporting them in the background. Some of these supports can be affected by a logical approach, while others are more resistant to it.

This rough range of possible results is based on my personal experience and observations. They assume someone uses the approach properly and gives it a chance. Of course, they may not accomplish much if they do it wrong, give up too early, and so on.

Great result

When cognitive restructuring works really well here's what usually happens: There's some area of your life you're struggling with, like you get way too nervous when you have to approach a group of strangers at a party. You've never really thought a ton about why it scares you so much, you just know it does. You do some self-reflection and uncover the belief behind your fear: You worry if you try to talk to a group and say the wrong thing, they're going to get really angry with you.

You never put it into words like that before, but recognize you've always followed that belief as if it was true. Not that knowing the origin of a belief is necessary with this method, but you remember as a first grader you once had a bad experience where you tried to play with some older kids at recess and they got annoyed, yelled at you to go away, and threatened to beat you up if you didn't.

Now that this underlying belief is out in the open you can easily see how it doesn't make logical sense. Clearly most adults aren't going to flip out if you try to join their conversation. You have a true "a ha" moment. The distorted belief effortlessly dissolves, and never comes back. If it was the only one fueling your fear of approaching groups, then you'll find you aren't anxious about it any more. If there are other beliefs contributing to that fear, you'll still feel uneasy when you want to talk to a bunch of people, but not quiet as much.

Sometimes a counterproductive belief can control you because it's running undiscovered and unquestioned in the background. However, once you unearth it and apply a minimum level of critical analysis, you easily realize it makes no sense, and it goes away.

Poor result

I'll use the same example again. Someone's afraid of talking to strangers at parties. They may get in touch with a previously unspoken fear of making people mad, or they may already know that's the worst-case scenario behind their anxiety. Either way, they map out the cognitive distortions behind the belief, and come up with a more grounded, adaptive one.

The problem is it feels like they're going through the motions. They might be able to acknowledge the belief is illogical on paper, but it still feels true on a deep, emotional level. They know in an intellectual sense they don't have anything to be scared of, but they can't help but feel nervous at the possibility of making people angry.

They may not even get that far. They may fully believe their fear is valid, and reject any suggestion that it's skewed by cognitive errors. They might say things like, "I feel like I'm gaslighting myself by trying to make a logical case for why my worry isn't real." They may get defensive and feel dismissed if someone keeps trying to convince them they're not looking at the situation realistically. They could even deepen their conviction that their belief is accurate.

On occasion someone's seemingly irrational belief is reasonable, they're the only one who gets it, and everyone else is missing something. But let's say their fear or insecurity isn't an accurate reflection of reality. Why could it be so impervious to cold, hard logic?

One explanation is that when we go through an upsetting, difficult experience, if we can't fully work through it at the time, how we felt and thought in that moment can get "frozen" in our mind (e.g., being terrified the bigger kids would hurt you). Later in life when we're in a similar situation, or thinking of one, those old, preserved feelings can get activated, and we snap back into that younger mindset. When we're in that younger headspace we don't have as much access to our adult knowledge and perspective. Again, we may know it all on a logical level, but it doesn't emotionally land. This explains why sometimes a client can do CBT, and in the therapist's office they can accept a belief isn't rational, but once they're in their feared setting it all goes out the window.

Another possibility is having an unconscious reason not to let go of the fear. For example, someone may not realize it, but they're afraid that if they get over their social anxiety they'll have nothing holding them back from living up to their potential, but believe their underachieving family will reject them if they're too successful. They may feel really put off by any suggestion that one of their social worries isn't logical, because if they accept that they could have to give up their status quo.

Okay result

I just covered the extreme outcomes. Here's a more common, middling result.

Someone examines their belief about making strangers angry by trying to talk to them. They can partially accept it's distorted, and that there's a more balanced, useful way they could think instead. They feel a bit better. Their concerns about chatting to people they don't know go down somewhat. They're still fairly nervous. To a degree their fear still feels emotionally true. They may feel like they're being a good sport and forcing themselves to consider the alternative perspective, even though it's unnatural.

Ideally their fear goes down at least enough that it allows them to make some other helpful practical changes. Like they go from being too scared to talk to anyone at a party, to being able to start a conversation after giving themselves a moment to gather their courage. Hopefully this real world exposure allows them to learn firsthand most people are friendly, and that they can handle being a bit jittery and still get by. They may also get a chance to practice their social skills, and start to feel more confident that way. If they

A less-successful middle ground outcome is their fear is lowered a bit, but still not enough to make a tangible difference day to day. However, every little bit helps. Maybe combined with some other anxiety reduction approaches, like getting more exercise or learning relaxation techniques, they'll be able to get over the hump.

These results can be explained by the presence of deeper frozen memories or unconscious conflicts, but they're not as strong.

Again, that's just for one underlying belief (e.g., "If I try to talk to a group I may piss them off"). If someone's fear is kept alive by several beliefs, they can get an overall middle ground result if they examine and challenge each one with a mix of effectiveness. Say they believe five other scary things about group conversation, like, "I'll stutter and get laughed at" or, "Everyone will judge me for sweating." They may totally defuse one belief, barely put a dent in a second, and end up somewhere in between with the other three. All in all their fear will be somewhat reduced, and hopefully to the point where they can start to make progress in other ways.

Once more, the idea isn't to say challenging your unhelpful thoughts is Totally Amazing or Completely Worthless. It's one tool of many. Sometimes it works really well. Sometimes it fizzles. Be open to trying it, and move on if it doesn't do the job.

Related articles:

Cognitive Behavior Therapy Isn't The Be-All And End-All Of Treating Anxiety
Misconceptions And Objections About Cognitive Restructuring In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy