Mindfulness & cognitive therapy

One of the cognitive distortions that we’re encouraged to spot and re-think when using cognitive therapy techniques is the “should” statement– ” I should feel better,” “They shouldn’t treat me like that,” and others of that type. In rephrasing something, the goal is to do an accurate restatement that is not distorted, but true– “I wish I felt better,” I wish they treated me differently” are two very simple replacements. There might be problems with the restatements, too, but the thing can be done incrementally: “I will do something that I enjoy, even if it’s a little thing,;” I will ask to be treated with more respect, and if I don’t get it I won’t hang around with them.” As a famous psychologist once said, “Life is just one damned thing after another,” so any restatement leads to new imagined or real scenarios, but that’s life.

So how am I relating this to mindfulness practice? What’s so pernicious about the word “should,” anyway? Because when I say the “S” word I’m declaring war on reality. I’m saying that I don’t accept  reality.  I should feel better– but I don’t, and I’m not accepting it. The mindfulness approach is to accept what is, using nonjudgmental language. First, I pay attention to what is really going on, either in the world around me or within me. What are the observable facts of my situation, either in terms of the world through my five senses or my inner world through an  honest look at myself (ah, there’s a big sticking point, no?).

My experience working with people to spot their cognitive distortions is that a lot of times we have an inner running commentary– cognitive therapists call this “automatic thoughts” and some Buddhist teachers, I believe, have referred to it as “monkey mind.” Mindfully observing our inner commentary is a first step. When I talk to myself, what am I saying? It can be amazingly hard to listen to oneself. My personal update for the inner chatter phenomenon is “radio mind,” because it can seem that your mind is not only throwing up a lot of chatter, but also changing stations randomly. But being mindful about one’s own mind can change that condition. It’s not always easy, but we can pick a train of thought and stay with it, and when we find ourselves jumping to something else,  we can nonjudgmentally observe that and go back to the original train.  This is the first step in making those “automatic thoughts” not so automatic. Having practiced inner mindfulness to observe and choose our thoughts, we can now examine them in greater detail for cognitive distortions.


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
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