Self-Help Memoir Miniature: “Cognitive Therapy Is As Good as They Say It Is”

I was pregnant. I was exhausted. I was potty training two kids. So it would’ve been easy to chalk it up to stress. But when earlier this year I discovered how negative my thinking had become, I didn’t dismiss it. I became genuinely concerned.

I made the discovery when one difficult evening, for the first time in ages, I picked up a pen and journaled my true feelings. Not my affirmations. Not my goals. Not my prayers. Just my ugliest, most despicable feelings.

In the end, I had four handwritten pages covered solidly back and front with nothing but the crazy in my brain. When I showed my husband, he said, “Wow. That’s a lot of bad thoughts.”

“Yes, it is,” I replied.

A few hours later, I was sitting in my office, scanning my memory for a solution. At one point I idly glanced over a bookshelf I don’t usually pay attention to, and there it was: The Feeling Good Handbook.

Reluctantly, I took it from the shelf.

A book my doctor had recommended a year or so prior, the Handbook didn’t hold much interest for me at the time. I remembered flipping through its many detailed descriptions of medications and skimming some of its seemingly pat advice. This time when I opened it, though, I found something else.

I found a different book entirely.

The Feeling Good Handbook is written by psychiatrist David Burns, and it’s about a well-known, widely used form of psychotherapy called (unfortunately, I think) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT for short). The book is far too long—full of flowery ideas and applications. What is comes down to, however, is this: negative thoughts are not the truth. They’re a perspective, and often pretty screwy one—one with only a bit of basis in reality, if any at all. The best way to work through them—to eradicate them, and in doing so, eradicate depression—is to write them down, then write down their opposite: the more objective (and yes, more optimistic) view of the matter.

I know, I know. Big damn deal, right? Isn’t this just positive thinking with a fancy name? But sometimes, that’s what it takes. Sometimes the fancy name or the scientific research backing a technique gives you the faith you need to give it a go. And then there was the timing thing; at this reading, I was more willing than before to try something new.

Later that day, I wrote out my negative thoughts again, but this time I countered them with more positive interpretations of the situations. To my great surprise, after doing so, I felt better. Much better. Even … well, good. I felt the way I normally feel after a brisk four-mile jog or walk—and the feeling stayed with me for much longer.

A week later, after journaling two or three more times, my acute depression still hadn’t returned. And that’s when I really knew I was on to something.

We spiritual people can all say all day long that we’re want to learn to accept everything, even pain. The truth is, though, that often, we don’t have to. We can work through it instead. Change what you can change, and accept the rest. And, of course, learn the difference.

Here are some of the results I recorded in my journal during my first week of CBT:

  • One of my least favorite things in the world is the sound of a child whining. But at one point as I was waiting out yet another of these patience-trying incidents, I started saying to myself, “This is the good stuff.” I did a mini version of CBT, and it worked; I felt calmer. Later, I had a conversation with that same child after he complained (ironically) about his brother’s loud voice. “In life, there are things that we like, things that we don’t like and have to wait through, and things we don’t like but get to figure out a solution for, and all three are good in different ways. Life is a fun challenge. The hard stuff is the good stuff.”
  • When a friend called to describe at length a difficult problem that I felt she’d brought upon herself, I got angry. Not on the phone (I was merely impatient), but after hanging up. A rush of anxiety came over me as I thought about her unfortunate situation, but instead of ignoring it, I thought it through. I identified the stressful thought that the whole thing was her fault, which helped me see how ridiculous it was, and later I noticed thoughts of love for her coming to me spontaneously.
  • Finally, I did CBT on a long-held misbelief of mine, namely that I’m not productive enough. Then that night when my husband took the kids out for four hours, I binged on stand-up comedy specials. The next day when I woke up I thought, I want to write today. And that’s what I did off and on all day, in spite of the usual challenges. The rest had helped.

“I envision stacks and stacks of papers listing all my negative thoughts,” I wrote the following week. “These stacks will be the dumpster—no, the landfill—for all of the crap inside my head. It’ll be great.”

CBT isn’t easy. It’s tedious and time-consuming. But it’s a fun challenge, too. One of the best compliments you can give any self-improvement technique is that it’s as good as they say it is. I believe that compliment applies here.

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