GAYLE

For me, my own approach to handling my cognitive distortions has changed from the clinical CBT approach to a more self-accepting approach. As a person who has experienced PTSD, panic, dissociation, and insomnia, the clinical approach can be, itself, depressing and stigmatizing at times. To briefly explain, CBT, although beneficial to me, has left out one important step that I felt was important to my healing. In my mind, reading off the thought record pained primarily the negatives about who I was without even glancing at any of the positive strengths I possessed. Instead of strengths appraisals, the majority of what I've heard from therapists in treatment went something like this: "Oh my, you have a cognitive distortion. You have stinking thinking. You need to change your behavior in order for you to get better." Although the therapists are correct, the focus on my "mistakes" lacked the praise I needed to hear in the midst of all my symptoms. I was willing to, for my own healing, own up to my mistakes and responsibilities for managing symptoms, but that's not all I was. I'd feel horribly about myself many times, and instead of correcting my distortions, it turned into this: "The therapists and everyone else do not like me, and it's okay that they don't like me because that's their choice. But they only see the flaws, the mistakes I've made. They don't see who I really am. They don't see my strengths or passions. This CBT record only asks me about my triggers and what I can do to change my behaviors. It only asks me to address my symptoms, but not what's behind them. It only shows the worst of me, not who I am fully."

My own personal approach is more trauma-informed and self-appreciating, which goes something like this: "This cognitive distortion of mine is a perception I hold because of x, y, and z. There are others who also hold similar perceptions in the world, so I'm not alone. I react to these thoughts because of x, y, and z, and I can use tools to feel empowered to overcome reacting to those cognitive distortions. The CBT is only a first step, but it certainly isn't the last. As such, I will continue to appreciate the validity in those distortions, as opposed to looking negatively upon them, because those distortions represent something deeper within me (and such is what lacks in CBT treatment)." 

The "something deeper within me" means that the cognitive distortion not only identifies sources or triggers, but also desires that have gone unmet in life. These desires are my passions and dreams. When these went unfulfilled, any reminders of those unfulfilled dreams (from childhood onward) trigger me and alter my perceptions and decision-making processes. Even if my limitations prevent me from achieving those passions and dreams, I can appreciate how the cognitive distortions reminded me about how important those dreams were to me. I can grieve over those losses with safe people, and I can dream again. I can embrace all of me - not just the strengths, but also my shortcomings. I can also learn to show the same compassion to others. I can choose not only to reduce my emotional symptoms, internalizing symptoms, and externalizing behaviors, but I can also increase life-fulfilling goals as an addition to adaptive coping responses. I can find similar passions and dreams that have room for my limitations and strengths. My cognitive distortions and resulting behaviors are clues that show me what is or was important to me; they help me remember my dreams and passions.

The importance isn't so much whether those new passions and dreams are fulfilled, but rather the acknowledgement and empathy I give myself for being able to recognize WHY cognitive distortions are there; they are reminders about what is important to me, and how I am still a value in society. It is also important for therapists, I believe, to recognize why cognitive distortions are there. It's not the trigger or the originating trauma; it's what the trauma took away from them - their dreams of having loving parents, or their dreams of wonder and hope in the world, or their dreams of certain careers that can now never be because of their diagnoses and symptoms, just to name a few examples. If the cognitive distortion is seen as a positive clue (as opposed to a negative thought), then the therapist and the person can work on "meaning-making" (positive psychology) goals that tap into the importance of why cognitive distortions emerge in the first place. They are important functions for us to recognize during our mission toward mental health. 

I wholeheartedly believe that cognitive distortions serve a purpose beyond defense mechanisms and maladaptive behavioral correlations. The purpose is to find out what is underneath that layer of defense, and what was behind the originating traumas. The purpose is to see the value in yourself and to find out what is important to you. Thus, identifying cognitive distortions when we have them is important, and so is their purpose. This is not to say that cognitive distortions shouldn’t be changed to healthier thinking; on the contrary, they should. But feelings, emotions, decision-making, and interpersonal relatedness are all connected with one another, and cognitive reshaping only heals parts of the whole. Further, it's important to recognize how we view mental health symptoms, and how such views can be equally as stigmatizing as the disorders themselves. When we increase empathy for ourselves and others in terms of recognizing and identifying cognitive distortions and related symptoms, we improve our approaches to a better life for ourselves and those around us.

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