Though we make ourselves miserable with our unhelpful thinking we are often reluctant to notice it, examine it and take steps to change it. We give our thoughts power by engaging in them as if they are factual and correct. When we believe our irrational thinking (Ellis, 1994) we produce two common emotions – guilt from rumination/regret over the past and anxiety from catastrophising/worry about the future. In each of these states we live in our heads rather than directly experiencing the world – we are 'lost in our thoughts'. When our thinking is distorted (Beck 1976, Ellis 1994) our performance is also affected, with thoughts (cognition) and emotions impacting judgements and consequent behaviour.
Kabat Zinn et al (2007) describes thoughts as 'mental events” and suggests that by looking on them as such, we can take away their power over us. We can understand more and judge less by using the Observer/witness mind rather that the Judging mind. Cognitive Fusion is attaching thought to experience e,g. 'I think I'm stupid, therefore I must be stupid'.
Separating the thoughts from the reality of what we know helps build resilience in coping with the uncertainty and impermanance of the world. We need to go to an uninhabited neutral zone to start to make sense of our thinking. This is more like a trip into no-man's-land – a place of uncertainty and fear, full of barbed wire and unexploded landmines and to qoute a client “you didn't know where the bullets were coming from!”
The "paradoxical theory of change" (Beisser 1970) in Gestalt theory holds that when we really become aware in the "now" change unfolds in its own way. By being fully in the present, the growthful direction in which one needs to move becomes clear – the only place from which one can take a step is where one actually is. Thus, living in the future or the past prevents us from taking intentional growth steps. Within the coaching context we need to bear in mind that in order to change what we are thinking we need to pay attention to what we are thinking; by fully being awarre of what we are, we can become something else.
Once identified, reasoning and reality-testing are used to dispute distorted, irrational and self-defeating thinking to create an accurate method of examining personal and work-place challenges with a view to setting goals and solving problems. Cognitive Behavioural Coaching is a suitable model for a client where an identified psychological barrier prevents him achieving his goals.
Ellis describes the three basic “Musts” which an individual creates – demands on self, others and the world around him, which can lead to anxiety in self, anger towards others and frustration with the world. He designed the ABC(DE) model now widely used to provide insight into the distorted thinking and behaviour of the individual.
The attention we give to unproductive thoughts makes them real – we allow them shape our reality by believing and acting upon them. It's all in our heads!
Beck, A.T. (1976) Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders. New York: International
Beisser, A.R. (1970) The Paradoxical Theory of Change in J. Fagan & I. Shepherd (eds), Gestalt
Therapy Now. Palo Alto CA: Science and Behaviour Books
Ellis, A. (1994) Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy: Comprehensive Method of Treating Human Disturbances: Revised and Updated. New York, NY: Citadel Press.
Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007) The mindful way through depression: Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness. New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.