We have reached the penultimate stage of our mystery tour of thinking errors in cognitive-behavioral therapy. Today we travel from the Minimalist Hotel where I dropped you off last week to the evocative Heartbreak Hotel, exploring on the way the undulating hills of Emotional Reasoning, from where you can get magnificent views of Happy Valley.
Emotional reasoning is when we use our feelings to make judgements about reality. For example, if I feel very anxious, as though something dreadful is about to happen, it does not mean that something dreadful is about to happen. I may have free-floating anxiety that attaches itself like a limpet to the smallest of worries, thus amplifying them out of proportion, or else there are other worries – a cognitive process – of which I am not fully aware but which are nevertheless sending messages to my emotional centres.
Similarly, just because I feel useless, worthless or helpless, it does not follow that I am useless, worthless or helpless. Strictly, these are not emotions as such (we do not have the physiological architecture for them in the same way as we have for anger, sadness and fear), rather they are manifestations of sets of unhelpful beliefs (e.g., “I am completely useless”). Our everyday language often conflates feelings and thoughts, and it is usually necessary to help people distinguish between the two. In the same way thoughts are not reality (e.g., thinking that the moon is made of green cheese does not make it so), so emotions are often “first approximations” of reality, subject to change. In evolutionary terms, the default is usually set to “danger” (certainly in anxiety), and the skill is in being able to judge whether or not this response is the most appropriate/adaptive in the circumstances.
This is not to belittle what we might call “intuition” or “gut instincts” – these are important to attend to. It is only if they are often mistaken, or reacting to them causes you or others emotional distress, that they need to be examined more carefully.
“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”
I’m sure “Heartbreak Hotel” is one of those places that thankfully does not live up to its name, so I hope you have a lovely week. Our final stage next week will take us to Selective Abstraction – and after then, we will have a brief review of our journey.