Correcting thoughts can but a very helpful tool to use when you notice that you have lots of thought errors. However, in some cases, correcting thoughts can become a compulsion. In this episode, ask the question, “Can correcting thoughts become a compulsion?” And review what you can do to make sure you are not engaging too much in the content of your thoughts.
This episode of Your Anxiety Toolkit is brought to you by CBTschool.com. CBTschool.com is a psychoeducation platform that provides courses and other online resources for people with anxiety, OCD, and Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors. Go to cbtschool.com to learn more.
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This is Your Anxiety Toolkit - Episode 294.
Welcome back, everybody. What a special treat to have you here with me today.
Today, we are talking about when correcting your thoughts, we call it cognitive restructuring in therapy – when you correct your thoughts, when does that become compulsive? Or we could also say problematic. And so, we’re actually going to go into this today, and then I’m going to let you decide for yourself what is helpful and what’s not. But I hope today is really helpful. It’s a very, very, very important topic. It’s often one of the biggest mistakes therapists make, particularly those who are not trained in anxiety disorders and OCD, and ERP. It’s probably one of the biggest mistakes that they make. So, I want to really review this so that you can have the information in your back pocket and you can make the decisions for yourself.
Before we do that, let’s first do the review of the week. This is from Cynthia Safell and Cynthia said:
“I first was introduced to Kimberley’s clear and compassionate teaching style when I took the ERP school course for therapists.” This is wonderful, Cynthia. So, for those of you who don’t know, we have ERP School, which is a course where I teach you exactly how I would do ERP if you were my client. And then it turned out that a lot of therapists were taking this course. And so, we duplicated the course and I added a whole bunch of modules for therapists, so they can become excellent therapists for people with OCD as well. So, I am so delighted that Cynthia has written this review. She goes on to say: “In the past 3 weeks since taking the course, I recommended both the course and podcasts to my clients. So helpful. Thank you, Kimberley.”
Wow, Cynthia, literally, that is the biggest compliment. Really, it is. If a therapist can trust me so much that they would recommend it to their clients, that is the biggest gift to me. And thank you so much for telling me that, because it just brings me so much joy and so much pride. So, thank you so much, Cynthia, for that amazing review.
Alright, before we move on to the bulk of the content of this episode, we also want to do the “I did our hard thing” segment. This is from Abby and Abby is over here doing some hard things. So cool. Let’s go. It says:
“I have come on holiday. I’m terrified of flying. My anxiety was high. My thoughts were racing, but I did it.” So good, Abby. “I got on the plane and I got on holiday. It was scary, but I did it and I’m proud. Now to commit to the holiday first two days have been hard, but sitting with it and not letting it ruin my time.”
Abby, this is so good. Not only did you get on a plane, but you’re doing all the hard things in addition, and that’s so good. What a treat for you. What a reward for you. You did the hard thing and now you’re on vacation. Isn’t that so cool? Thank you so much, Abby. And thank you so much, Cynthia, for being an amazing part of our community.
Alright. So, let’s get down to it, shall we? So, I am a cognitive behavioral therapist. I love cognitive behavioral therapy. If you haven’t heard what that is, I’m assuming you have, but basically what that means is there is a cognitive component to treatment, which is focusing on your thoughts, and there is a behavioral component to treatment, which is where we focus on changing behaviors.
Now, in some disorders, we spend a little more time on cognitions and a little less time on behaviors. And in other disorders, we spend a little more time on behaviors and much less time on cognitions. So, I think it’s important for you to know that it depends on your disorder on how much cognitive restructuring or changing and thinking we do. And so, the whole point of today is to explore, is your cognitive restructuring, is changing and challenging your thoughts helpful for you and your set of symptoms? And you get to make that decision. I’m not here to tell you what’s right or wrong, but I do want to give you some guidance.
So, first of all, the big question that my staff bring to me when we’re in supervision, and this was actually inspired by a conversation we had during supervision, was what is the role of correcting distorted thoughts in treatment? So, if someone presents to me a distorted thought, a statement, they might say, “I’m an idiot,” or “What’s the point? I only ruin it and mess it up anyway,” or “I always make mistakes. I never do anything right.” I as the clinician and them as the client may benefit by pausing the session and checking in with them in how true is that statement. Is it really true that you never do anything right? Is it true that you are an idiot? Could we challenge that and could we start to have you practice changing the words you use towards yourself?
I am a massive, massive advocate for cognitive work because I think that in general, we walk around and we say a whole bunch of stuff that’s not true. I do it too. I actually have put-- in the last 18 months, I have put in massive amounts of time and energy into catching because I was finding I was saying a lot of sweeping generalizations like, “I feel terrible today.” Even though I didn’t feel well, it’s like, okay, I’m saying these words, “I’m so tired.” That was another big one I used to say every day. My husband would ask, “How are you, Kimberley?” “I’m so tired.” And it’s not that that thought was wrong or not true. I was really tired. But I had to check, is it helpful for me to keep saying this? Is there another way that I could maybe reframe this or present this or look at this?
So, yes, there’s definitely a role in challenging and correcting errors in our thinking. And so, it’s important that we first look at what is a thought distortion or a cognitive distortion, or a thought error. It’s usually any thought that’s, number one, not true or not helpful, or keeps you responding in a way that isn’t beneficial. So, again, the thought for me is “I’m so tired.” It’s true. Is it helpful? No. Does saying that actually make me feel a little bombed and a little down? Yes. Could I maybe replace it with something else? That’s up to me. There’s no right or wrong.
I want to be really clear here in that when we talk about correcting thoughts, we are not saying toxic positivity, like, “Oh, I’m supposed to tell myself I feel fabulous because I don’t.” That’s not what this is about. We don’t do that kind of thing. We just make small little shifts depending on what feels helpful to you.
So, let’s go through a couple of scenarios. Does correcting thoughts help with depression? Now, based on the research, the treatment for depression is actually really balanced in terms of doing 50% cognitive work and 50% behavioral work. These numbers I’m throwing out aren’t science-based, but just in general, I want you to think about like, yeah, you have to do both. You have to look at correcting the lies that depression tells you, but you also have to look at your behaviors and how can you engage in behaviors that actually make you more fulfilled and happy and not feeling down.
So, yeah, with depression, we look at a lot of thoughts that are very critical, sweeping generalizations, we look at a lot of thoughts that discount the positive. I thought that’s like discounting the positive like, “Well, yeah, even though I got an A in that test, still, I’m probably going to fail my last year of college.” So, they discount the positive thing and they make another sweeping statement. So, we really want to make sure we’re correcting thoughts when it comes to depression. It’s really important because depression lies.
Do we correct thoughts when it comes to generalized anxiety? Well, yes, we can. But this is where this topic is so important, is you want to be careful. If you’re spending a lot of time correcting thoughts, there’s always room to correct your thoughts about things. But if you find that you’re trying to correct your thoughts just to reduce or remove your uncertainty, then it’s likely that it’s going to get you stuck in a loop where you have to keep doing that thought correction in a somewhat compulsive way to feel good.
And so, what we want to do here is, yeah, we want to be mindful of our thoughts, and then we may choose whether we want to correct it or not, or whether we just want to observe that I’m having a thought. This goes for depression as well because mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is a huge, huge science-based treatment for depression. So, you’re going to see a trend happening here. So, we always want to observe the thought because it helps us to diffuse from the thought and see it in perspective. And then we can choose to correct it if it’s helpful in that moment. Maybe if you’ve never corrected it before, if it’s a new thought that it’s helpful for you to do a little thought work with. And then again, you’d still do the behavioral piece with generalized anxiety. So, if you’re having a lot of anxiety, you still want to work on not avoiding things and not seeking reassurance and not doing any self-critical behaviors, and so forth.
So, yes, what I would say is there is some benefit to correcting thoughts. The main thing with this is as long as it’s not the only tool you’re using, because if it’s the only tool you’re using, you’re going to be putting in a lot of work, a lot of time of the day correcting thoughts, and that’s probably going to take you away from living the life you want. Several episodes I did a podcast about your recovery plan and what’s getting in the way. The truth is, if you can identify the things you want to be doing when you’re recovered, once you’ve done that, you can start implementing that right away.
So, I often will check in with myself because I’ve been doing a lot of work too. Okay, I could correct the thought right now, or I could just immediately throw myself into the behavior I want to live by. That’s according to my values. And then I make a decision. What would be most helpful? Should I explore this thought? Or would this be a wonderful time to do my paint by numbers? PS, I love Paint By Numbers. It literally got me through COVID. You have to try it. It’s the coolest thing and it’s so fun. But I ask myself like, do I want to just allow the thought to be there and go do the thing I love? Or would it be helpful for me to correct it? There’s no right answer. But if I’m trying to correct things that I’ve already corrected and that I already know the answer to, yeah, I probably am going to choose to do the Paint By Number, if I’m completely honest. I think that’s a more effective route. You are going to have to think about it and do a little cost-benefit analysis for yourself.
Then we are going to move over here, and this is very similar. Does correcting thoughts help with obsessive-compulsive disorder? You can see a progression here with depression. Yeah, we do quite a bit of it. Generalized anxiety, a little less because it can sometimes be very repetitive. When it comes to obsessive-compulsive disorder, guys, you have to be very careful about correcting thoughts. Because if you’re correcting thoughts to try and reduce or remove your uncertainty, it will most likely, and I would probably go as far to say, definitely turn into a compulsion that will keep you stuck. Because remember, the treatment of OCD and obsessive-compulsive disorder often involves leaning into discomfort, leaning into uncertainty, leaning into doubt, leaning into tolerating whatever experience of uncertainty and discomfort that you have.
So, here is what I say to my clients, and this is exactly what I said to my staff. One of my staff had said, “Okay, when do we correct thoughts and when don’t we then?” And here is the thing. If somebody is coming to me and they’re saying something that’s an error in thinking around their ability to cope with discomfort, I would 100% correct that. So, an example would be, if a client says to me, “I can’t handle my discomfort,” I will probably have them challenge that. I might even say, “How do you know? Could this be the first time that you actually do tolerate this discomfort or cope with this pain?” So, I would 100% challenge and correct thoughts around their coping.
But if someone has a thought, “What if I have a panic attack?” the truth is, trying to correct that is uncertain anyway. You’re not going to be able-- you can’t say, “No, I won’t,” because you don’t know that. You can’t say, “Yes, I will,” because you don’t know that. So, only correct thoughts around your struggle to cope. Never correct thoughts where you’re trying to reduce or remove your uncertainty. That would be my best advice to you.
Another point here is, if you find you’re correcting the same thought repetitively, chances are, it’s a compulsion or will turn into a compulsion. The reason that I push this so heavily is you’re going to-- here is where I really struggle the most, is you’re going to-- if you’re on Instagram, a lot of you come, listen, you follow me on Instagram. We have an Instagram account called Your Anxiety Toolkit. There are hundreds of accounts that tell you to correct every single thought you have, and I don’t agree with that. I do not agree with that. I think that that is terrible advice. Because number one, you could spend your whole day doing that, particularly if you’ve got bad anxiety or depression. Number two, you could spend your whole day doing the exact same behaviors you did last yesterday and last week that obviously didn’t reduce or remove your discomfort. And the third thing to remember here is we have scientific evidence specifically for obsessive-compulsive disorder, but also for generalized anxiety disorder, that most people who have these disorders, there is a certain set of things happening in their brain where cognitive restructuring just doesn’t stick. The part of their brain that allows them to correct things, there’s a weakness there or there’s this bad connection there, which means if this were to work, it would’ve worked already and they probably wouldn’t suffer because they would go, “Oh yeah, you’re right. That doesn’t make any sense.” And off they go.
It’s really frustrating because I know a lot of you see your partner or your friend who can quickly correct a thought or quickly do a quick Google search, quickly get reassurance and they’re fine. They get to move on. But the brain of an anxiety disorder is different, specifically the brain of someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder is different. And so, for you, you might get a moment of relief, but then you find the thought comes right back. And so, again, there’s no real point you can. Doing it is like whack-a-mole. If you do it,then discomfort goes away and then it comes back and you do it again. And now you’re just stuck, like weeding weeds that keep growing.
So, these are the things I want you to think about for yourself. I’m definitely not telling you what you have to do. Again, this is not therapy. But I want you to do a little inventory for yourself and just ask yourself what would be helpful and what’s not.
The last question I have here for myself is, when does correcting thoughts help in recovery? Just like I said before, if it helps you in terms of reducing your self-criticism, increasing your sense of mastery over a task, or increases your ability to feel like you can cope, well then, I think it’s a helpful tool. I’ll give you an example of that.
I personally hate running payroll. Every month, I have these beautiful 10 and 11 staff. It’s actually more like 13, 14 beautiful staff who work for me. And at the first of every month, I have to run all this payroll stuff. And guys, to be honest, I suck at it. I’m terrible with numbers. I get all the numbers mixed up. It takes me twice as long as it would, but I really do value the importance of me knowing what’s happening in my business. So, I do it. I’m doing it. While I’m doing it, I have a lot of thoughts like, “I can’t do this, I don’t want to do this,” and a lot of like, “Ah, this is too hard” thoughts.
So, in that situation, I’m correcting my thoughts so that I can embody a sense of like, “No, I’m a really good boss and I’m trying to run a business that helps other people with their life.” And so, I correct my thoughts so that I can embody like, “No, this is important. I want and I’m choosing to do this. This is important for my staff. It’s important for me to get it right. And it’s worth the time.” So, in that situation, correcting the thoughts is really helpful because it helps me with that degree of anxiety. However, if I was having thoughts like, “What if you make a mistake? What if you make a mistake? What if you make a mistake?” correcting my thoughts to like, “You won’t make a mistake or that’s not even true. So, it’s not going to be helpful.”
So, again, let’s go back. When it will help is when it’s around your coping, when it’s around your capabilities. So, if you’re having a lot of thoughts like you suck and you can’t and you’re not good enough, you’re not strong enough, you’re not wise enough, you’re not courageous enough, yeah, you can correct that into more encouraging statements. But we don’t do it around uncertainties. We don’t do it around uncertainties. That will keep you stuck.
Now the last thing I will say here before we wrap up is, is there a difference between education, reassurance, and assurance? So, let’s just break that down. If a client comes to me and they say, “Oh my gosh, I keep having these horrible intrusive thoughts. Something must be wrong with me,” through the lens of education, I might educate them and say, “Listen, everyone has intrusive thoughts. You’re just like everybody else and you shouldn’t be ashamed. And I really want you to understand that having intrusive thoughts is a normal part of having a really healthy working brain.” I consider that education. And you deserve to get education around things. So, if you have, let’s say, a new illness, it’s okay to go and get educated about the new illness. That’s not a compulsion.
Now, there will be times where you educate yourself and you need to tweak what you know or learn something new, and that is also fine. The thing I would have you as we leave for this episode just continue to think about is the thing that we want to look out for is when it’s called reassurance, which is repetitive over and over attempts to reduce or remove a thought specifically related to your anxiety or your uncertainty. So, that’s the real thing I want you to think about and look out for. Take note. And the other thing I want you to remember is, please don’t beat yourself up if there are days when you do a lot of thought correction and it turns out to be a compulsion. You’re just a human being. There is no right or wrong. Often, I’ll say to a client, they’ll be like, “But what if I do correct a thought?” I’ll say, “You know what, you’re going to have ups and downs. So, try not to get too perfectionistic about this practice.”
There’s just these general ideas and you’ll know in your body if you’re doing it compulsively. A great and easy way to know if you’re doing something compulsively is, are you doing it with urgency? Are you doing it with an experience of resisting discomfort in your body? Are you doing it to reduce or remove a thought that you’re having? And are you doing it repetitively? Those are things where if you’re doing those things, you will know you’re probably doing a compulsion. And in fact, I encourage you to get really good at catching those things because then you will be one step closer to recovery.
Alright, my loves, that ends the episode on whether correcting thoughts is a compulsion or not. I’m going to let you really come to a conclusion on your own, or you can go and speak with your clinician and get to the bottom of that for yourself.
Have a wonderful, wonderful day. It is a beautiful day to do hard things, and I will talk to you very, very soon, aka, next week.
Have a good one, everyone.