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Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in a nutshell.

By Ian - Tue Feb 25 2020 - 5 min read

Some time ago I listened to a podcast about Jonathan Haidt's book The Coddling of the American Mind. They discuss the origins of his book, which basically boiled down to this: In some American universities the students feel victimized over (usually unintended) harsh comments. The original intention of the comment becomes second rate to how the students perceive them. Jonathan Haidt characterizes this as the opposite of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

This got me thinking about CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and drove me down a deep rabbit hole of a gorgeous psychotherapy, rooted in stoicism.

Pim and I recently started making an app around CBT called Parley. I thought it would be cool to share what we've learned and walk through the steps we think are most important (and thus implemented in Parley).

What is CBT

There has been a lot written on CBT but here's an extremely short summary anyway.

CBT tries to give you the methods to influence your thoughts. The idea is that your thoughts, feelings and actions are interconnected. Changing one of those will shift all three.

It can show you why some negative thoughts are not rooted in reality. By making those thought more realistic they usually lose their negativity. If they keep being negative it can be a strong motivator for concrete action instead of being paralyzing.

If you want to know more I'd really recommend reading Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns.

Step one: Write down the event

It's important to compartmentalize the situations where you feel bad. This could be very related to a painful situation (eg: being told by your boss the other day that you're fired), or much more vague ("I was sitting at my desk and was suddenly overwhelmed by grief"). The important thing is that it's always one moment. It should not be: "I just feel sad all the time".

Step two: Write down all the thoughts occurred to you at the time

This step is centered around taking a cloud of negative feelings and turning them into individual thoughts. Before I would begin a session I always thought that my negative feelings were very justified and their origins crystal clear. I can honestly say that this was never the case. Writing down every single thought that occurred to me surrounding the event would give me more understanding. It also showed me that the state I was previously in was very clouded.

A short example of a thought could be: "My boss thinks I'm good for nothing" or "My husband is definitely unhappy with our marriage".

Step three: Write down the good things these thoughts say about you

This step is magic. It tries to eliminate your resistance against therapy. If somebody would spin your negative thoughts into something positive, you would likely disagree. I know I would. If I thought my coworkers were completely fed up with me, and someone would say: "Well at least you think it's important to have a positive work environment." I would probably first throw up, and then create a very elaborate argument portraying why that person is a naive optimist.

However if you forcefully take the role of that person, and try to think of positive personality traits that go along with your negative thoughts, you're inclined to start believing it.

It's like being forced to defend point of view you don't necessarily agree with; you're bound to find some arguments that support the view you're trying to defend. You'll change your view on reality to make it resonate with the point you're defending. This is called cognitive dissonance. And in this step, you're 'dissonating' yourself into positivity. Even if you dont agree with positive things yet.

Step four: Find the distortions in your thoughts

Most people love this step. It's picking from a set of 12 distortions, and linking them to a thought. You're thought are littered with distortions. I mostly fall into the trap of 'Fortune Telling': predicting the future and deducing it's going to look bad for me. You can check all the distortions and what they do here.

Step five: Write down more realistic thoughts

After completely dissecting your thoughts, odds are you've found things you don't agree with anymore. In this final step you can create thoughts that you do agree with.


That's basically all there is to it. If you have things to add, or disagree with, or just want to talk about, feel free to hit me up! Parley encapsulates all these steps and some extra nuancing in the individual steps.

So yeah, that was my curiosity fueled 6 month adventure in a few minutes. if you're more interested in the stoic side of the therapy, let me know! I'd love to talk about it, and maybe write something about it idk.