In my work with clients I frequently utilize Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques for helping people restructure thought patterns that aren’t best serving them. At first CBT takes a good bit of thought. Then once we internalize desired patterns of thinking they can start to flow automatically freeing our minds of critical and negative self talk that has kept us down rather than lifting us up. One CBT intervention is called “Socratic questioning”, which is basically just a fancy way to say that one is looking for evidence that supports or disproves thoughts.
Below are 10 examples of questions that can serve that purpose. I’ve also shared examples of potential automatic thoughts and alternate perspectives for each one. An automatic thought is one that we jump to initially due to our own mental templates of how we believe ourselves, others, and the world to be. If we find that those templates aren’t best serving us ample research shows that we humans are capable of re-training our brains to learn alternate perspectives that can positively shift how we experience our lives. Asking ourselves questions like the ones below is an important part of actualizing that goal.
1) Am I confusing a thought/feeling with a fact?
Just because we think or feel something doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s always good to for us to assess the objective evidence we have to back up thoughts/feelings to make sure we aren’t jumping to any conclusions before letting our thoughts motivate our behaviors.
Automatic thought: My metamour (a partner’s other partner) didn’t talk to me at the party. She must have negative feelings towards me.
Alternate perspective: It’s true that my metamour didn’t talk to me at the party, but it’s quite possible it had nothing to do with me. Perhaps they didn’t have a good day and weren’t feeling up to socializing beyond their good friends.
2) Could the situation be impacted by projections?
We humans filter our experiences through our existing expectations and views of the world. It’s always good to slow down and ask ourselves if past experiences, insecurities, or existing beliefs we have about the world could be coloring our perceptions of our interactions with others.
*** This one can also be helpful in the reverse. Often times people are the most judgmental of other people’s lifestyles when their feelings are being motivated by projections. Keeping that in mind can help us to take judgments from others less personally.***
Automatic thought: My partner’s been having sex with another person regularly. That means they’ll clearly start wanting to spend more time together and get more “seriously” involved.
Alternate perspective: Just because the societal narrative is for people to move up the relationship escalator when we have sex that doesn’t mean people have to do that. Many people enjoy having regular sex with others without desiring increased time or typical relationship entanglements with them.
3) Might other people have different interpretations of this same situation?
Sometimes we can get tunnel vision and have trouble envisioning outside perspectives. It can help if we try to imagine how other people may view the same situation.
Automatic Thought: He didn’t respond to my text messages all day long. He must not be as interested in me as he used to be.
Alternate Perspective: The other person may just be busy or need some down time to recharge before connecting again because they’re introverted.
4) Am I looking at all the evidence or just the things that support my existing thoughts?
Social psychology research has shown that we humans have a tendency towards confirmation bias. We tend to look for evidence that supports things we already believe. It can be really eye opening to flip that script by intentionally looking for evidence to the contrary of our existing beliefs.
Automatic thought: That person clearly isn’t very into me because they haven’t liked or commented on any of my social media posts.
Alternate Perspective: Zooming out to look at contrary evidence one may realize that the person doesn’t seem to be active on social media in general and that they have invited them to multiple events recently indicating potential interest.
5) Did someone pass this thought/belief to me? If so, are they a reliable source? Could that other view be skewed or lacking important information?
Sometimes others pass their beliefs along directly like telling a friend that their partner must not be that into them if they haven’t “popped the question”...and sometimes thoughts/beliefs are ingrained in us by society over many years like the view that people who get married are somehow more likely to sustain relationships longer than people who choose not to get married.
Automatic thought: My friend’s boyfriend just proposed to her. Their relationship must be more meaningful than mine since my boyfriend hasn’t proposed.
Alternate Perspective: Statistics on the divorce rate clearly show that marriage doesn’t necessarily correlate with dependable commitment. The important thing is how healthy each relationship is, not whether it’s formalized through marriage.
6) Am I thinking in all-or-nothing terms?
Nearly everything is relative. If you catch yourself using extreme language in your thoughts and statements (always/never, everything/nothing, etc) it’s good to slow down and get things in a more balanced perspective.
Automatic thought: My boyfriend never wants to have sex with me anymore.
Alternate Perspective: My boyfriend’s been really busy and stressed at work lately. It’s been a couple weeks since we’ve had sex. I should probably mention to him that it’s beginning to feel like a problem for me.
7) Am I condemning myself or someone else as a total person on the basis of a single event?
Sometimes we can generalize negative things as representations of our or other people’s characters rather than seeing them as isolated events within a bigger picture. Try to catch yourself if you ever extrapolate situations to judge the character of yourself or others.
Automatic thought: I was so awkward on that date. I’m not capable of online dating.
Alternate perspective: The fact that I felt awkward on that date just means I wasn’t compatible with that person, not that he or I suck at online dating in general. It’s still likely we can both have success with other people.
8) Am I concentrating disproportionately on negative qualities of my character without uplifting strengths of my character?
If you catch yourself being critical of yourself I encourage you to balance that out by focusing on your strengths. In fact, it’s likely that the very quality you’re being hard on yourself for is also a strength since strong qualities in our personalities tend to be both in different circumstances.
Automatic thought: I’m so flakey and scatter-brained.
Alternate perspective: The flip side of that coin is that I’m spontaneous and imaginative, which are qualities people enjoy about me too. It’s normal to be a mixed bag of character challenges and strengths. My true friends accept me for both.
9) Am I taking something personally that likely has little or nothing to do with me?
If you notice that you’re taking something personally ask yourself if it’s possible that it could have absolutely nothing to do with you.
Automatic thought: I was chatting with that person on OkCupid and they ghosted me. I wonder what I said that turned them off?
Alternate perspective: Bummer that person stopped chatting with me because they seemed like a cool person. I wonder if their life may have gotten too busy for online dating for some reason?
10) Am I being as compassionate with myself as I would be towards a good friend or am I being disproportionately hard on myself?
It’s often much easier for us to be compassionate with others than it is for us to be compassionate with ourselves. Next time you’re being hard on yourself I encourage you to think of what you would tell a friend in the same situation. Then try to be your own friend.
Automatic thought: I’m so pathetic and selfish. I wasted my whole night being anxious last night and I should have been feeling happy for my partner.
Alternate perspective: It’s a totally normal human response for people to struggle at first when their partners go on dates with other people. Don’t be so hard on yourself.
Now I challenge you to choose three of these questions that resonate with you and come up with examples from your own experiences and to ask yourself some “socratic questions” next time you’re having thoughts that are causing you distress. Perhaps you’ll find they’re off base and be able to shift your thinking in a way that will better serve you. Ready, Set….Go!