When I was working to stop committing acts of domestic violence, I remember getting advice like, “just stop.” That suggestion didn’t help because it didn’t address the powerful wave of emotions that prevented me from making different choices in the moment. What did help was learning how cognitive behavioral therapy concepts can stop abusive behavior.
Cognitive behavioral therapy concepts
I posed that question to my counselor, and he taught me a little about how the brain works. My mind was the source of those reactions, I learned. Certain thoughts can create powerful and overwhelming emotions, which then cause our bad behavior.
This is the foundation of a type of counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Essentially, it says that our thoughts and feelings influence our behaviors. CBT is used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including addictions, PTSD, depression, and anxiety. It is also proven effective in dealing with stress and improving emotional regulation—something I definitely needed.
Understanding this chain reaction was a key for me to change my behavior and stop hurting the people that I love. Identifying and changing our trouble-causing thoughts means we will have different, less powerful emotions. Without the emotional flood, it is easier to consider and choose different responses.
My sofa example
Let me share a personal example. My (now ex-) wife said she wanted to get a new sofa with our tax return money. I exploded into a rage, screaming that there was nothing wrong with the old one and berating her for even suggesting the purchase.
Her proposal was innocent and even legitimate because the old one was looking pretty ragged. My reaction, on the other hand, was way over the top. In the process, I made her feel bad and damaged our relationship by punishing her for making a request.
Later, when I reflected back on the argument, I knew I messed up. Why couldn’t I see my fault at the time? Why did I go down that destructive path, even though I knew it wasn’t the right one?
My yelling, personal attacks, and dirty fighting were a reaction to a flood of emotions I was experiencing. My counselor nudged me to identify and write down what I was feeling and thinking at the time. I needed a list of emotions to generate some ideas, but the one that really stood out was feeling inadequate.
To me, my wife might as well have said I was a disappointing husband, a lousy provider, and a worthless human being. Of course she didn’t say any of those things, but my reaction was as if she did. No wonder I overreacted—I was defending myself from those imaginary and tremendously damning attacks!
The thoughts behind the emotions
According to the cognitive behavioral therapy model, we have thoughts that are generating our emotions. Thoughts are like a video that is playing in our mind. They are memories of the past, projections about the future, or our interpretation of the present. Unlike what we are actually experiencing from our senses, our thoughts don’t have to be true or real.
It took some work for me to determine what thoughts created my feeling of inadequacy. Before this exercise, I wasn’t even aware that I had thoughts between her sofa request and my yelling tirade. Once challenged to determine what was going on in my subconscious brain, I could see my thoughts were likely:
- My wife is unhappy with her life, and I’m responsible.
- If my wife wants to buy a new sofa, it means that I’ve failed to provide well for our family.
- All of my (our) possessions are crap. If the stuff I own is crap, it means that I’m crap.
Our mind is a liar
When I wrote down my thoughts, it was easy to see why they would generate such strong emotions. However, no one said or even implied these statements; they were all generated in my head. They reflected my own feelings of shame and inadequacy, not what anyone else thought, and not the truth.
Once I saw the emotions driving my actions, and the thoughts behind those emotions, I could begin to fix the problem at the source. This process of discovering—then challenging—distorted thoughts is fundamental to cognitive behavioral therapy. It isn’t a fast or easy thing to do, but it works.
As I pulled more and more forms of distorted thinking out by their root, I began reacting to far fewer things. Now if my wife wants to buy a new sofa, we can have a discussion about furniture and our budget. That’s so much more productive and better for our relationship than when I drag all of my emotional baggage into the conversation.
Using cognitive behavioral therapy principles
If you are working to change behavior that has hurt someone you love, using cognitive behavioral therapy principles will help. Become aware of the emotions and thoughts happening in your mind. When you find distorted thinking behind those actions, change your thought patterns. When you do, you’ll be able to respond differently to life’s toughest situations.
Cognitive behavioral therapy forces us to go deeper into our thoughts and feelings, but it can result in permanent change. What are some things you have said or done that you regret? What happened, and what were the emotions and thoughts driving your actions?
Just trying to alter behavior without going to the source of it—our mind—is like trying to hold a beach ball under water. Sure, we can do it for a while, but eventually we’ll get distracted or tired and the ball is going to pop out. Changing thought patterns that are at the root of the behavior is like letting the air out of the beach ball.
When most people do this exercise of identifying troublesome emotions and thoughts, they discover some “core hurts.” Core hurts are negative beliefs about ourselves, like I’m not good enough, I don’t matter, or I’m not lovable. Remember my unhelpful thoughts came from my own feelings of shame and inadequacy?
Understanding and believing what God thinks about you can be a game-changer. He created you uniquely, just the way you are. He says you are his beloved son or daughter. You are so important to him that he sent his son to die so he could have a relationship with you.
Once we accept what our heavenly father says about us, we become far less likely to believe our own mind’s lies. When we replace our distorted thoughts with God’s truth, the powerful negative emotions and harmful behavior go away. This is how God transforms lives, and he promises to do it for you if you allow it.