We all want to feel better and have probably tried to come up with lots of ways to change our thoughts and feelings. If you have struggled with anxiety or depression, you may have also seen a therapist, read a book or watch videos online to feel better. As a result, you have probably been exposed to a familiar technique: challenge or suppress your painful or negative thoughts and feelings in exchange for something more positive. By doing so, you will have the energy and focus to do what is necessary for a better life.

These ideas represent the second wave of behavioral therapy known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This specific technique is called “thought disputation and thought suppression.” These strategies of traditional CBT are strikingly common. You can probably even think of a popular self-help figure or two who employs this positive thinking strategy.

Over the last 17 years, there has been an explosion of research and a growing shift in psychology, known as the third wave of cognitive-behavioral therapy. This includes Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy and others.

A quick history lesson. In 2007, Dr. Steven Hayes provided the insight that “behavioral and cognitive therapies have long focused on reducing negative emotions and thoughts as a method of life change.” The first wave of behavioral therapy was aimed at directly changing the intensity of emotions (i.e. reducing anxiety in fearful situations) and in managing observable behaviors (like the fear of flying) through the use of desensitization and rewarding positive behavior change.

The second wave of behavioral therapy put more emphasis on thoughts–this led to the development of CBT. But like the first wave, CBT targeted the form and frequency of these cognitions, such as whether they were rational or contained “thinking errors.” This model tries to change negative thoughts through testing, disputation and analysis.

By contrast, the third wave of therapies, like ACT and other mindfulness-based methods, invite clients to step into “the now” and fundamentally change their relationship with their own experience. Instead of trying to manipulate and change their inner world to become more desirable, these methods encourage clients to deepen and enrich their contact with a continuously unfolding present.

I remember hearing Dr. Hayes speak about the ineffectiveness of thought suppression and thought disputation in a podcast for the first time several years ago. Hearing him say these long-standing strategies were ineffective was a mind-blowing concept to me. I had spent so much of my life as a client and therapist doing exactly that. Traditional second-wave CBT is long-established, with many books and experts who utilize this strategy.

Dr. Hayes words resonated with me because, before learning about ACT, I realized I had repeatedly experienced an inability to consistently and effectively control unwanted thoughts, memories, or feelings. I also faced the fact that my clients were often unable to use CBT strategies to suppress or change their thoughts and feelings as well.

Eventually, my “thinking errors” would return, or mutate into new versions, the more I tried to dispute them. I would continue to worry about events that hadn’t happened yet or become even sadder about events that had happened in the past.

How can we learn to create a better relationship with our thoughts? Check back next week for part 2 where I talk about the difference between trying to manage our thoughts from a framework of objective truth or from letting our thoughts flow, acknowledging their usefulness, and centering ourselves on their value in a given context.

For part 2 of this post, click here.

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