How to Cope With Intrusive Thoughts: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Talking (To Yourself) and the Benefit of Defensiveness

Friday, October 24, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Treatment Techniques

In When Panic Attacks1Dr. David Burns notes that role playing can be a great exercise to organize ideas and hear the absurdity of irrational scary thoughts. Debating anxiety-producing thoughts out loud may be of even more assistance for people who prefer to learn by listening to lectures or other types of auditory cues. 

This post will be short as there are only a few techniques that are related closely enough to justify putting them together. Because no matter which type of cognitive behavioral therapy practices you're into at the moment, they just don't compare to yelling at yourself or someone you love like a tweaked-out Gilbert Gottfried.

How to Talk to Yourself

Okay, this might sound a little strange, but bear with me. This technique works well for those who are trying to improve low self esteem or self-defeating thoughts, but it can be beneficial to those working through other issues as well.

Here's how it works:

  1. Identify a negative thought that you would like to challenge. 
  2. Say it out loud.
  3. Vocally challenge the thought, perhaps using self-compassion techniques. (Yes, I am suggesting answering yourself, out loud, in conversation.)

It might go something like this:  
"I am a terrible person."
"Nah, you're not so bad. You just had a bad day."
"Yeah, but I totally punted that Chihuahua over the fence when I got off of work because I wasn't able to replace my thoughts in time."
"Maybe so, and that was a dick move. But at least you apologized and gave him a giant treat. He seemed to forgive you."
"I am still an awful individual."
"You're not perfect, that's for sure, but at least you know what you did was wrong so you won't do it again." 
"I guess that's true. Actually, doing that felt so awful that I will never, ever repeat it, even if I've thought about it a hundred times." 

...and so on. (And if you missed the post on how to avoid dog punting, please read this post on thought replacement and visual substitution before you send me angry emails. Dog punting is never cool no matter how yippy they are.)

How To Use Defensiveness To Your Advantage

If talking to yourself is too weird, you could always go the smack-down route. 

Human beings have an innate drive towards self-protection and against attack from others (more on this in How Conflict Bred Cooperation and Why it Might Cause Low Self Worth). No matter how often we may say negative things to ourselves, we'll be damned if that bitch in accounting (or our mother in law) gets to. Once other people think it, it has new implications for hindering our lives, making people more apt to fight the words...and the person saying them. 

Also known as the "Oh no you didn't" approach, going head-to-head with someone you trust (like a partner or a therapist) might be able to trigger a defensive strategy to your own self-defeating thoughts (head sway optional). 

Let's see how this differs from the talking-to-yourself example:

You: "I am a terrible person."
Someone else: "Hell yeah, you are!"
You: "Oh no, you didn't!"(insert optional head sway here)
Someone else: "No seriously, you suck donkey balls."
You: "Fuck that shit! I am awesome!"

Obviously, it might take longer to trigger that kind of defense, but challenging your own thoughts out loud with a partner can  help disprove them. With these techniques, you can argue about your own merits, reframe mistakes you feel terrible about and reaffirm things you want to do (or things you don't). 

For the record, if embracing solo role playing, please practice at home (or do it inside your own head as discussed here in Am I A Control Freak?). Speaking to and/or arguing with yourself out loud in the grocery store may lead to more complications than most people are ready for.


Related Posts: 



Topic-Relevant Resources

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns

Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior
Useful information and tools for addressing obsessive or scary thoughts and the behaviors that go with them.

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
New techniques for mindfully altering the wiring of your own brain, leading to increased happiness.

From Panic to Power: Proven Techniques to Calm Your Anxieties, Conquer Your Fears, and Put You in Control of Your Life
Techniques for reducing anxiety and living a happier, healthier life.