Cognitive behavioral therapy is a kind of “talking” therapy. Indeed it consisted of quite a lot of talking. During two years I attended cognitive behavioral therapy with a very experienced psychologist. Her name is Jennifer. It took a lot of time before I was feeling able to talk about my traumas. (At first) I didn’t want to have eye contact with her when I was telling her about what has happened to me. Why? Because of shame. I was always ashamed of my emotional reactions. Somewhere in my head a conviction was imprinted that men should not cry or complain about having pain or nasty feelings. A real man should be tough and the opposite of a wimp. Do you understand what I’m saying? So this way I was brought up. This imprinted “mind programming” has originally been determined by the Government of the Soviet Union. They required you to be a man who should at any time be ready and willing to sacrifice his life for his native country and for the communist party. I was raised by a single mother. I never got to know my father. My parents got divorced just before I was born. My mother was very hard-hearted towards me. I was never allowed to express my nasty feelings. If I did it anyhow, I was immediately being punished. This way my beliefs were drastically limited. I got plenty of “limiting” beliefs imposed, with which I absolutely didn’t agree. Why were my beliefs being limited? Because of this limitation I could not openly express my feelings like sadness, fear, anxiety, tense etc. The limitation of my expression had a disastrous influence on my mental health. When you cannot express your nasty emotions like sadness, nightmares or spontaneously getting angry, your mind will start searching for an alternative way to be able to express them anyhow. My former “limiting” beliefs are now worthless for me weird to me, but they were normal and real in the past. They used to have control over my behavior in some situations.
So the one goal of cognitive behavioral therapy in my case to track down these “limiting” beliefs, makes me critical about their reason of existence for my behavior and change them into something positive. My conclusion is that cognitive behavioral therapy did work for me very well in the case of “limiting beliefs” but this went slowly, very slowly. In that respect we’re talking about a period of several years.
My reactions to traumatic events
What are my reactions to traumatic events? These are nasty emotions (like anger, sadness, guilt, anxiety) and reactions of my body (like heartbeat, sweat, stress and tense). I call these reactions Philippe-reactions, because they would also be my automatic reactions to certain events or people (their words, behavior or acting) in the present. Now I know that these reactions were a result of my traumas.
Another goal of cognitive behavioral therapy consisted of changing my reactions to traumatic events by means of changing my thoughts about these events in a positive way. For example, I would tell Jennifer about my trauma from my childhood. I would think like “I am a victim of my mother’s violence”. This thought is called ‘cognition’ in psychology. When I would be thinking “I am a victim” I would be feeling myself very weak, uncertain and scared. So you would ‘see’ these feelings in my behavior. I would be acting uncertain en have a scared look. Jennifer would say: “You did your best. You did what you could. You would be strong enough to manage to survive this situation.” She would try to change my cognition in a positive way, so I would feel strong and certain about myself in that situation instead of weak and scared. Changing our cognition is a key in cognitive behavioral therapy. Why? Thoughts (cognitions) could make me experience different emotions. Positive thoughts could give me positive emotions and negative thought could give me negative emotions. Emotions influence my behavior. So by changing my cognition I am at the same time changing my behavior. That is the crucial trick behind the cognitive behavioral therapy. That’s why they call this therapy cognitive behavioral therapy. Because our thoughts (cognitions) in fact are (partly) managing our behavior.
My conclusion is that cognitive behavioral therapy did not work for me very well in the case of trauma treatment. Although It did decrease my ‘Philippe-reactions’ by some traumatic events with 10 a 20 %, in the majority of the cases it just did not make any sense to change my thoughts about these events. Why? Because I did not have any control of my reactions or thoughts about these events. Instead, my reactions would have control over me. They would appear from nowhere, like spontaneously getting very angry or very anxious. My reactions were completely automatized. These reactions where programmed somewhere in my subconscious mind, which I was not being able to control by a mere thought. So positive thinking about a heavy traumatic event as a result of which I might die, would just not work for me. I asked myself “How can I get control over my reactions?” and I did find a way to do so. The results of my findings have been fully integrated in my Mindfulness Based Trauma Treatment.