The next layer – Assumptions and rules in CBT

If you got here from “automatic thoughts and what they can do to you”.  You have a fair understanding of what automatic thoughts are and how they run your life.  Automatic thoughts, although they seem “automatic” an invisible range of cognitive processes play an important role in how they arise. Automatic thoughts almost always arise from underlying rules and assumptions.

rules and assumptions

These assumptions are often self made rules of living and consist of “if, then”, “should” and “must” statements. 

The characteristics of rules and assumptions are as follows

  1. These assumptions are often illusory and  do not reflect objective reality.
  2. These are over over-generalized and extreme.
  3. Rigidity without a logical explanation is typical of assumptions.
  4. Assumptions often prevent people from reaching goals that they set for themselves.
  5. When these rules are broken or challenged, one often experiences extremes of emotion.
  6. They are relatively impervious to change secondary to  day to day events.
  7. They directly underlie the interpretation of events.

Most dysfunctional rules and assumptions fall under three common themes.

Achievement  –  Rules that decide if one is any good.

“If someone is better at something than me,
it means they are a better person than me”.

Acceptance – Rules that decide if one is accepted.

“If someone dislikes you, that means there’s
something wrong with you”.

Control – Rules that hold on hopelessly to control.

“If I allow other people to influence me, I will lose
my independence”

An example.

Ramesh is a 32-year-old software professional, he has always had trouble with some social situations such as meetings and conferences. One day, his manager calls him into the office and asks him to make a presentation for the client just prior to his on-site visit. Ramesh is technically strong but has always had trouble with public speaking.

His automatic thought – “You are screwed – You are going to falter and fail miserably, the client is going to think you are a fool”

His underlying assumption could be – “If you upset people, they will reject you” or “If you falter, people judge you”

It is quite possible that these assumptions may be true. However, there are even greater chances that they are false. People may not reject someone just because you upset them. They may be far more understanding than you think. People may actually try to help you or identify with you when you falter, rather than judge you negatively.

Challenging assumptions.

Rules and assumptions are amenable to change, however the process may be time consuming and will definitely require a whole lot of introspection. A basic rule breaking process would be –

1)Understanding  origins – How did these rules come into place ? Early experience ? Caretaker bias ? When did this sort of thinking begin ? eg – Why does X believe that you need to be rich to be respected ? Where did this thought come from.

2)Assessing their irrationality – Do these rules make any sense ? Can they be generalized to a wide variety of situations ? Are they realistic or exaggerated ?

3)Are these assumptions of any help ?– Are these rules helping you in reaching goals ? Are you happier because of these rules ? What happens when you don’t fulfill a rule ? Are they worth holding ?

4)Reformulate – Adding flexibility to original assumptions so that they help reach goals and break any barriers that the previous assumptions caused.