(I am going to be discussing and criticizing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in this post. Apparently, a lot of people have been helped by it. However, I have problems with it, problems that I believe need to be discussed.)
I feel that, in some ways, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can make already vulnerable people more vulnerable to gaslighting. In theory, CBT is supposed to work by giving a person the tools to critically assess a situation and come to a realistic conclusion about it, thereby challenging “automatic negative thoughts” and the tendency to jump to conclusions. Now, this sounds pretty good to me. I think it’s important to have such skills. However, in practice, CBT doesn’t always work that way. I’ve been to more than one therapist who used CBT, and none of them really helped me learn how to assess the truth of a situation; rather, it was more that they were kind of coercing me into disbelieving any negative perceptions I had, just because they were negative, as if that made them automatically false. Part of CBT also involves considering alternative, more positive explanations for something. This is not a bad thing to do — unless your therapist wants you go to ridiculous lengths to discount the glaring evidence staring you in the face to come up with an alternative, positive interpretation of a situation, just because it makes you feel good.
This kind of dogmatic, unquestioned “positive thinking” approach to CBT can, I believe, make one more susceptible to gaslighting. It can itself be a form of gaslighting carried out by the therapist on the patient. Because you’re not being given the tools to actually critically assess the situation (even though you’re supposed to be), because your negative thoughts are automatically denounced as wrong, because you’re exhorted to always come up with an alternative, positive interpretation in all situations, because you’re led to believe that your thoughts are in “error,” or are distortions, it can make it hard to see when people are mistreating you. When I was doing CBT, my therapists would constantly discount my assertions that people thought negatively of me. Of course, my thinking *had* to be distorted. So I started brainwashing myself into believing that no, people did not think negatively of me, that was just my low self-esteem talking. But every now and then, I’d have a flash of a memory that I’d suppressed, of being treated badly by others. Well, no, I must have interpreted that wrong! They weren’t really mistreating me! But as I thought about it more and more, I started to realize that no, people really did treat me badly, and that they’d been doing it for my entire life, and that I seemed to be more of a target than other people.
It’s awful when your therapist won’t listen to you. When they won’t believe your problems are real, because they dismiss them as the product of your “distorted thoughts.” When you try to explain to them the years of bullying and ill-treatment you’ve gone through? That’s just your distorted thoughts making you think you were bullied and treated badly. When you perceive that you’re different from other people and that you have difficulty making friends and interacting socially? Well, you just think those things are true because you have a poor self-image. If you had more confidence, everything would be okay! Um, no. It turns out I’m autistic. I really am different from others and I really do have difficulty making friends and interacting socially. It was seven years after I first entered therapy that I got diagnosed with Asperger’s. Maybe it would have been earlier if my therapists hadn’t been so quick to dismiss my claims that I was different from others and had trouble in social situations.
I’m sure CBT has helped people. It’s important to learn how to detect when one’s thoughts and perceptions are distorted. However, none of the therapists I’ve ever been to have ever given me these tools. They just used (or misused) CBT to promote unquestioned “positive thinking.” I’ve kind of had to figure out on my own how to evaluate situations — I do realize that there are times when I’m incorrect in assuming something negative. However, I know that other negative perceptions are correct, and I’ve stopped dismissing my instincts entirely, which was what my therapists seemed to want me to do.
This. Yes. Oh my goodness. Thanks for writing this. That sucks - that you were in therapy for so long before getting an accurate diagnosis because of the gaslighting!
It sounds like my experience has not been as bad as yours, but I’ve also had negative experiences with CBT. I’m also glad if it helps some people, but it has been nothing but gaslighting in my experience. I didn’t even recognize it until I started reading books about emotionally abusive relationships and learned what gaslighting was.