This post is a long one because it contains instructions for one of the most important Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) skills. You might want to print it – If you click on the blog post title you will find buttons for printing or emailing at the bottom of that page.
How to Use Disputing Questions to Change Self Sabotaging Thoughts.
I’ve been recommending the book the Beck Diet Solution (The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person) since it was published in 2007 (disclosure: I received a free copy from the publishers). It’s a fabulous book and essential reading for anyone who is struggling to lose weight. However in my work with individual clients I’ve been finding people have difficulty using one of the most important sections of the book: How to use disputing questions to change self sabotaging thoughts.
I’m going to provide a detailed example here, that will hopefully help people better understand how to change self sabotaging thoughts that lead to overeating.
Let’s imagine a fictional client who has a history of swinging between dieting and eating whatever they feel like (overeating).
The self sabotaging thought I’m going to use in this example is “I’m too lazy to lose weight” but the same techniques I’ll explain here apply equally to other types of self sabotaging thoughts, including self sabotaging thoughts related to depression or anxiety.
Once you’ve identified one of your self sabotaging thoughts, try writing answers to the following questions (called “Disputing Questions” in CBT) in order to counter-act your self sabotaging thought with a new, more helpful Balanced Thought.
Sample answers to Disputing Questions written as if in the voice of a fictional client.
Self Sabotaging Thought: “I’m too lazy to lose weight”.
1. What is the Evidence that the Self Sabotaging Thought Isn’t True or Isn’t Completely True?
Possible answers (you might think of others):
– I’m not lazy in my life generally. I work hard in my job, my relationships and my family. I generally put in effort far above the bare minimum.
– People who I do not think of as lazy struggle with weight (e.g. Oprah). Losing weight does not seem to be an issue of laziness.
– I often make really great choices. Although I think of myself as only either dieting or overeating, there are plenty of times Ive
(a) enjoyed meals that were neither diet meals or overeating,
(b) eaten treat foods in non-binge ways and been satisfied.
2. What Alternative Explanations or Alternative Perspectives are there? What are alternative explanations for why you haven’t been able to lose weight – explanations other than you’re lazy?
– Losing weight is hard
(a) society gives lots of mixed messages about food (e.g. You shouldn’t waste food).
(b) evolution has not designed us for losing weight to be easy.
– Sometimes its perfectionism and “all or nothing” thinking rather than laziness that gets in the way of me being successful with moderate eating.
– I often end up overeating because I’m tired, lonely, anxious, bored, excited, or feel under pressure. (Note: excitement can lead to overeating because can disinhibit people and lull them into the thinking error of “overly positive fortune telling” e.g. thoughts like – it won’t matter if I have a 2nd serving of dessert).
– I put a lot of pressure on myself in many areas of my life. I need to put less pressure on myself in other areas to have the time and energy to succeed at losing weight.
– Up until now I haven’t had the right information or help to understand the psychology behind my overeating. I’ve been operating on incorrect assumptions.
3. What is the Effect of Believing the Self Sabotaging Thought?
Believing the sabotaging thought “I’m too lazy to lose weight” leads to feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, anger, and shame.
I either try to “tame my laziness” by strict dieting or I give in and overeat.
In other words, believing the sabotaging thought is partially responsible for why my problem pattern of dieting/overeating keeps going.
Because the sabotaging thought leaves me feeling helpless, angry and powerless, I also overeat to soothe the negative emotions it generates.
4. If the Self Sabotaging Thought Isn’t True/Helpful, What Might a More Balanced, More Helpful Thought Be?
The goal is to replace your self sabotaging thoughts with more balanced, more helpful thoughts.
The raw material to construct a balanced thought is in the answers to Questions 1 and 2 above.
Creating balanced thoughts is a skill mastered through experience, so you’ll need to practice (and probably have a psychology PhD help you) to get comfortable with it.
For practice purposes – for each self sabotaging thought you work through, try out creating at least 3 different versions of a balanced thought. Then ask yourself which one will be most helpful to focus on so as to lead you to your desired behaviour.
Possible balanced thoughts to replace the thought “I’m too lazy to lose weight” could be:
(a) I’m not lazy.
(b) Losing weight is hard – society sends mixed messages about food and there are evolutionary reasons why losing weight is hard. I’m not lazy but I need to do something different than what I’ve tried before. I need to understand the psychological reasons I’m stuck.
(c) I’m not lazy but I need to reduce the pressure I put on myself in other areas of my life and do better self care
– so I am less vulnerable to mindless overeating, and overeating to relieve stress and negative emotions.
– so I have the time, energy and focus to plan and carry out alternative coping instead of continuing to overeat once I have started overeating.
(d) I’m not lazy but its been hard for me to think of a “middle path” that’s not dieting or eating whatever I feel like. I want to be able to still do some spontaneous eating so I need to figure out how I can do that without gaining weight and without alternating between overeating and deprivation dieting.
(e) I have developed “lazy” habits of giving in to overeating instead of doing self care or alternative coping. However I am not a lazy person generally and therefore I can change these habits if I have sufficient help.
(f) Thinking I’m too lazy is a seductive but untrue thought. I’ve been sucked into a habit of thinking I’m too lazy because thinking I’m powerless and hopeless “gets me out of” doing the work I need to do, and getting the help I need, to change my patterns.
5. What would the effect be of believing “Balanced Thoughts” like those above rather than believing the self sabotaging thought?
Possible answers include:
– Feeling more hopeful
– Feeling less powerless and less ashamed
– Taking a more moderate approach
– Using psychological skills (like urge surfing, alternative coping, mindful eating, understanding and managing your overeating triggers, and harm minimization) to change behaviour rather than repeating the faulty “willpower only” strategy that has not worked in the past.
– Feeling excited that there might be a “middle path” way of eating that does not seem onerous or overly restrictive, and is not dieting or overeating.
Making a Thought Response Card
On a card (or sticky note or any piece of paper), write down your self sabotaging thought and underneath write your favorite balanced thought. Write down 3-4 key pieces of evidence for why the balanced thought is true.
Put this card in your purse or wallet, or wherever you need to put it so that it’ll be accessible to you when your self sabotaging thought rears its head.
The Next Step
Repeat this procedure for another of your self sabotaging thoughts.
Cognitive Behavioural Psychology
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), psychology PhDs teach clients numerous different ways to identify, test, balance, and change the way they respond to self sabotaging thoughts. The Disputing Questions listed above are only a few of the tools.
Identifying Your Self Sabotaging Thoughts
Identifying your self sabotaging thoughts can be tricky because repeated thoughts often become automatic and implicit, and we no longer notice having them. You can read more about identifying your self sabotaging thoughts – here and here. Usually clients need help to identify their self sabotaging thoughts.
You can get a the audiobook version of the Beck Diet Solution for free using this offer from Audible.com (owned by Amazon.com).
More of my blog posts about healthy eating and exercise can be found by using the Healthy Eating category tag in the right sidebar.