Have you ever felt stressed listening to someone who is stressed? This often happens, and especially with people we love. Clark noticed it listening to his girlfriend Lois. It stressed him out to listen to her when she was stressed out. But he didn’t know why.
Lois had started a new job. It seemed like she was always frazzled and stressed. It seemed like Lois talked about it a lot. Clark hated that. He seemed to always say the wrong things. They seemed to just get into arguments. He couldn’t understand why, with all of his superpowers he couldn’t read Lois’ mind. Clark decided to try cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).
Clark learned it is his thoughts about Lois that cause his distress, not Lois herself. Essentially, people are who we think they are. In other words, it is our thoughts about a person that cause our feelings about that person.
He learned that with CBT we identify, and then question, our stressful thoughts. A thought has no power unless we believe it. So, by questioning it, we take the power away from it and then we have the power. This made sense to Clark, and he wanted that power! The problem for Clark was that he didn’t know his thoughts. Clark really loved Lois and so he was willing to learn.
In the method of CBT, the first step is to identify one’s stressful thoughts in a situation when one’s mood changed. To do this, the founder of CBT, Dr. Aaron T. Beck, developed a situation worksheet. We simply write down these details: 1) What was the situation? 2) What were your feelings? 3) What were your thoughts? By returning, in our memory, to a recent stressful situation we can identify the thoughts that we may not have realized we were having.
So, Clark identified the most recent argument with Lois. It had been at dinner. They were sitting across from each other. It was a Sunday evening and Lois started to talk about her worries for Monday morning. Clark immediately felt sick to his stomach and lost his appetite.
Filling out the CBT situation worksheet, Clark was able to look back and identify a series of stressful thoughts that had gone through his mind. “She needs me to save her.” “She needs me to protect her.” “I’m a failure as a boyfriend.” “Maybe I’m not as competent in my personal life as I am in my professional life.” These thoughts revealed a deeper belief in Clark that he is only loveable, that his worth is in saving and protecting people. He identified a deep and painful thought: “I need to fix things for Lois to make her happy so she will love me.”
Seeing these thoughts on paper, Clark was able to see why he became so upset when Lois was stressed out about her new job. Clark realized he wasn’t really listening to Lois. He was listening to his own stressful thoughts.
In his book “Love is Never Enough” Dr. Beck writes about this. “A basic belief, once operative, influences the way a person interprets a situation and how he or she will act. Some of these beliefs are near the surface and can be readily observed; some are in a jumble of other thoughts. But with some introspection, people can learn to discern them.”
This was true for Clark. Once he had put his thoughts on paper, he was able to counter them with rational responses. He came up with many, but the most important one for Clark was that he really didn’t know what Lois wanted. Clark decided to ask her.
Lois was very grateful to be asked. She told Clark that she loved him for wanting to save and protect her, but that what she wanted more was for him to realize she can figure out how to do well at her new job. Lois stated that in this situation what she wanted most was just for his understanding.
Clark and Lois learned some very important things from communicating better. They learned that they differ over what they considered to be important in conversations. They learned that they also had different conversational styles. Things improved enormously in their relationship.
Clark continued to do CBT and learned to both notice his thoughts and to listen to Lois at the same time. Using CBT he began to have more satisfaction and pleasure in his relationship with Lois, but also in all of his relationships in general. He was open to observing his mind more objectively and he was willing to apply the principles he had learned from CBT onto himself. This was true power. He felt like superman.
Eğeci, İ.S., Gençöz, T. (2006). Factors Associated with Relationship Satisfaction: Importance of Communication Skills. Contemp Fam Ther 28, 383–391.
Beck, A. T. (1988). Love is Never Enough. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Press, Harper & Row.