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What’s Your Tape?

by Cara Jones, LCPC


“I can’t say no.”   

“I should do this.”

“It just has to be this way.”

“If something doesn’t turn out the way I hoped, it’s just going to be awful.” 

“I have to do everything around here.  No one will ever help me; there’s no point in asking.”  

“I’m such a terrible person because I let my friend down.”    

 “I failed at my diet today, so just forget it.”

Do these kinds of thoughts ever go through your mind?  For most all of us, they do.  And we believe these thoughts to be true without question.  They are tapes that go through our heads over and over in various forms. 

We live by the ‘shoulds,’ the ‘black & white’ categories, the ‘catastrophic’ endings to our scenarios that rarely turn out that way, and the emotional rather than logical reasoning.  These are just some of the common themes than haunt and drive us.

Let’s take a side detour for a minute….what causes us to feel a certain way?  Sometimes it is clearly a situation, like a death causes us to feel sad.  In more everyday situations, however, our frame of reference is our interpreter.  If a child wants a cookie and a parent says no, the child is disappointed.  The thought “I must have that cookie” interpreted.  If we can change the child’s interpretation to “I’ll be too full to enjoy my favorite dinner mom’s cooking tonight,” the feeling is likely to change from so much disappointment to greater acceptance.

So, if you are repeatedly thinking tapes like those noted here, how are you going to feel?  Well, likely you’ll experience some degree of sadness, anger, depression, anxiety, resentment, or low self-esteem. Out of this tangled web of thoughts and feelings we draw unhelpful conclusions and then make choices of behaviors that seem to be logical or at least temporary coping strategies. The cycle continues.  Repeated over and over, these in turn become our problematic patterns at the surface (like avoiding life issues by overeating or over spending) or hidden underneath other clinical symptoms like anxiety or depression (like not having healthy relationship boundaries).  It is important, however, to recognize that these ‘tapes’ not only have the potential to be lying to us, but in fact often are!  

The form of therapy in which we learn to identify and correct these thoughts is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. It is a long standing and well-researched form of therapy found to be very effective for many troubling life issues, including depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and marital/relationship issues.  And the good news is that anyone can learn the basic skills!  Once learned, you take it with you into your life and have a new way to interpret the world.  So, let’s look at an example.

Susan, we’ll call her, struggles with depression.  She feels overwhelmed in her life, she takes care of her husband and children, has close relationships with her family, is involved in her kids’ school, finances are sometimes a source of conflict with her husband, and she feels more like a roommate than a connected partner with him.  She comes in for counseling.

Through using Cognitive Behavioral therapy, Susan finds her “tape” includes messages that:

She can only take care of herself after ALL the needs of her family are met (which is NEVER); therefore, she’ll NEVER do anything for herself.

Some of the ‘closeness’ with her extended family is good but some is actually a boundary violation of her marriage.

She is overcommitted in volunteer work due to a fear of saying ‘no’.  There is an “I should say yes to everyone” tape.

Susan also finds a series of tapes about her emotional reasoning.  She feels unattractive as a lover and unsuccessful as a household manager because of how she handles the money and believes that she must be in fact a failure as a wife.  These beliefs are keeping her distant from her husband.

Once identified, Susan learns how to correct these tapes with thoughts that are true and free from all distortion.  She goes out into the world with a corrected tape that says she’s worthy of time to take care herself even though the “list” isn’t done, that she can say no to some things so that she can wholeheartedly say yes to others, and that she can come out from hiding with her husband so that they can have a closer, richer relationship.

Let this example not be an oversimplification of the dynamics involved in Susan’s situation.  But it serves to highlight some of the top distortions that have been identified over time and across thousands of people.  We all can relate.  Once you learn how to play detective to identify and correct the problematic thoughts, you’ll always have a way to help yourself feel better and stay on track to positive mental health!