Developing Negative and Positive Cognitions

What are cognitions? 
In simplest form: Cognitions are the way we think about ourselves. In EMDR therapy the term is used to identify the belief or assessment that we have about ourselves. When we speak of negative cognition we are referring to a maladaptive self-assessment or negative belief that we have developed from negative or traumatic life experience(s). These beliefs are the conclusions that we have about ourselves based upon our memories. These are often formed in childhood, and become self-fulfilling as we grow older and continue to make poor choices based upon our negative self-beliefs. (Shapiro 2001)  Positive cognition refers to the desired self-assessment that a client would prefer. The client’s negative belief should resonate with their emotions, and their negative and positive beliefs will be used to organize their personal therapeutic process. Carefully laying the foundation of negative and positive cognition will enhance and shorten their therapy experience.

Toward Identifying Appropriate Negative and Positive Cognitions:
In order for EMDR therapy to be effective we understand that it is important that proper identification of both negative and positive cognitions be done. The question that we want to address here:  “What are appropriate negative and positive cognitions?” While I think that a person’s personal worldview will influence their thinking, I believe that we can find help and a healthy direction to get us started in the book, A Conscious Life, by psychologists Fran Cox and Lewis Cox. They identify the beliefs of an emotionally healthy conscious “adult” verses those of an emotionally unhealthy “grownup”.

Let me quote from the first chapter: “We have articulated a list of twelve core beliefs that seem to underlie most peoples ways of approaching a definition of adulthood. If the belief sounds childish, it is because they are formed in childhood. The problem is that they usually are not replaced by more rational and authentically adult ways of thinking and feeling, even after childhood has been left behind. Operating out of these beliefs inevitably leads to a sense of disappointment and unhappiness.”

Cox and Cox continue asking: “How many of the following statements strike a chord with you?”

  1. Your facades (personality, status, income, deeds) represent who you really are.
  2.  What you plan to have happen must happen exactly as planned if it is to have value.
  3.  You should be able to produce what you say you want immediately.
  4. How you see realty is how it is.
  5. When you get what you really want, you will be satisfied.
  6. You do not need to pay attention to your harmful behaviors, even when they keep repeating themselves.
  7. Life should be easy because you deserve to be treated well.
  8. Nothing can hurt you unless you let it.
  9. You do not have to listen to your body.
  10. You are in control of your mind.
  11. If you behave in the right ways, you will be spared pain.
  12. You can grow up to be somebody other than who you are.

Cox and Cox wisely say: “If these beliefs represented reality and many people, consciously or unconsciously, wish they did – you would never have to learn new things as an adult, make mistakes, make reparation, work hard, be creative, get to know your interior world, or really consider others.”

They then share their seven principles of conscious adulthood. I take these to be healthy positive cognitions that we could use to evaluate both negative and positive cognitions that we are using in therapy.

The principles of healthy conscious adulthood are (italics are my thoughts):

  1. I am here and you are over there. (I have a distinct sense of self, where my person begins and ends as well as where others begin and end.)
  2. I am safe and sound inside my own skin.  (In my body lives a “small I am” made in the image of God, who like God cannot be destroyed.  My body may be killed, but the person inside my body cannot be.)
  3. I am curious about everything that goes on inside me.  (I do not squash, ignore or deny what I feel.  Rather I explore what I feel…)
  4. I learn from my emotions. (In order to learn from them, I explore what I feel. I am asking what do I feel?  When do I feel it?  Where in my body do I experience that (those) emotion(s)?)
  5. I know there is noting but now. (I am free only when I live in the moment. Living in the past that I cannot change, or the future that I cannot control is to miss the present that will lead me from the past into the future.)
  6. I always have power.  (It may only be to lay down my life, but I always have the power to make a choice.)
  7. I always have limits.  (I am not omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent.)

In my experience the first outcome that emerges in clients during EMDR therapy is the development of a healthy sense of self, or number one immediately above. And, although not necessarily in the order listed above, I have also seen spontaneous development of principles 2 through 7 emerge as the client progresses through the EMDR therapy process. The end result is a sense of freedom in the uniqueness of their person hood and life history that allows them to live in the moment connecting with others in healthier ways.  It is more than positive cognition. It is positive life experience.

My last quote from Cox and Cox: ” We see these internal realities as essential to an individuals experience of conscious, authentic adulthood and the qualities which define it. The seven operating principles have to be discovered internally and recognized as the territory underlying all our behavior. They color behavior, giving it a certain feel, meaning, and power, but they are not the same thing as behavior. Rather they are the ground from which behavior emerges.”

As negative cognitions were the “ground from which behavior emerge(d)” so properly installed positive cognitions become the ground from which healthy behavior can emerge beginning the day traumatic life experiences are reprocessed in therapy.  Frankly, working through the hurt of our past “stuff” frees up energy that we especially need when we get older.

In counseling we will be carefully interacting with you to identify the negative and positive cognitions that resonate as close to the core of your being as possible.