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The Cognitive Triangle: Understanding How It Works

Let’s face it. We all struggle with negative thoughts and emotions about ourselves. Sometimes these thoughts and feelings create behaviors we wish we could undo after the fact.

Luckily, we have tools in place to help us manage and reframe the thoughts and feelings that hold us back in our lives. One such tool is the cogntivie triangle.

The cognitive triangle represents the interaction between thoughts, feelings, and behavior. It shows the interplay between what happens in our head, our resulting feelings, and subsequent actions. It is a useful tool to regulate emotions and behavior.

The cognitive triangle is easy to understand and and equally easy to use. So let’s dive in! 

What Is The Cognitive Triangle?

Simply put, the Cognitive Triangle is a tool that highlights the relationship between how we feel, think, and behave. It forms an integral part of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) process. 

The basic premise is that there is a link between thoughts, feelings, and actions, and when we understand how these interact, we can effect positive change in areas we may be experiencing challenges. 

a graphic image of a profile with a brain and an arrow indicating a cycle. The title reads "What is the cognitive triangle?"
Understanding the Cognitive Triangle

What Are The Three Parts of The Cognitive Triangle?

The three points of the triangle all represent one of the following elements, and each plays a role in the challenges we face and how we can deal with them.

  • Thoughts: At the top of the triangle, thoughts refer to the internal dialogue you have with yourself about your life, experiences, and the problems you might be facing. They also encapsulate the beliefs and assumptions you have about others and the world around you. Your thoughts can influence how you feel and act, but these also affect the train of thought in your head. 
  • Feelings: One of the corners of the triangle represents what emotions you’re feeling in response to your thoughts. 
  • Behavior: The other corner of the triangle represents your actions. Your behaviors are the actions you take based on your thoughts and feelings. For example, if a situation makes you feel unsure or yourself or anxious, your action may be to avoid those types of situations. 

How Does The Cognitive Triangle Work?

To understand the interplay between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, let’s look at how it plays out in everyday life. 

Let’s say there’s a big project going on at work. You have some ideas you want to share, but you’re worried it won’t be well-received.

  • Thought: “I don’t know enough about this. If I say something stupid, they’ll never take me seriously.”
  • Feeling: Fear, anxiety, nervousness about speaking up during an internal meeting.
  • Behavior: Staying quiet and contributing your share of the work, but never stepping outside of your comfort zone. 

The result? You stay professionally stuck and stifle your own opportunity for growth, which will make you unhappy and unfulfilled.

You’ll believe you aren’t smart enough or qualified to step outside of your lane, which will hold you back from ever trying. 

If you were to apply the cognitive triangle to therapy, your counselor would work with you on reframing your thoughts and seeing the situation through a more constructive lens. 

Imagine, in this situation, if the person learned to change their initial thought to something like this: “I’m really excited about this idea I got from the conference I attended. I’m going to share it with the team to see what they think. Maybe it could work for our latest project.”

In the second scenario, the person still isn’t 100% sure the idea will work but the thought is more positive and confident, which will convert that previous anxiety into excitement, and produce a behavior that is much more conducive to professional growth and success. 

The Cognitive Triangle And Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

The cognitive triangle is the foundation of CBT. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns like the one I outlined in the scenario above. 

The primary tenet of CBT is that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected, so by changing one, we can change the others. This is why the cognitive triangle is also known as the CBT triangle or even the cognitive triad. 

In sessions, therapist will help patients challenge their negative thought patterns and learn to recognize cognitive distortions. From there, patients can develop more positive,realistic ways of thinking which leads to healthier emotional reactions and desired behavioral change.

CBT, sometimes in conjunction with medication, is used to treat various issues, including depression, anxiety, substance-related problems, eating disorders, and relationship issues. It centers on the philosophy that thinking and behavior are interlinked and that learned behavior can be changed to be more positive. To change these, our way of thinking needs to be addressed. 

A graphic image explaining the points on the cognitive triangle
The three points of the cognitive triangle

Who Created The Cognitive Triangle?

Dr. Aaron Beck is considered the founder of CBT. In his studies, Dr. Beck found that underlying negative beliefs about the self resulted in depression. Further investigation established the theory that people’s thoughts about themselves and their situation influenced their actions.

From these findings, Dr. Beck established that positive change could be affected by changing our thought patterns about situations and ourselves, which affect how we behave, and our emotions. As a result, CBT has been successfully applied to various mental health disorders.

Dr. Beck created CBT, in large part, out of frustration with the slow pace of change of other therpeuatic approaches. 

Eventually, Beck expanded the application of his CBT techniques to treat other mental health issues, such as anxiety, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Additionally, he created particular approaches for dealing with patients who were borderline or had suicidal thoughts.

What Makes CBT Different From Other Therapeutic Approaches?

CBT takes a very simplistic approach to mental health issues and challenging situations. It’s based on the following core principles:

  • Mental health problems originate from unhelpful ways of thinking.
  • Learned patterns of behavior can be unhelpful and lead to mental health issues.
  • Learning better patterns of behavior and more helpful ways of coping will relieve symptoms and alleviate mental health concerns.

Where other therapies may choose to focus on past traumas or finding the core of where our perception of the world originates, CBT aims to identify problematic thinking and the unhelpful actions stemming from these. 

By altering how we think about a situation, we can behave more appropriately. 

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The Cognitive Triangle To Treat Anxiety And Depression 

CBT and the cognitive triangle can be particularly helpful in terms of dealing with anxiety.

Anxiety is often related to a perception of a situation that isn’t correct or may not even come to pass. Worrying about things out of your control or issues you can’t change can lead to anxiety. Many of these thoughts are rooted in cognitive distortions. 

Examples of this include:

  • Catastrophic thinking: “If I make a mistake, everyone will think I don’t know anything.” 
  • Black-and-white thinking: “If I don’t do everything perfectly, I’m a failure.” 
  • Overgeneralizing: “I always mess everything up.” 

The CBT approach and the cognitive triad can highlight how these thought patterns create negative emotions that produce the type of problematic behavior that reinforces the negative cycle.

When applying the cognitive triangle, you’d immediately recognize the negative thought pattern and force yourself to look at it more realistically. 

For example, if you catch yourself thinking something like “I always mess everything up,” you would refute the idea. 

Do you actually mess everything up or did you mess a couple things up? (It’s the latter.) Okay, so you made a mistake. Is it fixable? Do other people make mistakes? (Yes, they do). 

The more you force yourself to take a step back from negative thought patterns and see them objectively, the better able you are to have a measured, reality-based response to whatever’s going on. 

As a tool, teaching people to categorize their negative thoughts according to how they fit in with the triangle can also help them identify triggers as they come up, allowing them to actively avoid going down the same adverse pathway as before. 

The Cognitive Triangle and Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a mental health condition that sees one struggling to regulate emotions and the reactionary behavior to these very volatile emotions. The CBT triad is a valuable tool for helping people with BPD to regulate their emotions better. As a result, they can learn to be less emotionally reactive and learn how to recognize and regrame the negative thought patterns they are susceptible to. 

People with BPD tend to feel chronically empty or alone, even if the reality is vastly different from this. 

The cognitive triangle can help point out how these negative feelings are unjustified. By assisting a BPD person to see reality, their thoughts can be altered. 

This will help them maintain healthy relationships with others and do better in their professional lives. 

For example, the BPD relationship cycle is often full of high highs and low lows. CBT can help people with BPD take a step back from their emotional swings and see situatiosn more fully. 

A typical overreaction might be, “They didn’t text me back. Obviously, they’re not interested anymore and this relationship is finished.” 

This is another example of black-and-white thinking that presumes people are all bad or all good. Any mistake or misstep is perceived as “see, this person is bad” and the pendulum swings towards intense paranoia about the relationship or the BPD person deciding to ghost before they get hurt. 

CBT teaches the BPD person to look at it more realistically. 

“Yes, he (or she) didn’t text me back right away, but there are plenty of reasons why people don’t text back immediately. He could be busy or something urgent couldn’t come up. I’ll give him until tomorrow to text back. If I don’t hear from him, I can reach out and ask if things are okay. Either way, I’ll be fine, and this is just a part of relationships these days.” 

The goal of CBT for BPD is to teach people how to do the following:

  • Identify negative thought patterns.
  • Challenge those negative thoughts.
  • Improve emotional regulation.
  • Reduce impulsive behavior.
  • Improve interpersonal relationships. 

By helping BPD sufferers challenge and change the negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to their symptoms, they will be better equipped to reduce them. 

Interested in learning more about BPD?

Final thoughts on the Cognitive Triangle:

The CBT triangle as a tool is a simple and effective way of breaking down troubling thoughts and very big emotions that cause problematic behavior.

By teaching others how the three parts of the triangle interact, they can be empowered to take charge of negative thinking patterns and redirect them, resulting in positive thoughts and more appropriate behaviors.

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