How Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help writers

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If you have difficulty writing, consider using the tool of CBT — Cognitive Behavioural Therapy — to help give yourself a boost. It’s easy and inexpensive and you can do it yourself…

Are you familiar with CBT? If you’re not, I apologize for using the jargon-y abbreviation but it stands for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

CBT is a type of psychotherapeutic treatment that psychologists use to treat a wide range of disorders including anxiety, depression, phobias, addictions and insomnia. It is often more successful than drugs and, even better, has never been turned into a multi-million-dollar industry because the principles of the treatment are so widely available. Developed by Dr. Aaron Beck in the 1960s, while he was a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, CBT is even something you can do for yourself.

I have a contract with a university-based group that has conducted lots of research showing the clear benefits of CBT, and while doing my reading on the subject, I thought, hey, this could help many struggling writers, too. I bought myself a copy of one of the most highly recommended workbooks on the topic, Mind Over Mood, and combed through the text looking for ways to help writers. Here is what I found:

CBT is based on the idea that we all have “automatic thoughts,” and many of them are negative. For writers, this may include such thoughts as:

  • I’m a terrible, horrible writer who has no talent
  • This writing project is way too big and overwhelming for me
  • No one is ever going to want to read a word of what I’ve written

If we learn to identify and evaluate these automatic thoughts, however, we can start thinking more realistically — and more productively. The key message from CBT? Our thoughts affect our behaviours. And if we want to change our behaviours, we need to change our thoughts.

CBT is not a type of positive thinking. Instead, it focuses on challenging your negative thoughts and making a rational plan for how to face them. So, for example, if you feel unable to write because the project feels too big and overwhelming for you, you learn to divide the project into smaller, more manageable steps. Or you learn to review articles you’ve successfully written in the past, to buoy your spirits.

If you want to use CBT to help yourself, begin by starting what’s called a “Thought Record.” Here’s an overview of how that works:

1. Describe your situation. Here are some examples:

  • I was reading Facebook when I should have been working on the XYZ article, which is due tomorrow
  • I was editing my latest chapter
  • I was doing research for my next book

2. Identify your mood. Notice that many writers steer away from this task, perhaps because they think it’s irrelevant. It is not. If you don’t know your mood, you can’t work on changing it. Here is a list of moods. While this list isn’t complete, it’s a good starting point: depressed, sad, insecure, nervous, enraged, grieving, anxious, embarrassed, proud, disgusted, scared, eager, angry, excited, mad, hurt, happy, afraid, guilty, frightened, panicked, cheerful, loving, content, ashamed, irritated, frustrated, disappointed, humiliated, grateful. If you’re struggling with your writing, I think it’s highly likely the mood you may be feeling will be frustration, shame, fear or disappointment. But don’t let me put words in your mouth! Identify your feelings and then attach a percentage to them, showing how much this feeling is affecting you.

3. Find your automatic thoughts. What thoughts were going through your mind before you started feeling this way? Note that “thoughts” can include beliefs, images and memories. One of the key purposes of CBT is to bring automatic thoughts into awareness. If you have difficulty doing this, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • What does this mood mean about me?
  • What am I afraid might happen?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
  • What does this mean about how other people feel about me?
  • Did I break rules, hurt others or not do something I should have done?

Once you have a list of automatic thoughts, then circle the one that is “hottest.” In other words, which thought caused the biggest reaction in you? It might have made you breathe more quickly or feel flushed or even embarrassed. Its “heat” indicates how important it is for you.

4. Note the evidence that supports this “hot” thought. Column 4 will likely be the easiest column for you to fill out. If the thought is “hot” enough, you’ll likely be spilling over with reasons for its truth. For example, let’s imagine your hot thought is that you have no talent for writing. Here is some of the evidence you might cite:

  • My boss has never said a kind word about anything I’ve written
  • I got a bad mark in English 12
  • A colleague made an unkind remark about one of my stories 

5. Note the evidence that does NOT support this thought. And this may well be the hardest column to complete. But give it a go, anyway. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help:

  • If my best friend told me they had this thought, what would I tell them?
  • Are there any strengths of qualities I have that I am ignoring?
  • Are there any positives in this situation that I am ignoring?
  • Have I been in this situation before and, if so, what happened?
  • When I felt this way in the past, what did I think about that made me feel better?
  • Five years from now, if I look back at this situation, will I see it differently?
  • Am I blaming myself for something over which I do not have complete control? 

6. Write an alternative or more balanced thought. Then attach a percentage to it, showing how strongly you believe it. After examining the evidence for and the evidence against your hot thought, try to develop a more balanced thought that still strikes you as truthful. For example, if your hot thought was “I have no talent for writing,” your more balanced thought might be any of the following:

  • I can improve the quality of my work with diligent self-editing
  • Not everything I write is terrible
  • With advice from [insert name], I can make my writing a whole lot better

7. Rate your moods now. Take the mood(s) you identified in column 2, and re-rate them now, after you’ve finished this analysis. If your alternative or balanced thoughts are linked to real experiences you’ve had, you’re more likely to have achieved an improved mood.

To learn more about CBT, whether for writing or other aspects of your life, I suggest you look at a copy of Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky.


My video podcast last week discussed how to be a good interview subject. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.


Need some help developing a better writing routine? Thursday, Aug. 25 is the deadline for applications for September entry to my Get It Done program. Priority goes to those who have applied first. Fill out the the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.


Have you ever been paralyzed by fear of writing? Don’t let this nasty psychological barrier make your life miserable or cost you missed income. I’ve developed a series of 18 videos (with audio and text versions) for just $95 that will help you banish the fear. Plus, you’ll get membership to an online group of others facing the same challenge. Have a look at the program here.


How do you deal with your moods while writing?  We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Aug. 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on May 16/17.

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