Rethinking “Stinking Thinking”

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Beginning in the 1950s, Albert Ellis laid the foundations for a major portion of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with his colorful descriptions of negative thought patterns, descriptions that remain useful to the present day. Yet these venerable tools also have their limitations and misuses.

Deodorizing Cognition

If you’ve ever investigated what upsets people around you, you may discover they’re upset because of the way they think of their lives as much as the objective facts of their existence. Furthermore, any given person may be afflicted with the same thoughts over and over again, and so remain anxious, angry, or depressed. Based on these kinds of observations, Albert Ellis developed a method of therapy that allows clients to catch their own disturbing thoughts and then combat them with other, more adaptive thoughts.

As a guide to ferreting out negative thinking (odd how it’s always easier to see others’ negative thinking than our own) Ellis created a list of common debilitating thoughts, dubbing them “stinking thinking.” Ellis’ list includes the following descriptions of maladaptive thoughts:

  • Some people are bad, wicked, or villainous and therefore should be blamed and punished.
  • Dangerous or fearsome things are cause for great concern, and their possibility must be continually dwelt upon.
  • It is a terrible catastrophe when things are not as a person wants them to be.

With a little imagination, it’s easy to see how this kind of thinking can lead to upset and even clinical levels of emotional disturbance. It stands to reason, then, that reducing or eliminating these types of “stinking thinking” can bring relief.

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In practice, CBT therapists run into a number of roadblocks. The first is that thoughts are now sorted into “good thoughts” and “bad thoughts.” For a client struggling with low self-image, it may be an additional blow to be informed that he’s infested with unworthy thoughts.

By providing a list of “bad” thoughts, Ellis also opens the door for a kind of mental rigidity in therapy. If a thought matches the definition of “stinking thinking” of one kind or another, then it is bad and false. However, as Joseph Heller once quipped, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” There are cases when a thought will be both stinky and true.

Hearts and Minds

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is an ‘in the head’ treatment modality. It explicitly shies away from emotions to focus on thoughts couched in logical language. Part of CBT’s strength is that it is so logical and reasonable. In the daylight of classroom-style logical argumentation, client and therapist alike may feel they are standing on solid ground talking about their problems.

Human beings are at all times a blend of thoughts and feelings. CBT asserts that thoughts cause emotions. Yet it is also equally true that emotions motivate thinking. CBT leaves no place for the intuitive power of emotion. Perhaps a thought, as irrational as it is, has a foundation in an emotion desperately trying to show us something about the world beyond our immediate logical understanding.

Think This Way

Because stinking thinking sorts thoughts into good thoughts and bad thoughts, there is a risk that a therapist may use CBT to push an agenda other than the client’s well-being. In my work with clients mandated through the criminal justice system, clients are often chided for taking a “victim stance” and blaming their current situation on others when they themselves committed an offense.

While mandated clients do take the “victim stance” to excuse themselves from responsibility, therapists aligned with the criminal justice system sometimes use this same argument to excuse immoral or even illegal behavior of authority figures by saying “if you had not committed your offense, you wouldn’t be subject to unjust treatment.”

Ethically, the therapist is responsible for making sure the focus remains on the client’s mental health and not on installing some external political ideology or viewpoint. CBT is equally effective at either task.

Mindful CBT

I am grateful to mindfulness-based therapy for providing an additional perspective on CBT and “stinking thinking.” Acceptance of all phenomena, both physical and mental, is one core concept in mindfulness-based therapy. So whether a thought is “stinky” or not, it’s still a thought that needs to be noticed and accepted, not as true, or helpful, or useful, but simply as a real thought that’s really happening right now. From a mindfulness perspective, what is resisted grows stronger, so resisting stinking thinking risks embedding those unhelpful thoughts more strongly in the mind.

Where CBT advises direct confrontation of stinking thinking, combating stinking thinking with more accurate thoughts, mindfulness counsels detachment from all thoughts, stinking and otherwise. Remembering that a thought is just a thought, and not an absolute description of objective reality, has the power to take much of the sting out of negative thoughts. By refusing to label a thought as good or bad, false or true, the client retains the ability to extract useful intuitions from even irrational, disturbing thoughts and emotions.

It’s hard to be a capable therapist without at least knowing, if not employing, Ellis’s “stinking thinking” technology. Yet like all tools, stinking thinking has both limitations and misuses. Mindfulness-based therapy offers a different viewpoint that illuminates the limitations and pitfalls of CBT and suggests new methods to move beyond them.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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