(This article was originally published on the Islamic Online University blog at blog.islamiconlineuniversity.com) Cognitive Behavioral Theory, or CBT, is a theory of counseling that believes that our thoughts cause our feelings, and our feelings result in our actions. The idea is that if we can identify our thoughts, we can change our feelings and thus our actions.
Compare these two people
For example, let us say that two people receive a low grade on their first quiz in a class. These two people have radically different thoughts (interpretations) regarding this low grade. Person 1 thinks, “This is terrible. I feel hopeless. I am never going to get a good grade in this class.” Person 2 thinks, “Ok, I am disappointed, but maybe this is going to be a class that really challenges me to grow. I am going to stay calm and do what I can to bring my grade up.”
Which person do you think will end up performing better in the class?
An important point is that our thoughts are not always true. Our interpretation of a situation could be inaccurate:
“…perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not” (Surah Baqarah, 2:216).
#1 Awareness and Positive Self Talk
The challenge is that many of us are not aware of our thoughts! We automatically have these negative thoughts, and then we feel bad and wonder why! So the goal is to become more aware of our thoughts and then to change negative self talk to positive self talk.
For example, sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood. I think that I’m not doing a good job and then I feel down. What I have learned to do is to stop and become aware of my feelings. Once I realize that I am feeling down, I immediately talk to myself in positive ways, such as:
“No mother is perfect. I have a lot of good qualities as a mom and I can try to find solutions to any problems I am facing.”
#2 Self awareness is the key
The most important step is to be aware of ourselves when we start having negative feelings. Some people are not aware of themselves and thus, keep feeding themselves with negative thoughts that do not help them in any way!
CBT is important for being a happy Muslim because positive thinking leads to positive actions, and positive actions bring us closer to AllahSWT :
“Those who believe and perform good deeds, We shall indeed grant pardon to them for their misdeeds and shall reward them according to the best of their deeds.” (Al Ankabut, 29:7).
So the way to feel happier is to keep feeding your mind with positive self talk until you feel better.
Your self talk should be something that you believe and should not be mere words.
Half full or half empty?
The universal example of this is a cup that is half filled with water. Some see the cup as half full. Some see it as half empty. It’s your choice how you see the cup. And your choice makes all the difference in how you will feel!
For example, when you are facing a challenge in life, rather than thinking, “Oh why me? Why is this happening to me!?”, you can instead tell yourself, “Out of this challenge, benefits will come insha’Allah.”
This idea is supported by the following ahadith:
“How excellent the affairs of the believer: his affair, all of it, is good for him; and this is not the case with anyone except the believer; if prosperity comes to him, he is thankful (to God), and if adversity falls on him, he perseveres patiently: so it is all good (for him).” 1
“No fatigue, nor disease, nor anxiety, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that.” 2
When life is not going our way, instead of becoming angry or frustrated because we are not getting what we want, we can say to ourselves, “This is a normal part of life. Things are not always going to go my way.”
This positive thought is supported by this Quranic verse:
“You shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your personal selves; and you shall certainly hear much that will grieve you, from those who received the Book before you and from those who worship many gods. But if you persevere patiently, and guard against evil, then you will surely triumph” (Surah Ale Imran, 3:186).
When a relationship with a person is not going well, rather than becoming sad about it, we can say to ourselves, “It’s normal for relationships to change–to evolve or devolve.”
The Quran teaches:
“Whatever you have will end, but what Allah has is everlasting. And We will surely give those who were patient their reward according to the best of what they used to do” (An Nahl 16:96).
#3 You are not your thoughts:
An extremely important point to understand is that you are not your thoughts or feelings! A lot of people become confused with their thoughts and feelings as if they are one and the same! This is not true at all. You can learn to separate or detach yourself from your thoughts and feelings. You can look at your thoughts and feelings with an objective view and decide whether you really want to have those thoughts and feelings or not. This takes practice of course.
#4 Does Islam Teach Us To Ignore Our Feelings?
Being aware of your thoughts requires self honesty–being honest with yourself about your thoughts. It also requires self compassion–being understanding and caring towards yourself–a normal human being who has negative thoughts sometimes!
If we search the Quran and ahadith, we will find that Islam does not expect us to ignore our feelings and actually encourages us to face our negative feelings so that we can overcome them.
Consider the following Quranic verses and hadiths:
A man once said to the Prophet MuhammadSAWS: “The laws of Islam are too heavy for me, so tell me something that I can easily follow.” The Prophet replied: “Let your tongue be always busy with the remembrance of God.” 3
As we can see from this blessed hadith, the Prophet SAWS did not rebuke people for admitting that religion can seem hard sometimes. The Prophet SAWSaccepted this man’s feeling that sometimes religion can seem difficult, and then he gave the man some hopeful advice.
And consider this verse in Surah Maryam:
“And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.” But he called her from below her, “Do not grieve; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream. And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates.” (Surah Maryam, 19:23-25)
Maryam (alayhisalam) expressed her pain and suffering in an honest way, and Merciful Allah SWT does not chastise her for this, but HeSWT comforts her with a stream and fresh dates.
The Prophet SAWS experienced negative emotions at times, and Allah SWT offered him comfort and guidance.
“Then perhaps you would kill yourself through grief over them, [O Muhammad], if they do not believe in this message, [and] out of sorrow” (Al Kahf 18:6).
“Your Lord (O Muhammad (Peace be upon him)) has neither forsaken you nor hated you. And indeed the Hereafter is better for you than the present (life of this world) And verily, your Lord will give you (all good) so that you shall be well-pleased.” (Ad Duha 93: 3-5)
Our beloved Prophet SAWSexperienced feelings of grief and sorrow, and Allah SWT acknowledged his negative feelings and did not scold him for having such feelings.
#5 Take Action In Spite of Negative Thoughts
Sometimes we can’t seem to get negative thoughts out of our heads. In this case, it’s important to just take positive actions in spite of your thoughts. Positive actions will show your mind who is boss! They will make you feel better because you did something rather than just wallowing in the negative thinking. Positive actions involve taking baby steps to achieve a goal, consulting with another person for ideas, or just exercising.
The best positive action (of course) is to call on AllahSWT and make dua to Him to help you. AllahSWT says in the Quran:
“…Call on Me, I will respond to you” (Ghafir, 40:60).
#6 Recurring Thoughts
An important point is that everyone has recurring thoughts sometimes that they can’t seem to get out of their heads. The main reason we have recurring thoughts is that something has happened that has seriously violated a core belief we’ve had all through life. Because beliefs are part of our identity, we can become quite shaken up when a belief has been seriously contradicted by a life event. It’s important to realize that it’s okay to realize that a lifelong belief you have held on to is not 100% accurate. These recurring thoughts are telling you to modify that belief in some way so that you can have an easier life. So again, you must start to be aware of your thoughts and beliefs so that you can modify them and thus feel better insha’Allah!
For example, I once was quite internally shaken up by someone I realized was trying to use me for her own benefit while totally disregarding my wants and needs as a fellow human being. I was quite shaken up by this because I always saw people as inherently good. Even though I still believe that deep down people are good, unfortunately some people are so mentally disturbed that we cannot sit and wait around for them to become the good people they really are! Sometimes it’s best to set boundaries with those kinds of people, for our own mental health!
A very common problem is that people feel guilty about bad actions they have done in their past. The Prophet SAWS solves this problem for us by encouraging us to just follow a bad deed with a good deed:
“Be conscious of Allah wherever you are. Follow the bad deed with a good one to erase it, and engage others with beautiful character.” 4
Positive self talk is especially useful when we are having anxiety or panic attacks. The negative thoughts that fuel such anxiety are usually along the lines of “I cannot handle this” or “Allah is not going to help me.” So some very useful positive self statements are “I can handle this step by step” and “Allah is with me. Allah will help me. He wants us to call on Him.”
But of course, the first step is to be aware of yourself and to accept your feelings as being there. Accepting your feelings means that you respect yourself enough to acknowledge that you have feelings. You don’t have to act out of those feelings, but you do need to accept them as being there in your heart. We can’t change something we don’t recognize or accept.
1. Muslim ↩
2. Bukhari and Muslim ↩
3. Recorded in Fiqh-us-Sunnah, Volume 4, Number 99 ↩
4. Tirmidthi ↩