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Power of Positive Thinking versus Cognitive Therapy

I met someone recently at a party who asked what I do for work. When I responded that I'm a cognitive behavioral therapist, she questioned, "Oh, isn't that the power of positive thinking? Like if you're sad, tell yourself, 'don't feel that way, just think positive!'" This is a common misconception and I'd like to offer some insight on the matter.

CBT is about learning to think realistically, which is not to be confused with 'positive thinking.'

CBT involves recognizing the irrational and dysfunctional nature of many negative thoughts that occur when people are experiencing a mood disorder, like clinical anxiety or depression.
For example, let's say you are feeling depressed. The 1st step is to identify why you feel this way, in other words, what causes this emotion? The secret is in your thoughts, what you say to yourself. Just as you start to notice your mood sink, ask yourself, "What is going thru my mind right now?"
So let's say you identified the thought, "I'm unlovable." If you believe this thought to be 100% true it makes sense you would feel depressed! Anyone would feel depressed if they believed this thought. The problem is NOT your emotions (because they are quite logical here) but the problem lies in your faulty thinking. (Important: this does not mean you're 'bad' for having these thoughts. Faulty thinking is a symptom of psychological problems, just like a cough is a symptom of the flu. These thoughts are not intentional - they occur rapidly and are often outside our immediate awareness. The good news is that you can learn to change these thoughts and therefore feel better!)
A cognitive therapist does NOT tell you, "Oh come off it! You're the best thing since sliced bread!" Instead, a good cognitive therapist helps you examine your thoughts and consider how accurate and useful they are. The therapist will help guide you to recognize distorted thoughts, see yourself in a more balanced way, and build self-compassion. So we might pursue the following lines of inquiry: How do you define 'unlovable'? Does everyone define the term 'unlovable' in this way? If no, why not? What is the evidence that you're unlovable? What is the evidence this label is not true about you, or not completely true all the time? If you conclude there are things about yourself you don't like, what can you do to improve?
'Positive thinking' on the other hand would be telling yourself, "I'm not unlovable, I'm perfect in every way at every moment!!" This is an exercise in futility because you know it is not true. No one is perfect all the time! This kind of positive thinking is ineffective and illogical.

The point of CBT is to help people examine negative thoughts, identify cognitive distortions or errors, and replace distorted thoughts with more accurate thoughts, so they can feel better.

Just wanted to offer some clarification here!