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How the CBT Triangle Connects Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors

Updated: Aug 21, 2022

The cognitive triangle connects thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Learn how.

This infographic shows how the CBT triangle is typically depicted, with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors at each of the three points.

Thinking negatively is a common human trait. We look for problems so we can be ready for them. We beat ourselves up because we don’t want to repeat the same patterns.

However, this tendency to think negatively typically does the opposite of helping. Instead, it makes us more likely to feel down about ourselves, and therefore less happy in general.

The CBT triangle, or cognitive triangle, is a tool used by therapists and others to teach the concept of changing negative patterns of thought. The points of the triangle show how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all connected. By changing one of these three points, you can change the others for the better.

Looking for an interactive way to teach or learn CBT skills like the triangle? Check out our CBT worksheet bundle here, or our new, fun, 75-prompt CBT Bingo-like game.

Article Highlights

Triangle Diagrams

Basic Triangle

Negative Thought Example

Positive Thought Example

Old Thought Prompt

New Thought Prompt

History of the Approach

Using the Tool

The Thought Highway

Combining the Three Points


Triangle Diagrams

While the triangle is drawn in different ways, it typically shows thoughts at the top, with feelings at the bottom right point, and behaviors on the left. The visuals included throughout the article depict the steps of using the tool. First, you can recognize the pattern that’s occurring and then start to change it. Details of that process are further outlined below.

History of This Approach

The thought triangle is a simplified tool based on the ideas of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. This particular therapy tool is incredibly popular, often used by therapists aiming to help people deal with all kinds of problems.

The original practice of CBT was developed by Dr. Aaron Beck and colleagues in the 1960s. Since then, the basic ideas have been adapted to treat multiple conditions including anxiety, depression, trauma responses, lack of confidence, eating disorders, physical illness and much more. Thousands of studies have validated this approach.

Since the tools of this therapy are so straightforward, many people find the practices are helpful even when learned outside of therapy. Self-learning CBT programs are also found to be effective, although in some cases a therapist is needed to help with more difficult thoughts. Many of the programs start with the basic CBT triangle to lead up to more complicated techniques.

Using the Tool

Since changing thought patterns is the most common technique used, we’ll start there. Let’s take a look at this in practice.

Maria is an English teacher at a local high school. She used to enjoy acting in local productions, and really wants to try out for the local community play. The last two times she auditioned she got cut at the last call-back. Although the director encouraged her to come back next time, she started to doubt herself.

After this disappointment, Maria told herself that she must not be talented or attractive enough. While she still wants to be in the play, she is repeatedly telling herself she won’t be successful. She feels discouraged, so she decides not to go.

She uses this decision to beat herself up and again tell herself she’ll never be an actor. The cycle continues.

Here’s how this would fit into the CBT triangle diagram:

Thought: I am not good enough to be an actor

Feeling: Discouragement, self-doubt

Behavior: Not trying at all

Giving up may be a way for Maria to protect herself against more disappointment. And by not challenging her thoughts, she stays in this negative cycle.

Maria has come to a conclusion she doesn’t know to be true, and hasn’t considered any alternatives. In order to challenge the old way of thinking, she’ll need to consider new ideas about her situation. Here are some things we know about what’s going on, which could challenge her conclusion:

  • The director of the local theater was encouraging when she tried out before, although he didn’t pick her for any previous parts

  • Maria knew she would be a stretch for those parts in the past because she didn’t really fit the characters

  • The new play is much more suited to her strengths

  • Maria knows other good actors that don’t always get cast, depending on the play

  • Maria has only tried out a couple of times, and she knows most actors get turned down a lot before they get cast

  • In college, Maria got consistent feedback that she was a solid actor

Maria can consider all of this information as a whole. After some thought, and talking to a friend about it, Maria decides to consider a new thought.