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The Differences Between SFBT vs. CBT

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

Asian man thinking; sfbt vs cbt
Do you tend to be analytical? Then CBT may fit your style of solving problems. SFBT is more future-oriented and imaginative.

Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are both popular and effective therapeutic approaches to resolving mental health issues. They are both good for some people and not others, like any other mental health intervention. However, they differ in their underlying principles, time orientation, the focus of the therapies, how the therapeutic target (or problem) is conceptualized, and techniques. Here are some of the main differences between the two different therapies:

SFBT looks at solutions for the future, whereas CBT focuses on problematic thinking now based on the past.

SFBT, originally developed by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, is future-focused and emphasizes finding solutions rather than analyzing problems. Therapists help you identify and amplify your strengths and resources to facilitate positive change.

SFBT is typically brief and goal-oriented. The goal is to achieve results in a shorter timeframe.

In contrast, CBT (originated by Aaron T. Beck), focuses on the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The therapist addresses your dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs to promote more realistic, accurate thinking patterns. This change in thinking leads to positive behavior change.

CBT can be more in-depth and time-limited, often involving multiple sessions over several weeks or months. While research has found it to be “empirically validated,” so has SFBT been researched and found to be effective.

How the mental health condition is conceptualized in SFBT vs CBT.

In SFBT, you and the therapist do not extensively explore the origins or causes of your problems. This therapeutic approach assumes that clients can find solutions and that the best solutions come from you, the client. SFBT focuses on the present and future rather than dwelling on past problems.

With CBT, you and the therapist work on identifying and examining the underlying beliefs, assumptions, and thoughts that contribute to negative emotions and behaviors. It helps you understand the link between thoughts, feelings, and actions. You can reality-test and change unhelpful ways of thinking.

SFBT searches for strengths and CBT challenges negative thinking patterns.

SFBT uses various ways to explore your goals, strengths, and resources. It helps you chart your progress weekly, if you choose to, so you can see yourself getting better by focusing on the ways you’re succeeding. These techniques include scaling questions, miracle question, exception-seeking, and creating detailed descriptions of desired outcomes.

Sometimes you might be surprised that a skill or life hack you developed for one area of your life is helpful in another! SFBT also involves identifying small steps toward change and celebrating therapeutic progress. That way it seems less daunting.

CBT uses techniques like cognitive restructuring, behavioral experiments, thought records, and homework assignments. For depression treatment, it also uses behavioral activation. CBT focuses on challenging and changing negative or distorted thoughts, replacing them with more accurate, helpful ideas.

CBT therapists also use behavioral techniques to encourage adaptive behaviors and practice new skills. For example, if you’re intimidated by doing something that will ultimately benefit you, you will be encouraged to try it anyway, armed with new skills and ways of thinking.

The role of the therapist differs in SFBT vs CBT.

In SFBT, the therapist takes on a collaborative and non-expert role, working as a partner with you. The therapist guides you in uncovering solutions, highlighting strengths, and bringing forth your expertise in finding solutions.

Meanwhile, the CBT therapist often takes an active and directive role. They educate you about the cognitive-behavioral model, teach specific skills and techniques, and guide you in challenging and changing how you think and behave.

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What are you focusing on, problems or solutions?

Where you put your focus matters when comparing SFBT vs CBT.

SFBT focuses on what you want to achieve and how your life will be different when the problem is resolved. From the beginning, when we first meet, I am asking you to envision what your life will be once the mental health challenge has resolved.

What will you be doing differently, how will you be feeling physically and emotionally, and who will notice that in your life? These are the types of questions I encourage you to answer. As you can see, SFBT emphasizes creating a clear vision of your preferred future and building on existing strengths and resources.

CBT initially focuses on identifying and analyzing problems, including specific symptoms, negative thinking pattern, and problematic behaviors. It targets your distress by focusing on challenging areas, thereby reducing symptoms and helping you feel better.

Which one's right for you? SFBT or CBT (or both)?

As stated above, there are some people for whom CBT is very helpful. They love being analytical and getting to the bottom of their problems through thinking. I’m happy to help them do that. Other people have a harder time identifying negative thought patterns or challenging their thoughts. They’d rather use what worked before and apply it to new contexts. That’s also a marvelous way to solve their problems, and I love helping them find their inner resources to do that.

I sometimes use a blend of SFBT and CBT, as your needs change. Sometimes you need the gentle encouragement of SFBT, and other times you need to face the illogical nature of your thinking. Both therapies are very effective for promoting change. If you want to discuss how SFBT vs CBT could work for you, (or a combination of the two), please call me at 661-233-6771.

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