Is CBT an Insight Therapy? The Surprising Facts Behind this Popular Technique

November 27, 2023

A blend of cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic techniques can provide clients with both symptom relief as well as meaningful self-knowledge.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has become one of the most widely used forms of psychotherapy over the past few decades. But does it qualify as an “insight therapy”? The answer may surprise you.

As a therapist working in insight therapeutic solutions for over 15 years, I’ve had many clients ask me this question. 

While CBT and insight-oriented therapies share some similarities, there are also some important differences between the two approaches.

A Brief Overview of CBT

First, let’s provide a quick recap of what CBT is and how it works. CBT focuses on identifying and changing dysfunctional thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. 

The premise is that our thoughts influence our feelings and behaviors. By changing distorted thought patterns, CBT aims to improve clients’ moods, behaviors, and overall functioning.

Some common CBT techniques include cognitive restructuring, behavioral experiments, exposure therapy, and skills training. 

The therapy is very structured and focuses on addressing current problems vs. exploring the past. CBT is generally short-term, lasting 10-20 sessions on average.

Defining Insight in Therapy

Now let’s discuss what we mean by “insight” in a therapeutic context. Insight refers to a sudden understanding or awareness of something about oneself. 

It often involves making connections between past events or experiences and gaining clarity into behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.

Insight-oriented therapies aim to facilitate this kind of revelation or “aha moment” for clients through techniques like interpretation, clarification, and exploring the unconscious. The goal is increased self-understanding. Psychoanalysis is perhaps the most well-known insight therapy.

Key Differences Between the Two Approaches

While both CBT and insight therapies can lead to change for clients, there are some notable differences between the two:

  • CBT is present-focused, while insight therapy explores the past
  • CBT seeks to change thoughts and behaviors; insight therapy aims for self-awareness
  • CBT uses an educative stance; insight therapy relies more on the therapeutic relationship
  • CBT utilizes structured techniques; insight therapy is more unstructured and exploratory
insight therapeutic solutions

Given these differences, most therapists view CBT and insight therapy as complementary approaches that can be integrated but serve different primary purposes.

The Role of Insight in CBT

While CBT is not considered a purely insight-based therapy, insight can certainly play a role within the CBT process. For example:

  • When exploring a client’s automatic thoughts, insights may arise about the origin of these thought patterns.
  • Behavioral experiments can lead to new realizations about oneself.
  • Recognizing cognitive distortions like “all-or-nothing thinking” provides self-knowledge.
  • Exploring core beliefs may reveal deeper insights about self-concept.

However, in CBT, these insights are seen as a means to an end vs. the end goal itself. The focus remains on changing dysfunctional thinking rather than deep self-understanding.

An Integrated Approach

In my practice, I’ve found that CBT and insight-oriented therapy can complement each other nicely. A blend of cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic techniques can provide clients with both symptom relief as well as meaningful self-knowledge.

For example, I may use CBT to help a client decrease anxiety and depression. However, exploring how these symptoms relate to early childhood experiences provides insight that leads to lasting change. An integrated approach allows us to target both the “what” and the “why” of a client’s difficulties.