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The Cognitive Triangle and the Silly Emperor

Some of you have probably heard the children's story of the Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen.

The overall premise is that an Emperor was conned into parading through town naked. You see, the Emperor loved clothes so much that he continually changed throughout the day.

One day, some “weavers” came to the city bragging about the amazing clothes they could make that could only be seen by those who were smart.

Of course, the Emperor couldn’t resist. He had to go see these gorgeous new magical clothes. He wasn’t worried that he wasn’t smart enough to see them.

When the Emperor visited the “weavers,” he realized he couldn’t see the beautiful cloth they were showing him. Instead of acknowledging that fact, he played along and even ordered clothes for his annual parade coming up. The weavers “worked” night and day and on the day of the parade, the Emperor arrived for his fitting. He still couldn’t see the clothes. Continuing to play along, he allowed the weavers to dress him in the light and airy magical fabric and went on his way parading his new “clothes” through the city.

His subjects had also heard about the magical fabric and how only those who were smart could see them. For this reason, the subjects played along and exclaimed how fair his new clothes were, until a little boy called out, “Look! The Emperor has no clothes!” Once this exclamation made its way through the crowd, others began agreeing and before too long everyone was laughing at the Emperor. The story ends with the Emperor realizing he’s naked but choosing to continue his parade with his attendants carrying his “train.”

We’re more self-aware than the Emperor, right?! Maybe we can still learn something from the silly Emperor. In this particular post, we’re going to look at what he can teach us about how to use the cognitive triangle.

What’s the Cognitive Triangle?

The cognitive triangle is a concept out of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that allows us to better understand our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in a particular situation.

The triangle begins with any situation or event, followed by your thoughts about the event, your emotions based on those thoughts, and the action or behaviors that result from the two.

Sometimes it’s a circle, sometimes it’s a back and forth dance of thoughts to behaviors or emotions to thoughts.

What does this have to do with our Emperor?

By looking at the Emperor’s responses to the situation, his arrival at the weavers where he realized he couldn’t see the magic cloth, he can help us better understand how the cognitive triangle works. Just like the Emperor, our ego/superficial self can sometimes convince us that we should think, feel, or behave a certain way because others expect us to. Therefore, we end up feeling or behaving a way that doesn't really align with our own values.

How Does the Cognitive Triangle Work?


Let’s start at the beginning of the triangle: the Situation/Event.

As I mentioned, the situation that sparked this particular triangle was the Emperor’s visit to the weaver’s to see the new cloth. Then, the trigger occurs! The weavers give the impression that only the smartest people can see their magical cloth. The ego of the Emperor begs him to feel worthy.

Automatic Thoughts

The Emperor’s interpretation was that if he admitted he couldn't see the cloth, others would think he wasn’t as smart as they were. Everyone wants others to think well of us. If we think this is under threat, we have unhelpful automatic thoughts (this is our brain's attempt to keep us socially safe).


Remember that thoughts don’t come alone. They bring emotions with them. The story doesn’t tell us what the Emperor was feeling exactly, but we can guess that he was worried, embarrassed and disappointed.


These emotions lead to actions or behaviors. In the Emperor’s case, it caused him to lie and describe the beauty of the magic cloth. This in turn led to him ordering a robe for the parade and ultimately walking through the town without any clothes on. Whoops!

How to Reframe Unhelpful Thoughts

While we’re probably not wandering around in public naked, we can all relate because we're also human. If we can interject a factual statement that challenges the automatic thought, we are more likely to have flexible and helpful thoughts that improve confidence. For example, if the Emperor had paused enough to notice he was having an uncomfortable emotion or unwanted behavior, he could trace the source back to the automatic thought "I'm not good enough". Had he caught himself before acting on the thought, he could have tested it out by confirming that he had worth regardless of whether he understood the weavers or not. Though the Emperor had a very present ego, maybe we understand now that he was just compensating for something?

Give it a try on your own this week and see what comes up!

If you’re interested in learning more about CBT and the cognitive triangle, feel free to download the triangle worksheet pdf or if you’re ready to make some changes in your life, contact Tides Therapy for your free consultation.

CBT Worksheets
Download PDF • 11.88MB


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