Stuff You Already Know

Stuff You Already Know

As with almost any academic subject you can mention, there are competing theories in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) on how best to self-help; that is, what science has to say about: motivation; self-esteem; happiness - etc. (I could go on, but psychology can't even in theory prescribe a comprehensive list of factors which contribute to human emotional wellbeing, (life-ambitions; anger management; personal identity; career aspiration-fulfilment; romantic connection; social achievement; intellectual prowess; self-image-perfection…come on, you're just making them up now!))

I have a personal mental litmus test on cognitive behavioural therapies I come across - I ask myself "could I, or have I already, figured that out for myself?" In the case of the second aspect, an answer in the affirmative is self-evident confirmation I am wasting my time. The first aspect needs qualification; if I could figure it out on my own, even if I hadn't managed to yet, in this particular arena of inquiry, it may quite conceivably be something I already know intuitively, or innately, and actually I'm going to go out on a limb and say if it does belong to the discipline of cognitive behavioural therapy, then you do already know it innately, and were you to ask yourself the question, you would provide an equally valid and reasonable answer as your psychiatrist/psychologist/therapist. Now, from the outset I'm going to state my position on cognitive behavioural therapy: I believe in theory it could provide some guidance for self-improvement (a terrible term, but it gets to the heart of the issue), through philosophical methods of argument, but I am yet to encounter a therapist in this field who has said anything which provokes me to respond with anything more positive than the question "well how the hell do you know??!!

A therapist might say: "you should feel better about yourself." As a generic prescription I have a problem with this on a number of levels; 1. Why? What if I've done something I'm ashamed of? Surely it would make more instinctively natural sense to feel appropriately bad about myself, get over it, and then move on. 2. Returning to my earlier contention, I could have thought of it myself. I once made myself seriously ill through telling myself year after year to feel good about myself, and needless to say, it didn't help myself at all, I concluded to myself, by myself. 3. If I ask myself what I intuitively think about feelings, do I believe they are things which can be manipulated by willpower alone? The answer is no. I can't will myself happy. I can will myself to physically smile, and this might, circumstantially cheer someone else up (or not, of course), and this might cheer me up incidentally, but no, I can't feel good about myself just because I tell myself to - not without a reason.

The therapist endeavours to go deeper; 'think about your successes, and thereby validate your decision to feel good about yourself.' Once again, it's a nice, tempting thought but, thanks, I already thought of that. This deeper delving by the therapist, although representing a more complex theoretical system, tends to be more perilous for the patient than the more simplistic 'don't worry, be happy' suggestion. I conclude this because it starts to mess with your mind until you don't know how to feel, or don't feel anything particularly. "You're feeling down in the dumps? interrupt your bad mood with a reflection on your greatest achievement! Oh dear - it doesn't seem so great anymore? That's probably because you're down in the dumps, and now you have a bad experience connected to that great achievement which will spoil future reflections on the latter. Whoops - sorry!"

Now, therapy does have its advantages. A good therapist will use language to help you work through your emotional problems like a good friend does. Asking questions, and using reason to analyse your perspective. But they can't, and probably shouldn't, erase your experiences from your memory to quell your negative emotions. Your emotions are there for a reason - they are, I would intuitively gauge, there to help your body deal with past experiences; they're an effect. Emotions are an effect of experiences in one sense, and a cause in another. In the respect that they are an effect, they belong to the experience - and you can't control them, strictly speaking. You can control your actions directly - but not your feelings - not directly. Happiness cannot be switched on by will alone. Neither can anger! Have you tried to be angry with someone when you are not genuinely so? Your past experiences explain your feelings. If they are extremely negative, they probably shouldn't be confronted all at once, as I believe this can cause an excess of trauma, but understanding them is, I intuitively grasp, key to unlocking the bases of your present state.

If I could figure something out for myself, and without leaving my chair, but it has not yet crossed my mind, is this a reason to hold someone in high esteem who points it out for me? I don't think so. Even if it seems to be true, why should I hold special respect for a person who tells me something about my own state of mind which is a matter of intuition? Rather, it can make it seem as though you owe your self-esteem to the therapist - which is hardly a recipe for sustained self-esteem. And, to return to an earlier point, high self-esteem just may not be quite right for the person in question at that time in their life. It might be that in the long-term, the very best place for the person emotionally is to feel regret for mistakes. It might even be a MORE peaceful place for that person than in a state of confusion about whether they should feel happy or not. What about being sorry? Being sorry for something is surely (intuitively) an emotional state (not just a word). Does society believe in apology? Does society believe one can sincerely apologise without feeling sorry? Does society believe feeling sorry is a happy experience? Being happy all the time may be desirable, (and who knows, possibly relatively achievable), but it does not make sense of human virtue and vice, and how we come to terms with our successes and failures. Cognitive behavioural therapy largely wants us to wish away our negative emotions. But I do wonder if this is not also the road to wishing away our responsibilities.

If a therapist is working through your emotional issues with you, discussing your past experiences and showing compassion and understanding, this may be a good thing - as long as they are being realistic and reasonable. But if they start giving you direct advice about how to feel, take it with a good old pinch of salt. Feeling is a consequence of experiences in real life, it is not created with immediacy. I really, really don't think you can slot a good feeling into your body through inserting a good thought into your head. And trying to do as such causes anxiety in my experience.

But you already knew that.



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