When people come to see me for psychotherapy or life coaching, they’re often surprised when I suggest that one of our goals will be to help them think. By ‘think,’ I mean trusting their senses and then integrating reality into abstract conclusions. Rational thought is necessary to intelligently answer big questions such as, ‘Should I get married?’ Or, ‘Should I quit my job?’ It also helps ensure a happy, well-adjusted day-to-day life. People often say, ‘He should get help!’ Or, ‘She’s in denial.’ The simple translation is that he or she just needs to think. When people choose not to think, it can set the stage for ‘needing help,’ ‘denial,’ and maybe even more serious psychological problems.
People sometimes tell me that they’re uncomfortable thinking about personal matters. But what’s the alternative? Denial is a good example. Denial is the opposite of thinking. To most people, not thinking may feel easy, but it can cost us in the long run. Life is going on around us whether or not we choose to think about it, and actions have consequences even if we’re not paying attention. Thinking grants us the power to control what we do and what happens to us. People who are perpetual victims of “circumstance,” “bad luck,” ‘karma’ or whatever, are inevitably guilty of one central offense: Failing to think.
Of course, thinking doesn’t guarantee accuracy, but mistakes can be corrected with even more thinking. Life is a work in progress, and in a broad sense, thinking our way through life is the essence of true “spirituality.” Refusing to think can turn existence into one long continuous mistake, putting us squarely in the path of chance events. And whining about ‘bad luck’ or ‘having a bad day’ won’t make a bit of difference.
No wonder the world is filled with anxiety disorder, depression, low self-esteem and all the rest. We blame the economy, hormones, brain chemistry, or whatever ‘disorder’ happens to be the latest ‘Oprah’ topic. But nobody ever stops to say, “Y’know, maybe there’s not enough thinking going on.” Ironically, arriving at such a conclusion presupposes that rational thought did, in fact, take place.
In the middle of a discussion such as this, people sometimes say to me, ‘Just because you’re thinking, Dr. Hurd, doesn’t mean you’re being rational.’ Of course that’s true. Mental activity brings with it a specific set of characteristics: First, the assumption that there is, in fact, an objective reality. Second, that this reality can be discovered and explored through the use of reason and the integration of your perception of objects and events into abstract concepts. If your “reasoning” rests on arbitrary assumptions, unfounded generalizations, fact dropping or fantasy, then you’re not truly thinking. So, yes, in that sense, thinking doesn’t always lead to rational conclusions.
That’s why psychotherapy and other intellectual pursuits sometimes seem to be a waste of time. If our mental activity breaks with actual facts, then whatever conclusions we reach are worthless. The computer-age proverb, ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ applies just as well to our human minds. This possibility of error doesn’t lessen the value of thinking. In fact, it demonstrates how important it is to achieve a solid interaction between the mind and objective reality, and then form conclusions within that framework.
This is the point where a person might ask me if too much thinking can lead to emotional distress. Actually, it’s not WHAT you think that causes mental distress, so much as HOW you think. The laws of logic and reason (aka, common sense) must be applied to daily life, not just to abstract subjects. This point was made perfectly by noted educator Maria Montessori: ‘The greatest sign of success for a teacher … is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.” Unfortunately, we all know that this is not the educational outcome for many students — or schools.
Some people have a negative ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to self-responsibility. They’re afraid because they think of responsibility only in terms of having to “suck it up.” But it’s a lot more powerful than that. It requires the active use of your mind. It requires being thoughtful and tuned in, and it’s the cornerstone of empathy and compassion. Thinking does not mean having to be right, but it does mean using logic and facts to figure out what “right” is. That knowledge can bring so many benefits, and, given a chance, the resulting happiness, self-confidence, mental health and self-esteem will be well worth the effort.
Psychotherapy and life coaching are two forms of thinking specifically relating to personal matters, decisions and emotions. “Thinking,” in the rational sense (i.e., integrating your perceptions with objective reality) is the common theme that runs through it all. You can change your life by paying attention to what’s around you and then acting accordingly. See facts for what they are, and then form conclusions based on them. Will you be right all the time? Of course not. Nobody’s perfect. But rational thought and reflection, based on objective input from your own senses, can lead to independence and genuine self-respect.