For Better or Worse: You Are What You Think

People ask: ‘Cognitive therapy is all well and good. I’m fine with finding the nature of errors in my thinking. But what about the underlying causes of my problems?’

The error in this question proves exactly why cognitive therapy is needed in the first place.

The basic assumption of cognitive therapy, and cognitive psychology, is that ideas cause emotions. If your emotions are troubling and disturbing, this means you’re having troubling and disturbing thoughts. What are those thoughts, and what, if anything, is valid about them? What, if anything, is invalid, illogical, exaggerated or distorted about those thoughts?

Answering these questions can be difficult, but the task of answering them is itself ‘the cure.’ This is what people who ask, ‘What about the causes of my troubling emotions?’ fail to appreciate.

The causes of your troubling emotions are the ideas underlying them.

Let’s say you’re afraid of spiders. The cause of your fear is a belief that spiders are dangerous to your well-being, that they could even kill you. An investigation of the facts will find that while some spiders can harm you, many will not. There are steps you can take to avoid contact with spiders that could be harmful, and there are things which spiders do—such as kill other insects that could ultimately harm you—which might lead you to even feel friendly about spiders. The point is: The cause of your fear is your exaggerated and partly mistaken belief that spiders are harmful to your well-being.

You might think, ‘But how can investigating more facts about spiders address my fear?’ When I hear this question, I think of it as equivalent to asking, ‘How can studying geometry get me to better comprehend geometry?’ Granted, you might find geometry a difficult subject. But what other way is there to master or better understand something than to investigate and study it?

People apply different rules to their emotions than to everything else in life. They expect thought and reason to work when learning about the kind of car to buy, or how to fix the plumbing, or how to tile a floor, or how to get the best deal at a hotel in Las Vegas or Orlando. But when it comes to emotions—well, it cannot be reason, thought and education that’s going to work. That’s too simplistic! What will it be then? As with all things mystical or unnecessarily mysterious, no answer is given.

People also think the ‘true underlying cause’ of their emotions must be family issues. For example, ‘My mother treated me with cruelty. As a result, I don’t trust others.’ People think a cognitive therapist ignores the fact that a mother’s or father’s cruelty had an impact. Not so. Of course such behavior had an impact, at least at the time. But the question in the present is, ‘What false ideas and beliefs do you have now, perhaps as a result of that cruel treatment, that affect you in your present relationships?’ For example, the belief that, ‘Everybody is like my mother and will therefore be cruel and manipulative’ is simply false. The world is full of all kinds of people—people even more cruel and manipulative than your mother, and people a lot less so. If human beings can train themselves to stop being racist, for example, they can certainly train themselves to treat people as individuals, some worthy of trust and some not. You do this by taking risks and correcting your exaggerated or mistaken emotions and thoughts when you experience them.

No, it might not always be easy to do cognitive therapy—but what alternative is there? ‘Therapy’ essentially means change. Without a therapist, you can change yourself. With the help of a therapist, you get some guidance and direction while you change. Either way, you’re changing yourself.

The thing you’re changing about yourself are your ideas, thoughts and beliefs. It’s not the same as altering your brain chemistry. Altering your brain chemistry may or may not have an impact on your problems, just as taking caffeine, alcohol or drugs may or may not alter aspects of your mood. But altering your brain chemistry is not the same as changing your thoughts and beliefs. Your thoughts and beliefs are in there, if only subconsciously, affecting much of what you do and all that you perceive. They are, at root, what causes your emotions.