Regulars here at Life’s a Beach! know that I often describe myself as a cognitive therapist. Has a nice scientific ring to it, don’t you think? Aside from sounding official, just what is this kind of therapy? People ask me, ‘Cognitive therapy is all well and good, and I’m fine with finding the nature of errors in my thinking. But what about the underlying causes of my problems?’ Aha! The error in this question proves exactly why cognitive therapy is important.
Cognitive psychology assumes that ideas are the cause of emotions. If your emotions are disturbing, they’re reflecting your disturbing thoughts. Think of those emotions as a ‘printout’ of your beliefs and ideas. How do you figure out what those thoughts are, and if they’re even valid? Though your emotions can make them FEEL valid, illogical or distorted thoughts can create some pretty misleading printouts.
Answering these questions can be difficult, but going through the process of answering them is, in itself, ‘the cure.’ For example, let’s say you’re afraid of snakes. Your fear stems from the idea or belief that snakes are dangerous, and that they could even kill you. A closer look at the facts, however, reveals that while some snakes can harm you, many cannot. They also do things, such as kill disease-carrying rodents, that might even lead you to feel a little more friendly about them. And there are steps you can take to avoid contact with the ones that could be harmful. The point is this: The cause of your fear is your exaggerated and partly mistaken belief that all snakes are harmful to you.
You might think, ‘But how can learning about snakes address my fear?’ This question is the 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 better understand something than to investigate and study it?
People apply different rules to their emotions than to anything else in life. They employ thought and reason when deciding what kind of car to buy, or how to tile a floor, or how to get the best deal at a hotel. But when it comes to emotions, thought and education are the last things we think of. Some might say that it’s ‘too simplistic,’ but when I ask what they’ll do to figure out their feelings, no answer is given. Somehow that’s mystical or mysterious. Well, it’s neither.
Daytime TV and jokes about Freudian psychoanalysis have trained people to think that the ‘true underlying cause’ of their emotions must be family issues. ‘My mother treated me cruelly. As a result, I don’t trust others.’ A competent cognitive therapist will not ignore the fact that parental cruelty had an impact. Of course it did — at least at the time. But that was then, and now is now. The question in the present is, ‘What false ideas and beliefs do I now have as a result of that cruel treatment that affect me in my present relationships?’
One of those mistaken beliefs could be that, ‘Everybody is like my mother and will therefore be cruel and manipulative.’ This sweeping generalization is simply false. The world is full of all kinds of people; some who are more manipulative than your mother, and some who are not. If human beings can train themselves to stop being racist, for example, they can certainly train themselves to treat people as individuals; some of whom are worthy of trust and some not. This can be done by taking risks, observing the results, and correcting your exaggerated or mistaken emotions based on those results.
Cognitive therapy is not always easy. But what’s the alternative? ‘Therapy’ essentially means change. Without a therapist, you can still certainly change yourself. With the help of a therapist, you get some guidance and direction in the process. Either way, you’re changing your ideas, thoughts and beliefs.
This process is not the same as altering your brain chemistry or having surgery. Medical interventions may or may not have an impact on your problems, just as taking caffeine, alcohol or drugs may or may not temporarily alter aspects of your mood. But no pill, scalpel or MRI can change your thoughts and beliefs. They’re in there, if only subconsciously, and will affect much of what you do and all that you perceive. The emotions and feelings that arise from these thoughts offer you the opportunity to think and use your mind to discover what they are, with or without a therapist.