I recently heard of an attack on cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy which I’ve heard before, although not recently. The reminder inspired me to write this column.
First, to readers unfamiliar, let me remind you of what cognitive-behavioral therapy is. It’s the method of therapy which presupposes that your emotions are not necessarily facts. ‘Just because you feel it, doesn’t make it so.’
Some find this attitude to be cold, harsh or “uncaring.”
Years ago, I worked (part-time) with a bunch of psychotherapists who were far more troubled, if not outright loony, than anybody who came in for counseling. I shuddered at the mere thought of troubled people placing trust in the hands of these flakes. These therapists told their clients things like, “What you feel is valid. Your emotional truth is the truth — for you. Nobody should ever dare question it.” The idea that somebody — cognitive therapist, or not — would dare even suggest that maybe, just maybe, your feelings didn’t make sense — well, to this bunch it was the unthinkable.
It’s often said that when taking advice, you should consider the source. For example, if your mother wants you to go into a career that does not interest you, you wouldn’t take her advice — because she’s biased in favor of something you don’t want to do. Or, you wouldn’t take advice from a drug company on whether or not you should take their drug; instead, you’d look to independent sources in the world of science, or perhaps from people who had taken the drug, and were happy with it. Or better yet, from your doctor, so long as your doctor doesn’t own stock in the drug company.
It’s amazing how in this critical, even litigious, society of ours, we’re prone to question just about everything and everyone — but never the therapists (or anyone else for that matter, in the adjoining snake oil fields) who tell us, “What you feel is valid. Your truth is the truth.” What would happen if, say, you said something to this therapist which threatened her, or with which she did not agree? For example, “I feel that I shouldn’t have to pay my bill to you. You should counsel me free of charge.” Or, “I feel that you should do favors for me not required by your job.”
What, then, would this therapist say? The most likely answer would be, “That’s not appropriate.” This is code for: “Your truth is your truth — unless it’s something I don’t like.”
This isn’t true just of therapists or self-described spiritualists who spout this nonsense, but of anyone in your life, including supposed friends, who spout it.
Plainly put, subjective reality and subjective truth are nice, warm and fuzzy (to those who espouse them) — until the moment it becomes inconvenient, to them.
The basic issue in human psychology, like it or not, is whether feelings represent truth, or not. Either there is an objective reality which exists independent of your consciousness, your emotions, your desires, your ideas … or there isn’t. Psychotherapy and psychology derive from philosophy, because philosophical views—including about whether reality is subjective or objective—are implied in every single psychotherapy or counseling session you will ever have.
If there isn’t such a thing as objective reality, then all bets are off, and the subjectivists are right that truth represents whatever it feels like to you. Of course, if you’re ever undergoing heart surgery or flying on an airplane, you’ll have to compromise your subjective scruples for just a moment, won’t you? So too will your therapist who claims, ‘Your truth is your truth.’ But that’s OK, because so long as you go through life warm and fuzzy, you’re a correct and compassionate and decent person, in the eyes of others, and that’s all that matters.
Therapists who tell you that cognitive-behavioral therapy is too “clinical” are basically reaffirming what some people want to hear: That even though something makes logical sense, or you have no logical answer against it, if it doesn’t feel right…well, you need not accept it then.
“Clinical” in this context refers to a sense of distance, or even detachment. The label ‘clinical’ is meant as an attack, insult or criticism. In fact, it should be a compliment.
Think of a parent telling a four-year-old child, “You can’t have that item in the store. It doesn’t belong to you.” This forces the child to restrain his or her emotional will in favor of objective reality. It creates some distance between the child’s wishes/whims and the outside world — a world which includes, among other things, property rights.
Most of us would not consider a parent telling a child, “Hands off” to be overly “clinical.” But when we apply that same principle to the adult world, including the adult world of psychologists trying to help people lead more mentally stable lives, it becomes a whole different story, to some.
Cognitive therapy IS clinical, if clinical means placing a boundary between consciousness and reality, between thoughts/ideas/emotions (which can be mistaken) and objective truth.
I would define that boundary as a good thing. Philosophers, and others, call that boundary: Reason. Or, if you prefer: Rational thought.
What is mental health, after all? One definition is a mind in accord with objective reality. Gee, what does that make a mental health professional who tells her clients, ‘Your truth is your truth’?
Another definition of mental health is a state of mental and emotional serenity. Now what creates serenity? Lying to yourself that something is true, when it isn’t — and sooner or later you will again bump up against that fact? Or telling yourself the truth, taking the emotional blow, and then coming out stronger than before, because BEING IN TOUCH WITH THE FACTS does constitute “stronger”?
It doesn’t infuriate me that people struggle with conflicts between emotions and facts. What does infuriate me is that there are mental health snake oil salesmen who sell the idea of subjective reality, even though they would never apply it consistently to themselves. There’s no stopping this, and the government shouldn’t try. So long as there are people who want to be lied to, there will always be idiots masked as helpers ready to take money to lie to them.
To those groping for something better than what the mainstream of our psychotherapeutic culture has to offer, I can only say: Reality is not your enemy. Reality is where you live. It’s where you’ll survive, or perish. It’s where you’ll flourish and be reasonably happy and content, or where you’ll lead a miserable existence. Declaring war on objective reality by buying into the crazy attitudes of psychotherapists and others who consider the “burden” of cognition to be too “clinical” and therefore improper, or lacking … well, it’s just plain crazy.