An excerpt from my recent book, ‘Bad Therapy, Good Therapy: And How to Tell the Difference’:
The following statement illustrates the viewpoint of a person influenced by a deterministic, victim-oriented therapist: ‘My mother preached to me. My father beat me. My brother made fun of me. I am the adult child of a dysfunctional family. I have special needs. I must let people know of my dysfunction and insist that they meet my special needs. In a way, I am disabled! I must accept this disability and
learn to live the best life I possibly can. Above all, I must hold myself in unconditional positive regard in order to develop and maintain self-esteem. I must also demand unconditional acceptance from others at all times. Nobody has a right to judge me.’
On the other hand, a person influenced by a good therapist might think more like this: ‘My mother preached to me. My father beat me. My brother made fun of me. My introduction to life was not a pretty one. It led me to think that life has to be a constant series of conflicts and that most individuals will not respect me and treat me well. However, now that I’m an adult, I recognize that these conclusions are erroneous. Life does not need to be full of obstacles and pain. If a boyfriend abuses me, I have the freedom to send him on his way. He is not my father. Furthermore, I know that there are plenty of people in the world who are not abusive, and I will search them out and keep them in my life. I will never settle for abusive individuals in my personal life. I am not duty-bound to live my life for others as a martyr. I am, however, responsible for developing my potential, because only through the expansion of my strengths and abilities can I hope to achieve happiness. I must earn and constantly strive for happiness. I need not fear the evaluations or criticisms of others as long as I rely on my own judgment in everything I do.’
The first approach suggests that there is little an individual can do about her early experiences other than to identify them and insist that others in her life realize they have disabled and victimized her. The second approach correctly assumes that while she of course does not have control over early childhood experiences, she does have control over the way she thinks and acts in the present. Although there may be errors or distortions in her thinking, and the right conclusions may not be immediately apparent, once she identifies such distortions she can, over time, modify her emotional responses.
A lot of the problem people have is they fail to understand that all of their emotions are due to their thoughts, ideas and beliefs. Thoughts, ideas and beliefs can be true or false; valid or invalid; common sensical or ridiculous. Everyone knows this.
What most don’t get is that the same thing applies to their emotions!
So if you’re feeling low or insecure about life, it’s not because your father was depraved or your mother was depressed. The proper attitude is, ‘I accepted this depraved or depressed way of looking at things. I didn’t have to accept this view, and I don’t have to accept it any longer just because I once did.’
I don’t know that it’s possible to put into words how important this is, or how revolutionary it is for most people.
The psychotherapy industry, as some have called it, has really done a bad job—by and large—of educating people about this perspective. Even most self-described ‘cognitive therapists’—therapists who maintain that thoughts cause emotions—don’t really grasp all its implications.
Psychologically speaking, you are what you feel—and you feel what you feel because of your beliefs and ideas. Those beliefs and ideas contained in your emotions must be subjected to facts, logic and reality’at all times!
Sometimes I hear people say, either in therapy or other contexts, ‘I want someone to tell me such-and-such.’ What ‘such-and-such’ generally boils down to is a view that ‘everything will be all right.’
Most therapists will rush to this by saying, ‘Oh, you weren’t nurtured as a child and that’s why you feel this way. Your parents never led you to feel that everything will be all right.’
Well, that may be true. So what’s the answer, now in 2012 (or whatever the year is)? According to these therapists—more and more therapy. And all manner of self-help reading and groups, all of which reinforce the same idea. More and more of the same rehash, over and over again, never changing a thing.
This isn’t the right approach. More therapy or not, the challenge for the person who feels this way is to identify the false ideas and thinking in the generalized emotion, ‘I want someone to tell me it will be all right.’
First of all, ‘all right’ is too vague and general. To most people ‘everything will be all right’ is a belief that there is a guarantee. A certain career outcome, or a certain relationship, will ‘go the way I want it to go—and I can be sure of it.’ Frankly, this is childish and immature. It’s not an emotion to be proud of, and it’s not an emotion to proclaim to the world in front of a fawning talk show host (or power-seeking politician, either).
Some people are seeking guarantees of successful outcomes. But life and reality rarely (if ever) offers such guarantees. No wonder people who feel otherwise are chronically depressed or anxious!
Consequently, a good therapist should be challenging a person to grasp that ‘There are no guarantees. There’s much you can do to advance your life, using reason, logic and practical action. But you can’t just wish or hope something into being so.’
Even if a therapist said to his or her client, ‘There, there my child—everything will be fine.’ How is the adult supposed to go out in the world and believe this?
It’s sheer fantasy. It’s the kind of fantasy, quite frankly, that millions of human beings project onto the two great ‘wish-fulfillment mechanisms’ of our time: God, and government (or society). Some look to a supernatural being to care for them and provide impossible guarantees. Others look to society (either through government action or approval of peers) to make them feel safe and secure. Those who find neither turn to drugs, alcohol or similar compulsions to reduce anxiety.
It’s all the same thing and it all springs from the same false beliefs contained in childish emotions.
People who feel this way are looking for guarantees that don’t exist—and that are not necessary for the achievement of certainty, purpose and fulfillment in life.
A proper philosophy of life, aided (when and if necessary) by good therapy grounded in that philosophy, are the means to rejecting the deterministic ‘help me!’ viewpoint in favor of a life-affirming and confident one.
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