People are often surprised when I suggest that one of our therapeutic goals will be to help them think, i.e., trusting their senses, and integrating reality into abstract conclusions. Rational thought is necessary to intelligently answer big questions like, “Should I get married?” Or, “Should I quit my job?” It also helps ensure a happy day-to-day life. People often say, “He should get help!” Or, “She’s in denial.” He or she simply needs to think. Choosing not to think sets the stage for “needing help,” denial and more serious psychological problems.
People sometimes tell me that they’re uncomfortable thinking about personal matters. Denial is a good example. Life goes on around us whether or not we choose to think about it, and actions indeed have consequences — even if we’re not paying attention. Thinking grants us the power to control what happens to us. People who are perpetual victims of “circumstance”, “bad luck” or whatever, are 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. Refusing to think can turn existence into one continuous mistake, putting us squarely in the path of chance events. And whining about “having a bad day” won’t make a bit of difference.
No wonder the world is filled with anxiety disorder, depression, low self-esteem! We blame the economy, hormones, brain chemistry, or whatever “disorder” happens to be the latest vapid topic on Oprah. But nobody ever stops to say, “Y’know, maybe there’s not enough thinking going on.” Ironically, arriving at such a conclusion presupposes that thinking did, in fact, take place.
In the middle of a discussion such as this, people sometimes say to me, “Just because you think doesn’t mean you’re being rational.” Of course that’s true. Mental activity assumes that there is an objective reality and that this reality can be discovered through the use of reason. 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 the computer-age proverb, “Garbage in, garbage out” applies. But the 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 reality, and then form conclusions within that framework.
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 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 nowadays this is not the outcome for many students or schools.
Some people have a knee-jerk reaction to self-responsibility because they think of it as 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. The resulting self-confidence and mental health is well worth the effort.
Psychotherapy is a form of thinking specifically relating to personal decisions and emotions. Thinking, in the rational sense (i.e., integrating your perceptions into 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. But rational thought and reflection, based on objective data from your senses, can lead to independence and genuine self-respect.