The insights of cognitive
therapy are powerful. And some great writers have clarified the
ideas, but they all do it differently. Have you read their work?
I'm talking about Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, Martin Seligman,
David Burns, and Julian Simon. There are more, but let's stick
with these for now. How is their work related? Where do their
insights overlap? Let's take a look...
JULIAN SIMON, AUTHOR OF Good Mood: The New Psychology of Overcoming Depression,
has the most complete model. He says that the actual state compared
with the benchmark state is what determines your happiness. The
actual state is your real circumstances and your feelings.
The benchmark state is what you expect your circumstances
to be, and how you expect to feel. In other words, the benchmark
state is how you think you should feel, where you think
you ought to be at this stage of your life, where you
wanted to be by the time you were your age, etc. It's a benchmark.
It's a goal you have decided to reach. It's a state you want
to be in.
With Julian Simon's basic understanding,
we can now look at the different aspects other authors emphasize
and see them more clearly.
David Burns, author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and
Updated, works on the actual state. His emphasis is
on what he calls "distorted thinking," that is, misperceiving
the actual state. His method is to dig up and root out mistakes
in thinking. Cognitive distortions are a misperception of the
actual state. (See a list of the ten cognitive distortions here.)
Albert Ellis, author of How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable
About Anything: Yes, Anything, works on modifying your benchmark
state so it is more realistic. The benchmark is what you're
comparing the actual state to. Other words for it are: your goal,
what you expect, your ideal, your standards. He says there is
nothing wrong with goals and expectations. Where we go wrong
is demanding that the actual state matches the benchmark
by thinking in terms of should, ought, must commanding
and demanding that the world live up to your goals. It is unrealistically
insisting that reality should and must match your ideals. Is
it realistic to expect all people to like you all the time? No.
That benchmark will create unnecessary suffering.
Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and
Your Life, deals with your sense of hopelessness or helplessness
about achieving the benchmark. If you feel helpless, you
have one of three options (besides simply getting depressed):
1. Change your benchmark
2. Correct your misperception of your ability
so you recognize you are not helpless
3. Correct your misperception of reality
so your recognize the situation isn't hopeless
You can see that #2 and #3 are the same
as David Burns' work. Your sense of hopelessness is a subcategory
of the actual state. Are you actually helpless? Is it
really hopeless? Or have you misperceived the real situation?
Do you perhaps have more ability than you've given yourself credit
for? Are the barriers really as huge and insurmountable as you
believe they are?
Another category of cognitive "therapy"
is the whole genre of motivational seminars, success books, and
motivating audiotapes. One of the things motivational material
does is help you believe you aren't helpless that you
can do it. When you hit a setback, it is natural to decide
your goal is hopeless or you are helpless to overcome your weaknesses.
Much of the motivational or "positive thinking" material
aims to bring back your determination, to make you believe you
can achieve. You hear true stories of people who had worse
setbacks than you have (sometimes much worse) and who had bigger
goals than you have (sometimes far bigger) but who somehow were
able to achieve them. Hearing these kinds of stories puts your
own goals and setbacks into perspective enough to eliminate your
feelings of helplessness. So you get off your butt and get back
to work with determination. And what do you know? You had
misperceived the hopelessness! You weren't helpless after all!
You can if you believe you can, which is really another way of
saying that your belief that you can't is in error. It is a cognitive
distortion, a mistaken notion, an unreasonable and premature
Motivational material is considered by
many to be "bootstrapping." People are picking themselves
up by their own bootstraps. An impossible feat. But it works.
Thousands of very successful people will acknowledge motivational
material as being pivotal to their success. It is a kind
of bootstrapping in the sense that what allowed those people
to overcome their "impossible" obstacles was nothing
more than their own belief that they could. The human will is
a powerful force and once someone has definitely made up their
mind they can and will achieve something, they often find a way.
Determination gets those creative juices flowing, and unsolvable
problems get solved.
Another way to look at this, however, is
that the original belief (that the goal was impossible) was false.
The person who had previously believed the goal was impossible
had irrationally jumped to a conclusion without sufficient evidence
and held the conclusion with unjustifiable certainty.
I think the motivational material of Brian
Tracy and Napoleon Hill and Norman Vincent Peale have been under-acknowledged
and underused by academics and therapists as legitimate tools
for overcoming feelings of defeat.
Let's take Napoleon Hill as an example.
His book, Think and Grow Rich, focuses on removing
hopelessness and helplessness by making you realize the benchmark
can become actual with sufficient determination, and that your
degree of determination is within your power to change (with
autosuggestion, for example). His work focuses on the most important
cause of defeat: The belief that the cause of a setback is permanent.
This same factor is also an important component
of Martin Seligman's work, and one of the elements of David Burns'
work: When you decide the cause of a setback is permanent, it
takes the wind out of your sails. It removes your fighting spirit.
You give up and feel defeated, depressed, or demoralized.
And yet, if you are able to argue with
your defeatist thoughts, you can often renew your willingness
to persist, and that often turns the tide. You start achieving
results. The results reinforce your belief that you are not
helpless and your situation is not hopeless.
In other words, to put it in Julian Simon's
model, you have a benchmark state you want to achieve. But you
think your actual state (a track record of failure, for example)
makes the benchmark impossible to achieve. For example, say your
benchmark is to have a good relationship with someone who loves
you. But your actual state, as far as you're concerned, is that
you are unlovable and nobody will ever love you. The actual state
and the benchmark state are so far off it makes you depressed.
Seligman and Burns would say, "You
are not correct about your unlovability." If you corrected
your assessment, you would realize that it is possible
someone could love you. Then you might act differently, treat
yourself and others differently, and because of that difference,
you may be able to achieve the benchmark state.
Julian Simon, who is not a researcher
or therapist, but an economist, has added a crucial model
that allows the relationships between different kinds of cognitive
therapy to be understood. Hopefully this will help advance and
unify the field and give researchers new horizons to explore.