The Limits of Reason and, Thus, of Therapy

In order to protect ourselves from getting hurt, some of us fall into the trap of intellectualism. What I mean by that is we learn, or convince ourselves, that reason, if properly used, can overcome affect, or one’s innate need to experience it; basically, we try to become Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

So, some seek psychotherapeutic treatment as a means of overcoming their sadness, their vulnerability, their fear, and their hurt, to become individuals who are almost fully incapable of feeling. To them, help entails learning how to become inhuman. But, as the self-help industry booms, I’ve come to question the limits of reason, philosophy, and even my own field in terms of what it can and can’t provide for our emotional well-being.

Those who know me know that I’m a staunch advocate of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), which can be summed up as the rational psychotherapies, those which afford its students the tools to think better, and therefore, to perceive their lives with greater clarity. Albert Ellis, the founder of REBT taught that we could learn to love ourselves by simply choosing to do so, arguing that because value doesn’t exist in an objective way, we can choose to value ourselves just because we are who we are. That idea, when I first read it, was so mind-blowing that I immediately accepted it and began teaching it to my clients.

I couldn’t believe it — I was valuing myself by subjective standards this entire time! I was a slave to mankind’s arbitrary system of interpersonal assessment… and I wanted out! Ellis, stoic philosophy, and Aaron Beck, the founder of CBT, gave me the tools I needed to manage my emotional swings, which suffocated me throughout the majority of my early life. And, in that respect, therapy afforded me the gift of maturity (to some degree), as I discontinued seeing myself through the lens of the people who bullied and belittled me. But, that only went so far; it wasn’t enough to make me love myself.

In the self-help era, we erroneously conclude that we can master our negative emotions by completely overcoming them. We seek to create lives devoid of sadness, anger, and anxiety, without ever asking if those feelings are, or at least can be, necessary. Happiness is the sought-after end-state that people truly believe they can attain. And, of course that’s what I wanted too, or rather, I wanted a life devoid of any sorrow, which is why I began to study the tools of psychological treatment.

Unfortunately, therapy can fall short if it begins to train its patient to become self-sufficient and self-compassionate while ignoring her inherent need for intimacy and, consequently, love. And that’s where Ellis fell short. To think that we can ever train our brains to become non-responsive automatons is to believe that we can overcome our human nature; whether possible or not, I would argue that it shouldn’t be desirable. I can’t imagine a life that isn’t fully-attached to everything I love.

While I attempted to transform myself into a purely intellectual being, I was missing out on all of the warmth that life had to offer. When I convinced myself that my own love was all I needed, I precluded myself from experiencing the rapture of the self-negating experience of uniting with another, who loved me in the same exhilarating and terrified way that I loved them.

The stoics believed that it was possible to overcome each negative feeling by simply understanding and seeing the world for what it was, but I question how good such an achievement would actually be. For, sometimes, our negative feelings are quite helpful. Think about the time when someone purposely pushed you out of their way and your anger caused you to publicly reprimand them, thus to feel good about yourself for standing your ground. Or that time when your disappointment in yourself for failing a test caused you to study harder the next time. Or even when your fear of being trapped in a relationship with an abusive and controlling partner fostered the courage you needed to leave. Emotions, seemingly negative emotions, aren’t always our enemies.

And as it pertains to love, utilizing reason to remind yourself of why you’re lovable is good, but it can only get you so far; in order to reframe, or accept your new belief, your brain needs to fully immerse itself in it, a door which CBT opens, but can’t walk us through. Irv Yalom, the great existential therapist, noted that the therapeutic relationship heals, a phrase which I find myself agreeing with more as I garner clinical experience. Once upon a time, I thought reason was going to become my escape from sorrow, but I now understand what my sorrow can teach me, because I’ve finally allowed myself to hear her whisper. Reason affords one part of healing, but intimacy is the key that completes the process. You’ll only fully feel lovable when you decide to allow love in through the door.

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