In Defense of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Against Depressive Realism

Words matter. When we’re happy, we’re more likely to uncritically internalize positive feedback; and when we’re sad, or depressed, more likely to uncritically internalize negative statements. Confirmation bias, our tendency to seek out, and/or accept, information to support what we already believe plays a role in the way we interpret incoming information. Thus, someone who’s struggling with clinical depression is more likely to accept, due to this bias and perhaps the appeal to authority one as well, the too common philosophical adage: “Life is hell.” But, what does it mean, exactly? And, what are the practical consequences of accepting it?

Julie Reshe, a philosopher and psychoanalyst writing for Aeon magazine, recently published an article on depressive realism, arguing that life really is this awful thing and that we’re better off accepting it as such; she equated acceptance with freedom from false positivity and the fruitless quest for happiness. She noted that our “superficial states of happiness are a way not to be alive.” Arguing from a philosophical perspective, she divided life into false-positive and the authentic-negative, implying the sharp, black and white split between the two. But, I believe the dichotomy is erroneous.

Black and white thinking also appears when she discusses the break-up that led to her depression. She stated that the person who loved her was exposed as a fraud (depressive realism), because he chose to leave. In that moment, positive shifted to negative as she became aware of life’s duplicity. The relationship, and the world, was perceived as it truly was, a mere illusion. But I wonder, is there an alternative explanation, one more in tune with reality?

Of course, I can’t know her ex-partner’s mental state for certain; but from what I know about love, break-ups are usually not that simple. Clinicians, philosophers, and even clergymen have known for ages that depression, in addition to helping one become a better thinker in its milder form (which research shows is true, for a lot of individuals), can also turn us into cynics, perceiving the world through dark-colored glasses. Even if we posses the tools of critical thinking, when its more severe, depression has a way of getting us to solely focus on our distorted intuitions. Through circular reasoning, we’re convinced that we’re depressed because our lives are awful and that we know life is awful because we’re sad; it’s a cycle that’s challenging to break out of. In those moments, we engage in over-generalized thinking and emotional reasoning, looking to our feelings to reveal deeper truths. However, they often mislead us.

The author’s breakup was undoubtedly a difficult moment for her; and I want to be clear in noting that breakups are daunting, stressing that we shouldn’t discount her feelings. I’m sure she felt worthless, unloveable, and deceived. And those are natural feelings to have; one can’t just simply turn them off. My question is, do they accurately represent reality? Is it possible that the person who left her loved her at one point, but stopped because their relationship deteriorated? Could he or she have even still loved her when they broke-up? My point is that break-ups occur for multiple reasons, and I think that it’s unlikely her partner deceived her, unless there was something to gain (or an avoidance of some sort of discomfort) from the deception, after which he or she would have left. But, if there was no obvious reason for that individual lying, I don’t see how her interpretation could be accurate.

In the author’s understanding, her love was a “superficial state of happiness” because it wasn’t real, but if she believes that because it ended, then that implies a black and white (i.e. distorted) way of thinking. An end doesn’t negate the reality of existence. Because I will be dead someday doesn’t mean that I never lived. And, piecing what I can from her relationship, it seems likely that she and her partner were both in love, even though they chose to leave. Again, I want to emphasize how difficult this was for her and that she couldn’t have just snapped out of it. I simply believe that distorted thinking was involved, and assert the likelihood that she was, actually, happy in the moments they shared; you can’t separate the feeling of being happy from the reality of it.

In her criticisms against psychotherapy, she asserted that modern forms of therapy seek to eliminate negative emotions, implying that perpetual happiness is their goal. This isn’t true, nor is it realistic. Her conception of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy was excellent up until that point. The main goal of any good therapy, or therapist, is to foster the client’s critical thinking ability, helping them to form a better understanding of their wholeness, the good and the bad, and to become better problem-solvers when parts of their lives aren’t what they want them to be. In essence, realism, not positivity, is the goal. If it happens to be that the client begins to think more positively about a situation, great! If not, then we help them as best as we can to change their circumstances and/or focus on the positive aspects of their lives (which includes their character), without discounting the negative.

I tell my clients that I’ll never feed them bullshit, and try as best as I can to be honest about my thoughts and perceptions. Life is never going to be all sunshine and rainbows, to quote Rocky Balboa; but, for most, it isn’t solely terrible, either. I’ve never met a therapist who attempts to convince her clients to use their CBT tools to try to be happy all of the time, although I’m sure they exist. Emotional suppression is toxic in several ways and can even harm one’s self-esteem, especially if they believe they shouldn’t feel what they’re feeling, that they’re overreacting or undisciplined. Accepting one’s feelings as normal and, then, working to alleviate them, cognitively and/or behaviorally, is the goal. Fundamentally, therapy is about adapting to, not negating, reality.

I’m sure the author didn’t write the article to be edgy or cool, but I also believe there’s an element of that when some philosopher’s make cynical, blanket statements, like “life is hell.” In reality, the banal truth is that life is a mixed-bag. Is the truth shocking or exciting? No. But, it’s real. And the ones who promote it don’t appear to be that insightful, because the rest of us already know it. Sometimes, a new way of thinking isn’t needed, because the old way works just fine. Toward the end of the article, the author notes that our natural resistance to reality makes her version of it hard to accept. But, doesn’t that beg the question? Is she not just another psychoanalyst purporting to know a global truth while telling the rest of us that we’re just resisting, or denying, its reality, without the necessary evidence to support it?

As thinkers and intellectuals, we need to be more careful with our words, because words will always matter. And, those looking for a reason not to live, have discovered plenty of them in the cannon of great philosophers. I was as cynical as the author, and if I had read her article five to ten years ago, I would have definitely agreed. But, I was severely depressed then and, thus, prone to faulty reasoning. If the author happens to read this article, I hope she knows there’s a better way to live and a better way to think, for her, for all of us.

Depressive Realism by Julie Reshe, Ph D

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