In my article, Goodbye Neverland, I wrote that in order to overcame the past, we had to simply choose to focus on our strengths and make better choices; unfortunately, I failed to distinguish between easily made decisions, as those, and the challenge of consistently implementing them. Psychotherapy isn’t a commitment because understanding oneself takes time per se. It could be, but most people don’t go to therapy to just keep learning about themselves; they go because they want to grow, meaning to learn how to implement healthier thinking and behavioral routines.
The initial oversimplification can be a healthy thinking tool for those who view cognitive and behavioral change as daunting or even impossible. But, it can also harm those who believe that change is easy, creating complacency instead of a sense of ease. So, the truth is that change requires a commitment, in some respects, to thinking and acting differently and constant self-monitoring.
And, changing your attitude can be more challenging than changing your circumstances. Some studies have shown that after significant life-changes, for the better and for worse, people’s interpretations of their lives, after about six months, shifted back to their baseline states; so, if you were happy before a paralyzing accident, you were happy again, and if you were miserable before winning the lottery, guess who was once again unhappy with their lot? At the same time, I would argue, that they weren’t committed, in any significant way, to focusing on the good.
This goes to show how important our thinking is and speaks to the goals for psychotherapy. The concepts that I teach my clients are usually easily grasped. You’re like this because of such and such… Here are your core beliefs, which manifest in negative automatic thoughts… Here are your defenses, which keep you safe but affect your life in a really unhealthy way… etc… But, knowing, insight, isn’t enough. So, one of the major misconceptions of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is that it’s too simple to actually work. But, it isn’t that simple at all, not in the way we think. Although the ideas are easy to understand and the choices to see the world in more realistic ways are easily made, the commitment to using the tools to change our thinking and subsequent behaviors is difficult to sustain, because our habits can’t just be shut off. So, therapy, in addition to teaching, acts as a consistent motivator, until it’s no longer needed.
All of us struggle with distorted ways of seeing the world, and I’m no different. Some days, I can push myself to think clearly and act reasonably; and, on others, my efforts are in vain. Sometimes, when life gets so overwhelming and the rejections pile on, I’m unable to talk myself out of feeling hopeless. And, all of that is normal. My own validation, depending on the circumstances, at times needs external aid. Again, normal. Simple ideas can’t fix complicated lives, but they can make them easier.
My black and white thinking tells me that I fail whenever I miss a workout or decide not to attend some social function. But, my critical analysis often prevails in fostering self-compassion, by convincing me that I’m not immortal. The key is not giving up when you’ve given up; it’s persisting in acting on simple choices, the ones you decided to make. When depression is overwhelming, I often recommend that my patients try medication to help make their thinking clear or even motivate them to engage in thought-analysis. My point is that our biochemistry has the power to overwhelm us, and we should try not to blame ourselves.
If we were to superimpose Camus’ Sisyphus onto the therapeutic process, we’d perceive a constant struggle to change deeply ingrained cognitive and behavioral patterns and a persistent sense of victory each time we successfully reach the mountain’s summit. But, to begin the climb is a struggle in itself. Bruce Lee once said that we see our struggles as either stumbling blocks or stepping stones, but that the decision was up to us. Thus, therapy begins with a sense of hope, instilled through simple concepts.
The ancient Egyptians told one of my favorite stories. Each night, as the sun set, a deceased pharaoh would travel through the underworld using the tools at his disposal. He’d fight back against the demons of chaos and disorder to bring forth the sun in the morning hours, generating light and life to the subjects he once ruled over. While the myth was simple, the pharaoh’s task was daunting. The therapeutic process is nothing less than a hero’s journey, whereon we use the tools we learn to keep at bay our own chaotic forces, precluding them from eclipsing our inner sparks of light. None of us asked to have negative biases and toxic behavioral patterns; these are automatic processes. However, it’s our responsibility to take journeys into our own underworlds, and it’s our duty to conceptualize them. For some, they’ll be road blocks; while for others, they’ll be paths to victory.