There Is Nothing Either Good or Bad, but Thinking Makes it So

I don’t have a successful relationship with self-help books. When I pick one up, it’s either because the name catches my eye — “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” comes to mind — or I hear about it from a friend. If the book resonates with me, I’ll take it to heart for about a week and then forget everything. If it seems unrelatable — once again, looking at you, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck”1 — I’ll abandon it and feel like I’ve wasted time that could have been spent watching reruns of the Simpsons.2

David Burns’ “Feeling Good” didn’t follow this pattern. It’s one of few self-help books that made a meaningful impact on my life. I’ve revisited it quite a few times. When I lost my copy, I bought a replacement because I felt it needed to be on my bookshelf.

“Feeling Good” was my introduction to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a transformational approach to psychology pioneered by Aaron Beck. I’m not overstating things when I say that Beck and CBT have had a profound, positive impact on my life. 

Beck died yesterday, which is why I was inspired to write this essay. The Washington Post summarizes his work this way:

Beck discovered that patients who learn to recognize the faulty logic of their negative automatic thoughts — such as, “I’ll always be a failure” or “No one likes me” — could learn to overcome their fears and think more rationally, which diminished their anxiety and improved their mood. He found that results endured long after therapy was finished, as patients learned to confront those thoughts on their own.

The Washington Post

I’m not a psychologist, but here’s how I would explain Beck’s principles of CBT:

  • There’s a difference between what we feel and the way things actually are.
  • We latch onto unhelpful thinking styles that reinforce negative feelings and make us blind to reality.
  • To break these unhelpful thinking styles, we need to realize when we’re engaged in an unhelpful thought, diagnose it, and reinterpret it in an accurate way.
  • Only by repeatedly recognizing and reframing distorted thoughts can we break the cycle of harmful thinking and recognize ourselves as we truly are.

What makes CBT useful is that Beck gives us the vocabulary to classify unhelpful thoughts. Attaching a label to these thoughts provides us with the power to understand how we’re misrepresenting reality.

Here are just three of the cognitive distortions I’m most susceptible to, along with some examples of how they used to play out in my head before I learned the fundamentals of CBT:

  • Emotional reasoning: “I feel like a loser, so I’m a loser.”
  • Magnifying negatives and minimizing positives: “That dumb remark I made in 1997 proves I’m stupid, while my bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees don’t really count.”
  • “Should” statements: “I should be further along in my career, so there’s something wrong with me.”

Beck’s list of cognitive distortions is much longer than what I’ve described here. Off the top of my head, there’s overgeneralization, black-or-white thinking, labeling, and cognitive filtering.

When I was first introduced to CBT, I felt kind of resentful. My feelings are valid, I thought, so why should I listen to someone telling me that they’re not?

Some of Beck’s ideas must have seeped into my brain because, after a while, I noticed that I was starting to apply CBT labels to things I was thinking. I realized Beck wasn’t judging me for having feelings; he was proposing a framework for understanding them and preventing them from warping my sense of self. 

Going back to the three cognitive distortions I mentioned earlier, here’s how I try to interpret my feelings now:

  • Emotional reasoning: “That thing I did makes me feel like a loser, but that was just one thing, and overall I’m certainly not a loser!”
  • Magnifying negatives and minimizing positives: “Perhaps I’ve made a few stupid mistakes, but on the whole, I’m a very smart person who has learned a lot and can apply his knowledge to many different situations.”
  • “Should” statements: “I’m going to acknowledge what I have achieved and not judge myself against expectations that may be unreasonable.”

CBT is difficult. That’s because cognitive distortions are automatic — they kick in without you even noticing them. With time and practice, it has become easier for me to notice when I’m having an unhelpful thought — but it’s impossible to prevent them from happening in the first place.

My goal is to recognize a cognitive distortion as quickly as possible. Only then can I dissect the thought, label any unhelpful thinking styles, and restate my ideas in an accurate and beneficial way.

I know I’m not the only person who has benefited from CBT. From The New York Times’ obituary:

The influence of C.B.T. on the treatment of mental disorders is hard to exaggerate. Researchers have adapted the approach — originally developed for depression — to manage panic attacks, addictions, eating disorders, social anxiety, insomnia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Therapists teach a variation to help parents manage children’s outbursts at home, and some have used it, in combination with medication, to manage the delusions and hallucinations of schizophrenia. Sports psychologists have made use of the principles for performance anxiety.

The New York Times

Rest in peace, Dr. Beck. 

1 A perfectly cromulent book. It just didn’t work for me. Your mileage may vary.
2 Of course, Lisa gets it:

While Homer remains as oblivious as ever:

Headline: quote from Hamlet
Header image: Banksy street art, San Francisco