Changing Our Ideas: What Therapy Often Misses

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Life’s complexity forces us to simplify. We use shortcuts to understand the present and predict the future because living would otherwise be impossible. In the time of our ancestors survival depended on determining whether a stranger was friend or foe, whether a situation was safe or dangerous. Those without the right instincts didn’t make quick and useful categorizations, instead drowning in the gene pool. These unfortunates tended to die young. Any offspring produced by them had a poor chance of reaching maturity and having kids of their own. They are not our ancestors.

What does that mean for you and me? We are, after all, the product of generations who survived because of thinking fast.

Like our ancestors, we respond to threat, make decisions to prosper, and categorize in an instant.

This system of decision-making is a blunt instrument, however useful. The shades of gray between good and bad, helpful and hurtful, opportunity and risk are lost. We react to the world more than think about it.

Do your assumptions about life work for you? Not always, I suspect, even if your choices don’t imperil you in the short run. Some conceptual mistakes are so automatic we don’t recognize they are causing us trouble.

Here are several routine, instinctive and ingrained ways of thinking. You probably have heard friends say one or more of these statements. Can you identify yourself in any of them?

  • I avoid looking back. You don’t get anywhere if you do.
  • I never do anything until I’m sure it’s the right decision.
  • My religion is the only true one.
  • All religion is stupid.
  • Atheism is no way to raise a moral child.
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • Better to be safe than sorry.
  • No risk, no reward.
  • My political party has a monopoly on virtue.
  • All politicians are corrupt.
  • I am entitled to a good life.
  • Material things are worth a lot more than having interesting experiences.
  • A person of principal should never compromise.
  • That won’t happen to me.
  • Things are always happening to me. I have terrible luck.
  • I’m perfectly OK just as I am. I don’t need to change a thing.
  • I succeeded almost entirely due to my own talent and effort.
  • I am rational, not emotional.
  • I’m well-enough informed by watching news and catching stories on the internet.
  • I’m a good person.
  • I’m an excellent driver.
  • Thinking about death is a waste of time.
  • Multi-tasking doesn’t reduce my speed or efficiency.
  • People tend to get what they deserve.
  • When I find love I will be forever happy.
  • When I get to the top I will be fulfilled.
  • Children are the key to happiness.
  • I don’t need any friends.

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Let’s look at just one: I succeeded almost entirely due to my own talent and effort.

I might say that statement is true about my life. The reason I don’t is the following:

I was born in the richest country in the world at a time when education was cheaper than it is today, social mobility greater, and scholarship support more available. I was most fortunate in this accident of timing. Decisions made by my grandparents to leave Eastern Europe set me up for success. Indeed, had they stayed in those countries it is possible they might have died in the course of wars, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, genocide. Their decision to emigrate could have saved their lives and certainly permitted mine.

My lower-middle class parents encouraged education. My father was a good model of a person who lived a decent life. He gave everything he had to avoid a repeat of the economic hardship of the Great Depression. I knew there would be little family money for college so I worked hard. I can remember a few times when I narrowly avoided severe accidents. One day on an elevated-train ride a bullet passed through the car within inches of my head. On another, in graduate school, I got off at the wrong subway stop and walked through a notorious Chicago neighborhood without incident. I received a deferment from military service during the Vietnam War. Trust me, soldiering wasn’t in me. I would not have survived Survivor. I had much support from teachers. Others opened doors for me and I acquired the good sense to walk through them. The mistakes I made were either forgiven or not damaging to my prospects. My wife supported me when the times seemed dark and offered love beyond deserving. Although my parents and their generation are gone, all but one of my closest friends are still living. My children were born healthy.

I have had a lucky life. Yes, I could make the other argument. I will take credit only for cleverness, industry, and for recognizing I needed to change even when I didn’t welcome change. But if I told you I was a self-made man I’d be ignoring all the others whose finger prints are all over whatever good I’ve done in the world.

I’ll leave it to you to calculate what unfortunate consequences follow when a person takes credit for too great a superiority over his fellow citizen. Indeed, we have a few examples in the public square if your imagination fails you.

Regular readers probably expect me now to expand on the other errors of thinking within the list above. I certainly could. I’ve been guilty of several in the catalogue and at least as many off. Nor am I done altering my take on how to approach the act of living.

Assembling enough of the wrong ideas into a life-plan is like building a skyscraper on an earthquake fault line without knowing it. Imagine what happens when the earth starts to move.

The bullet-pointed items are not subtle. Each one is black and white. Some lack evidence or have been disproven. Futility of utility has been demonstrated for a number of the statements. Use them at your own risk. Your insurance salesman will not sell you a policy for poor judgment.

Therapy usually addresses behaviors that aren’t working well, emotions in need of comfort, self-esteem enhancement, grief, and the like. Too few therapists, in my judgment, encourage  evaluation of everyday beliefs that contribute to our own undoing. Perhaps it is because the most urgent matters must be considered first. The patient, however, is in trouble if he leaves therapy with the same worldview with which he entered. Feeling better is not enough.

Simply put, if you are to change you might consider scrutinizing the assumptions you make reflexively. There is always something new to learn about yourself and life.

Was the last sentence blunt, too black and white?

No.

That statement is one of the few things about which I am sure.

The top image is called sky sun sunset cloud creative by Svin4821. The 1940 poster comes from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

30 thoughts on “Changing Our Ideas: What Therapy Often Misses

  1. Love this:”Assembling enough of the wrong ideas into a life-plan is like building a skyscraper on an earthquake fault line without knowing it. Imagine what happens when the earth starts to move.”
    Though it’s also a very scary thought – how many is enough? It’s not necessary to know, as long as we are committed to your final statement of scrutinizing assumptions and learning about ourselves and life. Hopefully, as many wrong ideas as we assemble, we can then tear them down at a not-too-dissimilar rate!
    And I am VERY thankful you dodged a bullet; made it through dangerous neighbourhoods unscathed; and had military service deferred. As well as thankful for the things – and people – that DID happen to you….

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    • Thank you. My children wouldn’t exist but for the bullet missing me, nor my grandson. By such narrow escapes the direction of the world sometimes turns. And, as you say, by the good things, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “There is always something new to learn about yourself and life.”
    ~ Your articles, like this one, never fail to offer insights of looking anew at ourselves and life.
    ~ The statement that jumped out at me was, “Everything happens for a reason.” It helps me to cope with adversity, to see the positive in the negative, to hold onto hope that something good will eventually manifest itself. Considering that you’ve added it to the list, I need to re-examine this statement.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Rosaliene. You have much company with that statement. There are many ways to get to hope and find the positive; indeed, create the meaning and learn from misfortune. I suspect you already use them.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Perhaps I should add to the list, for me: “If I don’t find the love I feel I need, I will be forever unhappy”…Funnily enough the ‘I’m an excellent driver’ jumped out at me even though I know I’m an okay driver but not an excellent one, but I think the ‘jumping out’ was an indication that I may have some delusions of grandeur in this area! Or maybe it just indicates that this is an area of frequent contention between my and my constant-passenger-seat-driver other half….!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “There is always something new to learn about yourself and life.” That has always been my assumption and, now that I am in the seventh decade of life, I hope I don’t give it up. I agree with you that it is one of the few truisms that I believe really is true!

    I, too, used to take some hope in the statement: “Everything happens for a reason.” It made terrible things somehow seem justified IF I waited long enough to find out what the good outcome was. I am still reeling from the untimely death of a close friend and I guess I know it is far too soon to know what the reason is that he had to leave his family and our community. “Everything happens for a reason” isn’t working right now.

    I have lately been learning to question every thought, every life rule that I thought to be true. Sometimes I think that I don’t even realize that I am following a rule. Whatever the thought is or whatever the behavior is, is just the way I am or the way I think. I couldn’t even imagine that I could be or think a different way. That’s what happens when you live with yourself as long as I have…..

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    • Thanks, JT. If everything happens for a (good) reason, then one must believe that all of the most tragic events in human history must have led to some positive end; ends that couldn’t have been otherwise achieved by a supreme being both all good and all powerful. A version of the statement is present in the New Testament: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28). In my work as a therapist — hearing stories of extraordinary heartbreak, injury, abuse, and death — it would have been cold comfort to tell the sufferer that his tragedy happened for a good reason. On the subject of not realizing you are following a rule, we surely are not any of us conscious of all the rules we live by. Yours is a good reminder.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. riserenewrebuild

    I do assume that everything happens for a reason. I don’t assume I am right. It just helps give me the faith I need not to give up on life altogether when things are painful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Usually we can make it so. That is, find meaning in events and turn most (but not all) that life hands us into fuel for a new and better way of being. Of course, if one takes this approach to the exclusion of a cosmic force organizing our lives for the good, it does put more responsibility on us to do the hard work involved. I know you are doing the work. There may come a time when you find you need the cosmic force a bit less. I’m cheering for you.

      Liked by 2 people

      • riserenewrebuild

        Thank you, Dr.Stein. I know you understand that my faith in the Universe is not a means of absconding responsibility. I am the first person to own my failures and challenges. I accept that I am imperfect and limited. I am doing my best. Your post did make me think of a funny adage, “There is a reason for everything. Sometimes that reason is that your stupid and make bad decisions.” I can still laugh at myself. 😉 Anyway, I do enjoy and appreciate your humanism. You are wonderful.

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      • riserenewrebuild

        You’re* – see?! 🙄

        Liked by 1 person

      • Another thought on the same subject. Ellie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, witnessed a “trial” of God when he was interned in Auschwitz. Three rabbis weighed God’s responsibility for permitting the horror in which they found themselves. “The trial lasted several nights. Witnesses were heard, evidence was gathered, conclusions were drawn, all of which issued finally in a unanimous verdict: the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, was found guilty of crimes against creation and humankind. And then, after what Wiesel describes as an ‘infinity of silence,’ the Talmudic scholar looked at the sky and said ‘It’s time for evening prayers,’ and the members of the tribunal recited Maariv, the evening service.” In spite of everything it is hard to live without something greater on which to rely. This comes from Wikipedia. A fictional adaptation of what Wiesel witnessed was made into a movie.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t remember the trial itself – maybe only briefly mentioned- but Wiesel does talk at length about Job and God’s betrayal of his chosen people when he refuses to fast for Yom Kippur. I have often thought of this in times of just absurd, gratuitous suffering. In his later essays/speeches he talks about having come back to his faith in the ensuing decades (it took many many years of healing and thinking and writing) with a shifted paradigm about God’s involvement in human affairs as being much more hands-off.

        Liked by 1 person

    • This morning’s NY Times holds a review by Adrian Chen of the book “Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories” by Rob Brotherton. Here is an excerpt from the review: “For example, psychologists have discovered that we possess an ‘intentionality bias,’ which tricks us into assuming every incidental event that happens in the world is the result of someone’s (or some thing’s) intention. A ‘proportionality bias’ convinces us that momentous events have equally momentous causes … We are all predisposed to see patterns in coincidental events. Normally these biases help us navigate the world and stay out of danger; but left unchecked they can lead us astray.”

      Liked by 2 people

      • riserenewrebuild

        Hm…I see. Probably best for me to respond with a blog post at this point.

        Liked by 2 people

      • The theodicy question (how to put together a supreme being who is all powerful and all good with the presence of evil in the world) is addressed in a popular book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” It was written by Harold Kushner, a rabbi who had to confront the matter not just in his daily ministering to his flock, but in a most personal way when his son died of progeria (a premature aging disease) at an early age. As A suggests, “God left the room” (after creation) is one possible explanation. This view is justified, to some extent, by the idea that he admitted to himself (in the Old Testament) that he had created a world filled with evil and therefore generated the flood. Could he have gotten fed up after his second failure at making things right in the world and walked away? I’ve never met anyone who ever changed their mind about the question of the existence of a supreme being or resolving the theodicy problem either through conversation or argument. Religion can be a powerful force for good, as well as an equally powerful justification of evil, as we see every day. As a therapist my concern was never whether my patient’s believed or didn’t per se. Many got great comfort from their belief. Most were Christians, so I took on the job of learning about the scholarship connected to their faith. My concern was only when, as the book review above states, their worldview about such things was leading them “astray.” In the most dramatic example I encountered, one man was thinking of murdering people at an abortion clinic. Fortunately he didn’t. Thanks for your comment, A.

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  6. Probably another factor that leads us to simple conclusions is the fact that we live very busy lives these days, it often take time and solitude to take in the complexities of life and growing maturity over the years. The speed of life seems to have increased so much these days and with technology making the world a smaller place and so much more information, it’s mind boggling.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I agree, Claire. In addition to the speed of life and the information overflow, I’d add the speed of change. A Ford Foundation study of a few decades back indicated that the average 16th century man had less information to process in his short lifetime than could be found in a single daily edition of the NY Times. There is little sense of permanence today. If you’d told me in 1990 that 25 years later there would be virtually no record (CD) stores or book stores in our greatest cities or that the Chicago Tribune would offer a mere 24-page edition on January 2, 2016, I’d have thought you were crazy.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. When I was reading over the list I thought: I would never *say* any of those things. Rationally I think I know that they’re all oversimplified claims, but our behavior and emotions are so often divorced from reason. I wonder how many of them I act on as assumptions that are more automatic and subconscious.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I have heard some of them said very directly, but I think you are right, most go unsaid and even “unthought;” which is to say that the are intuitive and instinctive, not carefully reasoned out. As I’ve written before, Jonathan Haidt and others have done much good research on the extent to which we take positions very rapidly and then quickly think of reasons to justify them. Of course, we believe we reasoned them out first.

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  9. I am impressed by your willingness and dedication and commitment in learning about the faith of those you treated. Not just here but in other comments and posts you have quoted from the Old or New testament in a way I could never do despite having a Christian faith of my own. I agree that no one is really persuaded by conversation or argument and these days it frustrates me when people (ok my husband!) believe that that’s how they were converted. The reasons are both simpler and more complex and ultimately I am coming more and more to believe that what science or religion we believe in ultimately comes down to what we find persuasive and the reasons why we find one thing and not another persuasive has very little to do with ‘proof’ and everything to do with what makes us who we are…..I read and wrote a post about it a few months ago , have you read ‘unapologetic’? It’s not an academic or intellectual book and it would be a misunderstanding to see it as a book that tries to argue for anything. It shows something , for those who might find it persuasive….If you ever read it, I’d be interested to know your thoughts. ..

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    • I haven’t read “Unapologetic.” Underlying your comment is the question of how far from well-established scientific facts people go in their understanding of the world. If you believe, for example, that the climate change research is some sort of leftist hoax, it might have very dramatic consequences for the survival of the planet were you to be in a position of power. Here, again, is a place where one can go astray. I do worry about the effectiveness of education in teaching children, from a young age, how to think in an orderly way. At an individual level, people who wish to govern their lives too much by hunches and wishes run some pretty big risks. It is hard to put belief in a benign universe where “everything happens for a reason” into a box that doesn’t do some harm to the way you think about the rest of your life and the lives around you.

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      • I’m not suggesting anything goes or that we stop weighing up evidence, but what tips the scale for one person may not for another. And although in dome situations the nature and volume of evidence is almost incontrovertible, I think there may be fewer of those cases than we believe. I suppose a question that underlies my question is ‘what constitutes orderly thinking’? What does orderly mean and who gets to decide? Is there more than one type of orderly ? You could just say we recognise orderly when we see it, but would a different sort of society recognise something different as being orderly? I think we also need to distinguish reasons from explanations. And causative factors from non causative factors…..

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  10. Sounds like a long discussion, but I’ll try to make it simple. I think everyone should understand the scientific method. And, at least when you veer from that, know that you do so, know that you are playing a hunch, know that you cannot justify you opinion or action except by reference to how it feels to you or a small and not necessarily representative sample of personal experience or anecdotes or single case studies. I am certainly not someone without emotion or who would be a model for a completely rational approach to life. But, I try to know where my feet are: whether I’m standing in the well-thought out part of the territory or in some other place. I agree that part of this is distinguishing reasons from explanations. A very good and helpful point.

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    • Just to add one more thought. Er, two actually. Riserenewrebuild said this (above): “I do assume that everything happens for a reason. I don’t assume I am right.” This kind of stance is helpful in keeping a person in the habit of examining their beliefs, which is what my post was about. Also, we have a poor vantage point from which to determine the “reasonableness” of our beliefs. We are inside the system, subject to our own chemical mix, history, temperament, and current as well as past emotions and thoughts. The best we can do is to make an effort to understand ourselves. No one is a master at this. We cannot effectively look through the microscope at ourselves when we are also on the slide the microscope is trying to examine. Moreover, too much time spent on all this and one cannot “live.”

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  11. I absolutely agree and would only add that everything is inside a closed system, even the things that feel as though they are outside it. Think of it in terms of quantum mechanics and the observation disturbing the system we are examining; or in terms of the fact that we can’t get outside language, which we invented and which is given meaning by our use, to describe things……

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    • Exactly. Those who do not consider all these things are subject to more error than those who do. And yet we must make quick decisions, figure out who to trust, give in to love, and if possible bathe in the morning sun and kiss the ground for this inexplicable thing called life …

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Now THAT is so beautiful and true and completely unprovable….. 🙂
    ‘Give in’ to love – not seize it, or look for it, or want to control it or yearn for it, or mourn for it. Give in to it……..
    Such a lovely paragraph, thank you 🙂

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