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.