Dr. Aaron Beck, father of cognitive behavioral therapy, died this week, November 2021, at age 100.
Oddly enough, the best explanations of cognitive behavioral therapy that I’ve read is on a writing website. It talks about writing down all of the horrible thoughts and then going back and writing counter thoughts. Psychologists have been talking at me at medical conferences for years about cognitive behavioral therapy, but they never explained it. They said we could do it in clinic. I thought cynically that maybe I could if I knew what the hell it was.
And the explanation by the author is oddly similar to what I think of as the angel and devil on my shoulders. It turns out that I do do it in clinic.
When I react to some event, I let the devil out first. It has a fit about whatever is happening, writes poems, is reactive, paranoid and full of anger and grief. It often imagines over the top terrible things happening to the person or people that did whatever it is. Then the angel wakes up and says, wait. What are you saying? What you are imagining and cursing that person with is WAY worse then what they did. The angel writes the poems of forgiveness.
So I have been doing a homemade form of cognitive behavioral therapy.
However, I would say that it can be overused. We need to listen to patients carefully. If they are in an abusive relationship, it should not be papered over with cognitive behavioral therapy. A friend and I have been comparing terrible childhoods. His involved being beaten without reason.
I said recently that what people hit with in my family is words. They make grief and fear into stories, funny stories, that make people laugh. Shame and humiliation and reliving the feelings. I said that I am reactive and pay close attention to words. But I have reason, back to age 2. I said that books are my refuge because the words are not about me, they don’t shame me, they do not humiliate me, and if I read a book twice, it has the same words. Home, love and safe.
In my maternal family, if I said that I was not comfortable with a comment, I was told that I took things too seriously, that I have no sense of humor, that I can’t take a joke. Gaslight and then dismiss any objection. That is how one side of my family loves. I do not like it. Unsurprisingly, they do not love me, or at least I do not feel loved.
And my friend said, your family, your childhood, was worse than mine.
One of my talents in clinic is that I can listen to insane family stories. I can listen because my family is insane. They are cruel. At least, it feels like cruelty and horror to me. I didn’t ever try to find out if a family story is true. I listen and then say, yes. I think it is appropriate for you to feel angry/sad/horrified/appalled/scared/hurt/whatever.
Somehow that listening and validation is huge. I have people come in and say, “I NEED AN ANTIDEPRESSANT.” They want to supress the feelings. So I had time in my clinic: why do you need an antidepressant? Tell me the story. Fill me in. What are you feeling and why?
And more than half the time after the story, after validation, I ask, “Do you need an antidepressant?”
The person thinks. “No. I don’t think so. Let me think about it. I feel better.”
“Ok. Do you want to schedule a follow up?”
Half do. Half say: “No, let me wait and see. I will if I need it.”
Mostly they don’t need it. They have emptied out the awful feelings in the exam room and they aren’t so awful after all. I say that it sounds like a pretty normal response and I would feel that way too. Because I would. Once the feelings, the monstrous feelings, are in the light of day, they relax and evaporate, dissipate like mist, fly home to the Beloved. Goodbye, dark feelings. You are appropriate and you are loved.
Blessings, Dr. Beck, and thank you.