When a crisis hits us in our lives we naturally want it to end as soon as possible. We may look into psychotherapy and counselling and see that it takes a bit of time. Then we see that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) takes 6 – 8 sessions and it’s an easy choice. Or we have done some psychotherapy but want to be fixed quicker so CBT is an easy choice.
We can come to CBT wanting a one-line ‘magic bullet’ phrase or piece of advice that will undo all our problems. We don’t want the answers to have to do with our behaviour, our body or our feelings, just be cognitive. Those areas are off limits. Our back story can also be off limits ie how we got into this situation. The more that is out of bounds and off limits, the more any solution will be purely partial and won’t last very long. What we are DOING is avoiding. Trying to fix only one aspect of ourselves is like putting a small boat on a big ocean, when the ocean rears up the boat gets smashed and the ocean reasserts itself. In other words, the size and power of the mind and its patterns reasserts itself.
Emotionally we can therefore come to CBT with impatience and anger, born out of desperation, but showing an underlying sense of panic and uncertainty. What we are DOING is treating ourselves and others harshly and impatiently from the panic we feel at the uncertainty we are experiencing.
From this we move into relationships and a therapeutic relationship with a sense of ‘give me the answer, you fix me now’. What we are DOING is assuming someone else has YOUR answer. What we are telling ourselves is ‘I can’t help myself’. What we are also telling a therapist is ‘I’m looking for certainty, I can’t bear the uncertainty I’m feeling and the anxiety it brings’.
We are stuck in the vicious cycle of how we treat ourselves. CBT describes the vicious cycle as ‘What we DO follows from and serves to confirm what we believe’.
Working with ‘not knowing’
In CBT we have to become aware of what we DO first, become aware of our patterns. As we calm down we get in touch with the uncertainty and anxiety and see that we don’t know, YET. Knowing that you don’t know is the beginning of knowing and is the start of the solution. We start to give ourselves the time and space we need to look at what’s happening in us and to take a more full view rather than racing to fix one thing out of panic. As the panic itself subsides we see the same one problem differently already. We then have space to trace the roots of this panic and find the underlying assumptions and the core beliefs they sit on. Albert Ellis, one of the founding father of CBT, said: ‘We are not disturbed simply by our experiences, rather we bring our ability to disturb ourselves to our experiences.’
CBT Vs Psychotherapy
CBT is not something separate from psychotherapy. CBT’s founding principals are based on the same therapeutic principals. There is just a slightly different emphasis – the importance of DOING something to change it, behaving in new ways. When we change what we do, when we stop avoiding and stop panicing and stop treating ourselves with aggression and impatience, and see that we CAN help ourselves and what that might involve, we can begin to DO things differently.
In summary, we become aware of what we do first, then consider ‘what can I DO’ that would represent an important symbolic change in that behaviour. When we act differently we get different experiences coming back to us and our life changes.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the quick fix?
How long that takes depends on what is happening with us. Six to eight sessions may indeed be enough to get through the crisis. It may require more and it may not. It’s like drinking water, if you don’t drink enough you remain thirsty, if you drink too much, you can continue drinking but there is no point. There is a point between these two extremes that is the right ‘enough’ point for YOU. Only you can judge that point from your experience of CBT.
For a wider description of how CBT works, and to see my own availability for CBT, check out https://thomaslarkin.ie/cognitive-behavioural-therapy-dublin/