Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Making Friends With Your Mind

Cognitive therapy has taught us that training your brain to think differently is more beneficial, psychically speaking, than a bushel-full of dubious insights.

Writing about this yesterday Elizabeth Bernstein subtitled her column: “Train Your Brain to Be Positive, and Feel Happier Every Day: It Only Sounds Corny”

Therein lies a problem. Compared to insight-oriented therapies, these new approaches, like cognitive treatment and coaching, seem to lack seriousness and intellectual sophistication. They feel “corny.”

Those who continue to defend the therapy culture often deride the newer approaches. The old therapy might not have cured them but it made them feel like they were part of the intelligentsia. Feeling that one is a serious thinker often trumps the wish to feel better, to function better, and to succeed.

What could be less sophisticated than training your brain? Isn’t the exercise inherently mindless?

The older forms of therapy, for the most part footnotes to Freud, did not treat or not cure.

They survived by producing a group of cult followers. After an extended sojourn on the couch these people felt superior to everyone else because they understood the inherent tragedy in the human condition.

They took pride in not being very happy, in not seeing the positive side of life. They thought that happiness and good moods were for chumps, for people who were out of touch, for self-deluded simpletons who were merely cogs in the corporate machine.

It was, and in many cases still is a powerful argument.

It isn’t just that insight-oriented therapies taught you the value of common unhappiness, it told you to go out and proselytize the one true faith, thus to share you insights and understanding, your negative outlook on everything.

Thereby, you could think that you were transforming the culture, bring it into closer contact with the higher truth that lay in tragedy.

This mindset fosters and sustains depression. Nowadays, it is commonly recognized as a problem, not a sign of moral superiority.

Medications and cognitive treatments have shown that no one needs to live in a state of constant misery. Fewer and fewer people have been making a fetish out of seeing the worst in everything.  

One must admit, that the path to happiness sounds too easy to be true.

Bernstein offers the recommendation of researcher Elaine Fox:

Want to try this at home? Write down, in a journal, the positive and negative things that happen to you each day, whether running into an old friend or missing your bus. Try for four positives for each negative. You'll be training your brain to look for the good even as you acknowledge the bad, Dr. Fox says.

William James once said that the truth is what works, and this exercise works. It might make you feel like a schoolchild doing homework, but, alas, it will improve your mood and help you to function more effectively in the world.

If you do not want to do it or to do any of its cousins, you need a better reason than false pride.

When the time came to market this new technique, researchers called it: “self-compassion.”

Unfortunately, self-compassion suggests self-pity, feeling sorry for your suffering self.

The wrong concept gives us the wrong idea. It would be better to understand that these therapists and coaches are trying to offer an antidote to a bad mental habit that has long been a staple of psychotherapy: self-criticism.

Freudian therapy is about getting in touch with your guilt feelings. After you discover all of your sordid and depraved motives, it will teach you to use self-criticism as moral self-flagellation, the better to palliate the guilt.

The more you criticize yourself the more this kind of self-deprecating judgment will become a habit. Then it will produce depression.

If you believe that a depressed mood reflects your exceptional insight into the human condition you will have little incentive to get rid of it.

Self-compassion might mean: give yourself a break. Conceptualized correctly it might have discovered an affinity with an older idea: love they neighbor as thyself.

The Biblical injunction also has a correlate in Aristotle’s idea that friends seek out the best in friends. It feels self-evident, but it is exactly the opposite of what Freud and his band of self-critics taught.

If psychoanalysis teaches you to criticize yourself, you will become habituated to critical thinking and will happily direct it at your friends, your neighbors, and your community.

Impugning everyone’s motives will give you a rush of moral superiority. You will revel in your ability to find a sordid motive behind every noble act.

When you start losing friends you will naturally start blaming the culture. You will feel misunderstood and misjudged by your inferiors.

A wag might ask: How can you love your neighbor as yourself when you do not care very much for yourself?

You might begin by pretending that you do like yourself. You can then try explaining why you would like yourself if you really did like yourself. 

But then, don’t just write a list of the good qualities you find in yourself. Start looking for the best in your friends and neighbors. Remember the old saying: seek and ye shall find.


JP said...

To me, this always sounded like an offshoot of total depravity, which is religious in origin and not Freudian in origin.

If I already feel bad about myself, it's not clear how recognizing that I'm "totally depraved" is going to do any good.

From wikipedia:

"Total depravity (also called absolute inability, radical corruption, total corruption, or Augustinianism[citation needed]) is a theological doctrine derived from the Augustinian concept of original sin. It is the teaching that, as a consequence of the Fall of Man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin and, apart from the efficacious or prevenient grace of God, is utterly unable to choose to follow God, refrain from evil, or accept the gift of salvation as it is offered.
It is advocated to various degrees by many Protestant confessions of faith and catechisms, including those of Lutheranism,[1] Arminianism,[2] and Calvinism.[3]"

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree with you, though I think that Freud's thinking has a lot more in common with religious thinking, especially Augustine, than most people think.

Anonymous said...

Feeling guilty when you are is actually better than not feeling guilty, isn't it?
As for Augustin: he brought the concept of original sin into the Christian blood circulation, probably a remnant of his Manichaean days (a bit of a poisoning for my taste)
In Christianity there is not only the concept of guilt, but also the concept of wellfounded forgiveness (as a give and take) whereas Freud seemed to believe in katharsis through insight alone. Obviously he didn't make it all the way through to the concept of justice, a pillar of our Civilization.
Your analysis of the therapyculture here seems to be the perfect summary of Erica Jong's 'Fear of Flying': I'm grateful for your wonderful work here.
Greetings from Germany, David

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks so much, David. I agree with you entirely. I am currently writing a book where I will try to address some of these points in greater detail.