This col­umn will change your life Do we need ther­a­pists? Re­search says self-help ex­er­cises could be bet­ter for you than cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy

The Guardian Weekly - - Mind&relationships - Oliver Burke­man oliver.burke­man@the­guardian.com

Re­searchers say you might as well be your own ther­a­pist,” the web­site Quartz pro­claimed re­cently, in light of a new study that found a van­ish­ingly small dif­fer­ence be­tween see­ing a cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­a­pist and just do­ing var­i­ous self­help ex­er­cises on your own. Nat­u­rally, this sort of thing is li­able to make ther­a­pists an­gry. (The cor­rect re­sponse is to nod com­pas­sion­ately and ask: “Now, why do you think that makes you so an­gry?”) As Mark Brown, a blog­ger on men­tal health, has writ­ten in the Guardian, we should be wary of any find­ing that seems to sug­gest gov­ern­ments could save money by telling peo­ple to sort them­selves out. But the self-help route has an­other lim­i­ta­tion worth bear­ing in mind: what makes you so con­fi­dent you even know what your prob­lems re­ally are?

Typ­i­cally, self-help works like this: you’re trou­bled by some is­sue – pro­cras­ti­na­tion, com­mit­ment-pho­bia, de­pres­sion – so you seek a book to fix it, just as you’d seek a span­ner or screw­driver if the legs on your kitchen ta­ble started wob­bling. But minds aren’t like wob­bly ta­bles. There’s no rea­son to as­sume – ac­tu­ally, there’s much rea­son to doubt – that we’re in touch with our deep­est anx­i­eties and hang-ups. Rather than pro­duc­tiv­ity tech­niques, maybe you need to face the fact that your job pro­vides no mean­ing. Maybe ac­cus­ing your­self of “com­mit­ment-pho­bia” is how you ra­tio­nalise the sub­con­scious aware­ness that your part­ner doesn’t love you. Maybe your de­pres­sion is best un­der­stood not as the re­sult of “au­to­matic thoughts”, but as a sign that you’re liv­ing life to serve your par­ents’ agenda, in­stead of your own.

Or maybe not: prob­a­bly, some prob­lems are ex­actly what they seem. But the ques­tion is so per­sonal that the best book in the world can’t help but miss the mark, whereas an­other hu­man at least stands a chance of hit­ting it. And if CBT is truly no bet­ter than self-help, maybe the right con­clu­sion isn’t that ther­a­pists don’t mat­ter, but that CBT isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the apogee of ther­apy?

Cru­cially, the point isn’t that ther­a­pists are wiser, thus bet­ter placed to tell you what your prob­lems are. Rather, a good ther­a­pist will throw up road­blocks to your at­tempts to swiftly de­fine the prob­lem be­fore hur­ry­ing on to fix it. This is the

There’s no rea­son to as­sume – ac­tu­ally, there’s much rea­son to doubt – that we’re in touch with our deep­est anx­i­eties

ker­nel of good sense in the cliche of the Freudian shrink who does noth­ing but re­phrase his pa­tient’s com­ments as ques­tions: he’s re­fus­ing them the com­fort­able op­tion of a one-size-fits-all so­lu­tion, forc­ing them to­ward self-un­der­stand­ing. Ther­apy isn’t the only way to do this: jour­nal­ing, med­i­ta­tion, even some books are among the oth­ers. What they all share is that they throw you back on your­self, block­ing the easy but in­au­then­tic al­ter­na­tive of us­ing some­one else’s sec­ond­hand an­swer. As Al­bert Ein­stein is of­ten quoted as say­ing, though he didn’t: “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 min­utes defin­ing the prob­lem.”

Plus, when it comes to psy­chol­ogy, there’s a bonus: half the time, a prob­lem truly un­der­stood stops be­ing a prob­lem at all.

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