Ask most mental health providers why you’re depressed, anxious, anorexic, addicted to drugs, or struggling with most any psychological problem and they’ll likely tell you one of the following: it’s your brain, biology, genetics, upbringing, race, society, relationships, the media, God, or some combination of these. What you’ll consistently find missing from these explanations is that you have a mind, i.e., the ability to think, make choices and act on those choices, i.e., that you have free will.
There is no conclusive, scientific evidence that any of the reasons listed above are the primary cause of psychological problems. Yet, the overwhelming majority of professionals in my field adhere to the belief that these are the causes. Why so?
The reason for this is philosophical. The overriding belief in the world today (and for most of history), is that we as human beings are determined by forces outside of our control, and that rationality (if even acknowledged) is no match for these forces. This belief has strongly influenced the field of psychology. The belief is that we are just a bunch of cells pushed this way and that by one or more deterministic forces (like the ones mentioned above). This is what mental health professionals are taught in graduate and medical schools, the same ideas their instructors were taught. No one questions them because the essential ideas are already a part of most people’s philosophy. The mind and thought aren’t given much consideration, and are only brought in (if brought in at all) as one small contributor to mental health problems.
This is unfortunate and damaging, both to the field of psychology, and to the layperson (or client) who accepts these ideas. What this deterministic view does is remove the power from individuals, making them think, “It’s my genes, or the way my mom treated me, or the chemicals in my brain that’s causing me to feel and act as I do. I can’t control these things, so I am doomed to be like this forever.” The usual solutions then become medication or types of therapy that don’t focus on the main problem—one’s thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and choices. This leaves clients feeling helpless, powerless, frustrated, and discouraged. Therapy becomes just a way to “manage” or “cope” with these problems, not a way to permanently resolve them.
What needs to happen is a revolution in philosophy, one that advocates the idea that we are not determined beings, but free agents able to think, understand, analyze, and evaluate, both the world out there and the world inside our minds. We can learn to make sense of our emotions, and know they’re the result of our stored beliefs and ideas. We can learn how to change the unhealthy, inaccurate, unfounded thoughts, beliefs, and ideas we’ve acquired over time, which drive our emotions and forge our behavior. This does not mean blaming or beating ourselves up for having these beliefs, or claiming our minds are incapable of being rational, or rationality as such is invalid. It means accepting responsibility for what we can change and do have control over, and learning the skills that will allow us to make these changes and make healthier, more life-supporting choices. It is throwing off the idea that one is helpless to her brain, biology, or the way she was treated growing up.
This is not to minimize or negate any trauma or a difficult upbringing one may have experienced. On the contrary, it’s to say that trauma or a rough childhood doesn’t have to brand you as damaged or messed up your whole life, that you are a victim of forces beyond your control, that you are helpless to make any changes except minor ones to help you “cope” with “illnesses” or “diseases” you’ll have forever. It sets you free from this, and allows you to take control of your life, which is empowering and inspiring.
The best type of therapy existing currently that helps you accomplish this is cognitive therapy, which holds that one’s thoughts, beliefs, and ideas (one’s mind) is at least a significant component of psychological problems, if not the primary component. The main approach in cognitive therapy is to help clients identify, challenge, and change distorted or unhealthy thoughts and beliefs that are causing damaging emotions and behavioral problems. The cognitive therapist focuses on skills and operates under the premise that the client can change and take control of his life and psychology.
Changing one’s thoughts, core beliefs, and habitual behavior is not easy and takes time and great effort, but it’s currently the best type of therapy out there, and makes the most sense in its approach, because it targets the primary source of psychological problems: one’s mind.
Cognitive therapy is not perfect, and there is still much to learn in the field of psychology to help individuals overcome problems. Even many cognitive therapists believe that there’s some biological and/or environmental cause to their clients’ mental health issues, and still may refer their clients to psychiatrists for meds, or to other non-cognitive types of therapy. But, cognitive therapy at least operates on a rational premise, which is much more than can be said for most other therapeutic approaches.
The main idea to keep in mind is that you’re not helpless to psychological problems, and there is much you can do to change how you feel and behave over time. Beware of any mental health professionals who tell you otherwise, or who propose your problem is solely biological, chemical, or due to your childhood. Don’t take my word for it—observe your own mind one day and notice how many thoughts go through it, and how those thoughts impact your emotions and actions (positively or negatively). The more you do this and the more you make it habit, the better you become at identifying problems in your thinking, and the more you’ll realize you’re directing your psychology much more than anything or anyone else, which also means you have the power to change it if you wish.
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