Unification Theory

The insights of cognitive therapy are powerful. And some great writers have clarified the ideas, but they all do it differently. Have you read their work? I'm talking about Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, Martin Seligman, David Burns, and Julian Simon. There are more, but let's stick with these for now. How is their work related? Where do their insights overlap? Let's take a look...

Julian Simon, author of Good Mood: The New Psychology of Overcoming Depression, has the most complete model. He says that the actual state compared with the benchmark state is what determines your happiness. The actual state is your real circumstances and your feelings. The benchmark state is what you expect your circumstances to be, and how you expect to feel. In other words, the benchmark state is how you think you should feel, where you think you ought to be at this stage of your life, where you wanted to be by the time you were your age, etc. It's a benchmark. It's a goal you have decided to reach. It's a state you want to be in.

With Julian Simon's basic understanding, we can now look at the different aspects other authors emphasize and see them more clearly.

David Burns, author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated, works on the actual state. His emphasis is on what he calls "distorted thinking," that is, misperceiving the actual state. His method is to dig up and root out mistakes in thinking. Cognitive distortions are a misperception of the actual state. (See a list of the ten cognitive distortions here.)

Albert Ellis, author of How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything: Yes, Anything, works on modifying your benchmark state so it is more realistic. The benchmark is what you're comparing the actual state to. Other words for it are: your goal, what you expect, your ideal, your standards. He says there is nothing wrong with goals and expectations. Where we go wrong is demanding that the actual state matches the benchmark by thinking in terms of should, ought, must — commanding and demanding that the world live up to your goals. It is unrealistically insisting that reality should and must match your ideals. Is it realistic to expect all people to like you all the time? No. That benchmark will create unnecessary suffering.

Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, deals with your sense of hopelessness or helplessness about achieving the benchmark. If you feel helpless, you have one of three options (besides simply getting depressed):

1. Change your benchmark

2. Correct your misperception of your ability so you recognize you are not helpless

3. Correct your misperception of reality so your recognize the situation isn't hopeless

You can see that #2 and #3 are the same as David Burns' work. Your sense of hopelessness is a subcategory of the actual state. Are you actually helpless? Is it really hopeless? Or have you misperceived the real situation? Do you perhaps have more ability than you've given yourself credit for? Are the barriers really as huge and insurmountable as you believe they are?

Another category of cognitive "therapy" is the whole genre of motivational seminars, success books, and motivating audiotapes. One of the things motivational material does is help you believe you aren't helpless — that you can do it. When you hit a setback, it is natural to decide your goal is hopeless or you are helpless to overcome your weaknesses. Much of the motivational or "positive thinking" material aims to bring back your determination, to make you believe you can achieve. You hear true stories of people who had worse setbacks than you have (sometimes much worse) and who had bigger goals than you have (sometimes far bigger) but who somehow were able to achieve them. Hearing these kinds of stories puts your own goals and setbacks into perspective enough to eliminate your feelings of helplessness. So you get off your butt and get back to work with determination. And what do you know? You had misperceived the hopelessness! You weren't helpless after all! You can if you believe you can, which is really another way of saying that your belief that you can't is in error. It is a cognitive distortion, a mistaken notion, an unreasonable and premature assumption.

Motivational material is considered by many to be "bootstrapping." People are picking themselves up by their own bootstraps. An impossible feat. But it works. Thousands of very successful people will acknowledge motivational material as being pivotal to their success. It is a kind of bootstrapping in the sense that what allowed those people to overcome their "impossible" obstacles was nothing more than their own belief that they could. The human will is a powerful force and once someone has definitely made up their mind they can and will achieve something, they often find a way. Determination gets those creative juices flowing, and unsolvable problems get solved.

Another way to look at this, however, is that the original belief (that the goal was impossible) was false. The person who had previously believed the goal was impossible had irrationally jumped to a conclusion without sufficient evidence and held the conclusion with unjustifiable certainty.

I think the motivational material of Brian Tracy and Napoleon Hill and Norman Vincent Peale have been under-acknowledged and underused by academics and therapists as legitimate tools for overcoming feelings of defeat.

Let's take Napoleon Hill as an example. His book, Think and Grow Rich, focuses on removing hopelessness and helplessness by making you realize the benchmark can become actual with sufficient determination, and that your degree of determination is within your power to change (with autosuggestion, for example). His work focuses on the most important cause of defeat: The belief that the cause of a setback is permanent.

This same factor is also an important component of Martin Seligman's work, and one of the elements of David Burns' work: When you decide the cause of a setback is permanent, it takes the wind out of your sails. It removes your fighting spirit. You give up and feel defeated, depressed, or demoralized.

And yet, if you are able to argue with your defeatist thoughts, you can often renew your willingness to persist, and that often turns the tide. You start achieving results. The results reinforce your belief that you are not helpless and your situation is not hopeless.

In other words, to put it in Julian Simon's model, you have a benchmark state you want to achieve. But you think your actual state (a track record of failure, for example) makes the benchmark impossible to achieve. For example, say your benchmark is to have a good relationship with someone who loves you. But your actual state, as far as you're concerned, is that you are unlovable and nobody will ever love you. The actual state and the benchmark state are so far off it makes you depressed.

Seligman and Burns would say, "You are not correct about your unlovability." If you corrected your assessment, you would realize that it is possible someone could love you. Then you might act differently, treat yourself and others differently, and because of that difference, you may be able to achieve the benchmark state.

Julian Simon, who is not a researcher or therapist, but an economist, has added a crucial model that allows the relationships between different kinds of cognitive therapy to be understood. Hopefully this will help advance and unify the field and give researchers new horizons to explore.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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