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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Stoicism-Inspired Way to Challenge Your Perception

"Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.”  


            This excerpt from the book of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus called Enchiridion is a fundamental basis on Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the first form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy(CBT).


          In this insightful interview with Jeffrey Mishlove in ThinkingAllowedTV, Ellis explained how philosophy is a form of psychotherapy in that the way we think affects our emotions and behavior. He also mentioned the ancient root of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy he devised citing Stoic philosophers Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus and other Eastern Philosophies.

              In a nutshell, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works on the premise that our thoughts and belief influence our emotions, and our emotions influence our behavior. The goal then is to help patients identify the underlying thoughts and beliefs that are irrational and replace them with a more sensible one. For example, catastrophizing is a term used in REBT when a patient anticipates an unfavorable outcome and then decides that if it does happen the patient deemed it to be a disaster or unbearable. This is very similar to what the Stoic philosopher Seneca in his thirteenth letter from Letters from a Stoic. To explain anxiety, Seneca explained to Lucilius 3 things.

“Some things torment us more than they ought to; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”.

        The point the Stoic philosopher was trying to make is that we tend to catastrophize future events when most often than not, they have a very low probability of happening. Science tells us that 90% of things we worry about do not happen and when they happen most often they are very bearable.

          Also, in REBT and CBT, patients are trained to identify their sphere of control which comes down to their thoughts and perception. The dichotomy of control is an essential Stoic idea that tells us that the only thing we have complete control of is our thoughts, emotions, and behavior and anything else is outside our control. The key to a good life is to focus only on the things we can control.

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

           REBT’s solution to our irrational thoughts and negative feelings can be summarized into three things:

            (1) Unconditional Self-Acceptance (Our Control)

                        This means accepting every single flaw that we have.

            (2) Unconditional Other-Acceptance (Not in Our Control)

                        This means accepting every single flaw other people have. We don’t control their thoughts and behavior and if we hold them to a particular standard we will end up being frustrated all the time.


   (3) Unconditional Life Circumstance Acceptance (Not in Our Control)

                        REBT argues that we don’t have control over pretty much all of life circumstances. That includes the death of our loved ones, illness, unemployment, divorce, misfortune, and the list goes on.

             If you have been exposed to Stoicism, you probably have already seen the connection here between REBT and CBT with the ancient philosophy. The way to a good life is to focus only on our thoughts and free everything else that is beyond our control.

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