The primary charge of the psychotherapeutic profession is to guide people in identifying and eliminating those obstacles or hurdles that prevent them from achieving optimal mental health. But what does mental health look like, exactly? And, once defined, are people naturally inclined to gravitate towards it, foisted only by the many impediments life throws their way, as the iconic therapist Carl Rogers believed? Or does the human race engage in a classic Freudian “death drive,” a pattern in which humans are compulsively compelled to return to self-destructive thoughts and actions?
Comparing these two drives is akin to comparing a person who eats healthily and exercises often, yet feels like a chronic failure because he can’t ever seem to lose “enough” weight, to an alcoholic who is flirting with liver failure, yet still can’t bring himself to set the liquor bottle down.
My personal belief is that we all harbor elements of both these tendencies within us. No matter where a person falls on that spectrum, however, and regardless of the reasons he or she initially gives for seeking therapy, I have found that the typical therapeutic client almost universally seeks one simple thing above all else: happiness.
Sure, you may think, that’s obvious, but how does a person feel happy in a world filled with so many challenges? More, how can happiness, if found, be sustained in light of our occasional compulsion to engage in self-destructive behaviors?
My opinion is that both the way we feel and the way we behave start with the ways in which we train ourselves to think. Throughout childhood, schools – and also parents, however well-intentioned – train us to learn facts, or, put another way, they teach us what to think. What we are not often taught, much to our detriment, is how to think, or, perhaps more accurately, we aren’t taught that the way in which we think has enormous influence on the quality of our lives.
In psychology, we often instruct clients on the principles of “ABC” theory. We illustrate to people the fact that when an event occurs (the “Activating” event, or “A”), it is often the perspective (or Belief, “B”) we adopt about that event that ultimately determines our emotional response as well as our ensuing behaviors (Consequences, or “C”).
An example I use with clients is this: You are waiting for a visit from a friend who is supposed to arrive at 2 p.m. By 2:30, not only hasn’t your friend arrived, but you haven’t even received a phone call of explanation. That person’s absence is the Activating event (“A”). Now, at that moment, you might think (believe, “B”) many different things. If you choose to think that your friend may have been in a horrible accident, you are likely going to feel worried, scared, or sad. If, however, you think it likely that your friend rudely blew you off, odds are you are going to feel angry or insulted. And if you choose to believe that your friend likely had an unavoidable delay, and was unable to call to let you know, you are likely going to be patient and understanding.
They key point here is that the reality of the situation has not changed at all. But depending on how we think about the situation, we can instigate three (or more) radically different emotional states, along with their accompanying, and equally distinctive, behavioral responses (“C”).
For every last one of us, this type of thought processing transpires dozens of times daily. Yet it typically occurs beyond the level of our awareness precisely because so few of us have ever been enlightened as to the enormous sway that such processing has on the quality of our lives, our moods, and our general happiness. To improve your moods as well as your behavioral choices, mind your ABCs!
-With John C. Thomas, M.A.
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