Dr. Levy's CBT Blog
Insights on Well-Being, Contentment, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
What causes emotional suffering?
I recently re-read a classic article by Dr. Albert Ellis, inventor of Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) and one of the early practitioners of cognitive therapy, that presents a valuable take on the causes of emotional suffering. I’ll save you a dozen pages of technical reading and summarize it here. All of emotional suffering in the human race comes from us conflating ‘needs’ and ‘wants.’ Let me explain.
Each of us has a series of goals for ourselves and our lives. Ironically, as social beings, they are not that different across people. Generally, we want safety, approval, achievement, efficacy, comfort, and happiness. These are laudable desires: they help us survive, thrive, and procreate. When faced with situations where we fall short of these goals, it is natural to feel disappointed, upset, sad, or frustrated. These appropriate negative feelings help us cope with life and direct our energy towards change. They do not keep us stuck.
However, consciously or unconsciously, many of us often escalate these ‘wants’ into ‘needs.’ Beyond wanting safety, we may start expecting that under all conditions and at all times, we don’t suffer discomfort, pain, or handicaps. We may not only want approval, we may require agreement, admiration, and love by all our significant others. Rather than merely wanting achievement, we may start believing that we need to be notable, celebrated, and special.
Naturally, when those rigid ‘needs’ are not met, we suffer. But this suffering is more acute and persistent, because it is violating an existential condition (mind you, one that we invented ourselves). Worse, when we notice that we are stressed, anxious or depressed in response to certain events where our ‘needs’ are unmet, more suffering ensues as we continue to judge the situation as unbearable or ourselves as incorrigible. That keeps us stuck.
For example, let’s say that I want achievement. Through a process of illogical thinking, I escalate that into the irrational belief that I must have success and happiness in my life at most times. As a nice bonus, that will guarantee that I am worthwhile. Then an outside event that I cannot control happens that leads to failure and an understandable state of sadness. Because this threatens my ‘need’ (and my worthwhileness), the sadness grows into despair and into depression. And then, when I realize that I am depressed (and unworthy), I feel depressed about my depression. I may even feel depressed for feeling depressed about my depression, as all of those things violate my achievement and happiness ‘needs.’
In contrast, if I can stay in a space where I am thinking logically about my desires and longings, I can interpret my setbacks for what they are: unlucky, unforeseeable, or unfavorable steps in a long journey. Ellis suggests that I tell myself something along these lines: “I don't like failing or experiencing losses. I wish that my life was richer and more comfortable. But if I am thwarted, do fail, get rejected, and am uncomfortable at Point A, that is unfortunate but hardly the end of the world. I can still lead a fairly happy life. Now let me go back to the immediate events and try to improve or deal with them so that I can get more of my goals fulfilled at Point B." That’s neat, isn’t it?
As you can see, Ellis was laying the groundwork for much of the Cognitive Therapy fundamentals that followed him. With the help of a good CBT book or an individual therapist, you can learn to identify which of your ‘wants’ has serendipitously morphed into a ‘need’ that may be keeping you stuck right now.
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Dr. Daniele Levy is a licensed psychologist offering CBT via Teletherapy from Menlo Park, CA. Her background uniquely combines leading edge training in behavioral sciences with deep expertise coaching and mentoring working professionals in dynamic organizations.
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Bay Area Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
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