May 20, 2024
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Cogito Ergo Sentio

There is much emotional suffering in the world (such as depression and anxiety) and, as a clinical psychologist, I help people find their way out of their suffering. Emotional healing is a multi-step process and it begins with understanding the nature of one’s difficulty. This includes the all-important step of identifying the causes of one’s emotional distress. So, a very basic question that needs answering is, “What causes emotional distress?” It is natural to attribute one’s emotional pain to an external source, such as “I’m anxious because I lost my job” and “I feel angry and hurt because you insulted me.” But is it true our feelings are caused by events and other people?

The French philosopher Rene Descartes is famous for having deduced “Cogito ergo sum,” which is Latin for “I think, therefore I am.” I wonder, were he a psychologist living in modern times, if he might have instead deduced “Cogito ergo sentio” (“I think, therefore I feel”).

If I ask you, “Do you have any control over the emotions you feel?” you might say, “Not much.” This is because it seems our emotions are automatic responses to events and, therefore, out of our control. In other words, “I am angry because you denied me a promotion” or, put another way, “you caused me to be angry.” The truth, however, is that events do not cause our emotions. What we think about events causes our emotions. Much of my work with clients is focused on helping them to understand that the key to better emotional health is changing the way they think. (Of course, brain chemistry sometimes plays a role in emotional problems and for some, psychotropic medication is also important factor in improving their mental health.)

I often give the following example to illustrate the connection between our thoughts and our feelings: Imagine you’re standing in line at a movie theater, waiting to purchase a ticket, minding your own business. Out of the blue, a man you’ve never seen before walks past you and bumps into you, jostling you. He doesn’t apologize. He doesn’t even acknowledge you exist. He simply keeps walking. What do you think about him? Most people suggest he’s thoughtless, rude, and obnoxious because he knocked into them and didn’t have the courtesy to apologize. Now, how do you feel? Most people respond that they feel irritated, annoyed, angry, even resentful. (My antisocial clients typically suggest more colorful emotions that will go unnamed here.)

Now, take the same scenario in which you’re standing in line and the man bumps you and keeps walking. The difference now is that you somehow know the man is a nice guy. As in the first scenario, you’ve never seen him before, but somehow, just somehow, you know he’s a good person. He pays his taxes on time, he helps elderly people cross the street, and he likes to rescue little animals from pet shelters. The thing is, he’s a very distractible person. He has a tendency to daydream and to not be aware of his surroundings. When he bumped into you, he was so lost in his own thoughts that he didn’t realize what he had done. Had he been aware, he would have stopped and apologized profusely.

Now how do you feel? Most people say they’re not angry, not nearly as irritated as in the first scenario. The difference, of course, is the impression you had of the man who bumped into you. In other words, your thoughts about him (either rude and obnoxious or nice and absent-minded) led you to interpret his behavior in a particular manner and your feelings toward his bumping into you followed suit. When you thought he was an objectionable person with great disregard for you, you felt angry at him. When you thought he simply was oblivious to having bumped into you, you felt more forgiving.

The point of this exercise, of course, is to illustrate that what we think about the world around us influences how we feel about it. Certainly, we don’t have absolute, immediate control over our feelings. We’re human, after all. We can’t just tell ourselves not to be angry (or anxious, or depressed, etc.) and expect it to happen instantaneously. But, and here’s the all-important but, as we work on improving our thoughts so they’re healthier, our emotions will follow. Over time, we’ll experience a very noticeable shift in how we respond emotionally to events, which will in turn result in improvement in our general mood. Our depression, anxiety, anger will lessen and we’ll be happier, better-adjusted people. In the field of psychotherapy, this change in how we think is often referred to as a “cognitive shift,” because it refers to shifting our thinking from a negative focus to a more positive focus. How exactly we accomplish this shift in our thinking is “easier said than done,” and I will address that in my next column.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment, and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected] or at 201-406-9710.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, Ph.D.

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