Monday, July 13, 2020

What the meraglim can teach us about cognitive therapy.

Cognitive therapy has given therapists all over the world the ability to help release people from anxiety, depression, anger, low self-esteem and much more. One of the benefits of cognitive therapy is that it often achieves results more quickly than traditional psychotherapy. The core idea of cognitive therapy is that our feelings and behaviors are triggered by our subjective thoughts about a circumstance or event, rather than the objective reality of the event itself.

Imagine you are standing in the lobby of an office building in midtown Manhattan. You are waiting for an elevator to take you up to the 56th floor for a meeting. As you are waiting, you suddenly think, “What if the cable snaps and the elevator crashes?” Suddenly you are feeling anxious. Perhaps you start to shake and break out in a cold sweat. The elevator doors open and everyone else gets in, but you are frozen with fear. In this case your anxious feelings are being generated by your subjective thoughts.

Thousands of thoughts pass through our minds every day. Some vanish as quickly as they emerged. Other thoughts can have a powerful and long-lasting impact on our behavior. For example, a person who suffers from low self-esteem might repeatedly think that they are not capable of success or that they lack any inherent worth. Imagine trying to feel confident preparing for an interview or a date with those thoughts racing through your head. Imagine how those thoughts would make you feel.

While these inner thoughts are powerful and compelling, they almost always contain significant inaccuracies or distortions. A trained therapist helps people identify and challenge their inaccurate and distorted thoughts, allowing for healthier reality-based perceptions.

Each year as we read the episode of the meraglim, I am fascinated that 12 meraglim could visit the same cities, see the same people, taste the same fruit, witness the same events—and yet react so differently. Yehoshua and Kalev were excited and optimistic. They declared “aloh naaleh ki hakol nuchal.” We can do this!” The other meraglim were frightened and defeatist. They said “Efes,” which means zero. They believed there was no way Bnei Yisrael could conquer the land and survive. Their pessimism swept through the camp with disastrous consequences.

Thinking about their divergent responses from the perspective of a cognitive therapist, I am reminded that it is not about the reality. It is always about the thoughts about that reality. I will share just one example, although there are many. Twelve spies see an unusual amount of funerals while in Canaan. That is the reality. It is their different thoughts that cause them to feel and react so differently. Ten spies saw the funerals and despaired because they thought the land was full of illness and death. No wonder they felt hopeless! The other two saw the very same funerals and thought that Hashem was protecting the spies by using the funerals to distract the local inhabitants from noticing them. In their minds the funerals were a sign of Divine Providence, which fostered feelings of courage and confidence. No wonder they felt ready and willing to continue on their holy mission! With Hashem at their side they were unstoppable!

The Talmud (Yerushalmi, Taanit 2:5) also acknowledges the great power that our thoughts have on our feelings. Chazal demonstrate the importance of identifying and understanding these inner thoughts in order to address them and thereby create new feelings. When confronted with Pharaoh and the Egyptians at the Red Sea, Bnei Yisrael responded to the situation in four different ways. The Talmud describes how Moshe, using wisdom and insight, identified the four types of thoughts and reactions and addressed each one. The first group thought there was no chance to survive. They felt completely hopeless. Moshe told this group to stand back and allow Hashem to save us. The second group thought the exodus was a failure. They wanted to surrender to the Egyptians. Moshe told this group that in a few moments there would not be any Egyptians left to surrender to. The third group thought they were capable of defending themselves. They felt confident and wanted to fight the Egyptians. Moshe tells this group that Hashem will fight for us. Finally, the last group thought their only hope was through prayer. Moshe told this group to remain silent. The point is that the people all experienced the same objective reality, but their thoughts led them to vastly different reactions. While some were completely hopeless or feeling defeated, others wanted to fight the mighty Egyptian army, and still others wanted to rely on prayer.

Unfortunately, Bnei Yisrael and the spies paid a heavy price for allowing their feelings and actions to be controlled by distorted thoughts. We can learn from their mistakes and address our uncomfortable feelings by uncovering the root thoughts that lead us to these feelings. We can actively work on making sure our thoughts are more accurate, and reduce the destructive thought patterns that can sabotage our relationships, our careers and even our physical health. Whether you work alone or with a therapist, you can adjust your thoughts and improve how you feel and perhaps enter your own promised land.

Rabbi Steven Finkelstein, LCSW, is the director of guidance at Torah Academy of Bergen County. He has a private practice in Hackensack. He specializes in anxiety, depression, anger management, self esteem, relationships and life coaching. Contact him at [email protected]