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  • Writer's picturesarahfishburnrober

CBT - and the hunger to be more serious

When I look at Rembrandt’s self-portrait of 1669, I allow myself to believe that this was a man who lived a life of great psychological depth, and who knew himself in all his weakness and suffering. There is an honesty in the work that conveys an unsparing rigour when it came to introspection.

To look at ourselves in any depth, however, is something we are generally reluctant to do. There is a cultural antipathy to any way of being that might be construed as passive, and when we are unhappy, we often take hasty action and jettison whatever is perceived to be the source of our distress. This might be one reason why Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is so universally praised; it’s seen as proactive and efficient, and measurable, as well.

The favoured child of the government’s IAPT initiative, CBT does what it says on the tin, addressing primarily the client’s ‘faulty’ cognitions and behavioural patterns that are the source of their distress, thus relieving their symptoms and helping them to develop more effective ways of coping.

I am not against it per se; it is good at treating symptoms of distress, which is vital if anyone is to manage the gruelling process of psychotherapy. But seldom does it explore and heal the root cause of our misery. It will not bring about second order change, that is, an emotional and psychological transformation that is long-lasting and deeply felt.

As T. S. Eliot put it, we are “distracted from distraction to distraction.” To truly know ourselves takes time (a lifetime) but we are too busy and tired and frightened to do it. Yet advancements in neuroscience, theories of intersubjectivity and early child development tell us that altering our thoughts and behaviour (and is that as easy as it sounds?) does not heal us. Reparative, relational, embodied experiences do.

“Someone will forever be surprising/A hunger in himself to be more serious” wrote Philip Larkin, and indeed, we are strangely dismissive of our longings for greater depth and intimacy. Yet to not take the plunge into our unknown interior worlds will mean to forfeit our greatest needs and desires, and consign ourselves to skating on the surface of life.

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