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The Stoics Invented CBT

·4 mins

Much of modern psychology is borderline wishy-washy pet theories wrapped up in scientific jargon. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), on the other hand, is a practical, evidence-based approach to changing your thoughts and behaviors. And it’s been around for thousands of years.

We can thank Freud for doing two things: bringing the idea of talk therapy into the mainstream and making it seem like a mystical, magical process. Freud practiced pseudoscience, and unfortunately, his ideas still permeate our culture today. Thankfully, we have (in some circles at least) replaced his style of magical thinking with more evidence-based approaches like CBT.

The Stoics were doing CBT long before it was cool, and they wrote about it before Freud was anything other than a twinkle in his mother’s eye. And unlike Freud, the Stoics were onto something, as what they advocated sounds a lot like applied CBT. We know now that much of Freud’s work was based on pseudoscience and personal bias. Freud’s work was primarily scientism rather than actual science.

Today, therapy is trendier than ever, and while I’m not strictly anti-therapy, I don’t believe it’s the magic bullet some seem to think it is. At best, therapy is one tool on the path toward realizing nobody can help you but you.

Whether practicing therapy works for you depends on whether you’re lucky enough to find a good therapist and if you choose to do the work. Some therapists are better than others, practicing more science-based therapy (such as CBT), but many are flying by the seat of their pants and making things up as they go along.

For some people, therapy is probably just a replacement for having good friends who listen and care about you. You are paying someone to listen and care, perhaps offer advice, but mostly listen. There’s nothing wrong with that either. Many people suck at listening. It’s capitalism’s solution to the modern breakdown of community, the rise of individualism, and the demise of the nuclear family.

As for the effectiveness of therapy, it likely has only about 10% to do with your therapist, and 90% of it is about whether you realize that, at the end of the day, how you feel is your choice. Nobody but you can make you feel anything. You can choose to be happy or sad, and you can choose to be angry or calm.

The Stoics knew this, and they knew that the only thing you can control is your mind, how you react to things, and how you choose to feel. The critical insight that both the Stoics and CBT offer is that you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how those things make you feel. This is the essence of both CBT and Stoicism.

I had a therapist–nearly a decade ago–introduce me to CBT. It was my first introduction to the idea, eventually leading me to learn about Stoicism, albeit by accident. While I don’t feel that particular therapist helped me, I learned a few valuable skills, such as practicing speaking and describing my feelings out loud intentionally to others. We tend to assume other people know how we feel (but often they don’t). She also provided me with some CBT book recommendations, which ended up being more helpful than the therapy itself.

In practice, CBT is about changing your thoughts and behaviors. It’s about recognizing that when you feel angry, sad, or anxious, it’s because of your thoughts. And you can change your thoughts. You can choose to think differently. You can choose to be happy. You can choose to be calm. You can choose to be content. Putting this into practice isn’t easy, but the first step is learning to recognize the negative thought patterns that lead to negative emotions.

Next time you feel annoyed or bothered by something or someone, consider whether it’s worth being annoyed about. Acknowledging negative thoughts for what they are and recognizing the pattern of your negative thoughts is often enough to start training yourself to care less, which is the ultimate life hack and can help you achieve what the Stoics referred to as virtue.