How Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is repackaged stoicism

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If you were to book a session with a conventional psychologist today you may not realise that what you’re actually signing up for is applied ancient Greek and Roman philosophy …. just a modern revived version called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). 

As many of you know CBT is a therapeutic tool used widely by counsellors and psychologists across the globe. Developed in the 1950s & 60s it’s now one of the most researched methods for treating anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. 

What’s not as well known though is CBTs roots in ancient stoic philosophy. Albert Ellis, who created Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (the precursor to CBT) based his method on the ideas of ancient stoic philosophers such as Seneca, Epictetus and Aurelius. 

After working as a psychotherapist for several years he felt he had exhausted the standard psychology tools of the day, and so delved into ancient philosophy to see if he could find some age-old wisdom that might help his clients feel a deeper more profound sense of happiness. 

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The modern idea we have of someone who is “stoic” is different to the teachings of ancient stoicism. Whilst the contemporary meaning of the word implies someone who is strong and emotionless in the face of adversity, ancient stoics taught people to feel and examine their emotions, to delve into them in order to find the thoughts and beliefs that gave rise to them. 

Ancient stoics were pantheists who believed in following the laws of nature. They believed there was a divine spark and divine order in everyone and everything and that we should align ourselves to this naturalness rather than going against it. 

They promoted the idea of dividing life into what we can control and what we can’t, and believed the happiest people were those who put their energy and focus towards the former whilst accepting the latter. It was a waste of mental energy, they said to dwell on things that can’t be changed. 

They believed fundamental lasting happiness was a result of living a virtuous life and operating with the highest integrity no matter what your circumstances. Applying virtues and doing the right thing gives rise to the greatest fulfilment they said, rather than your societal status, material wealth or access to human pleasures. Stoics would happily enjoy material wealth or pleasures if they happened to be available but they would not be so attached to them that they would suffer terribly in their absence. 

They didn’t see material abundance as “wrong” but they didn’t believe it was the key determining factor of happiness. A person in poverty could still be happy if they lived the virtues and adopted stoic practices. 

So what were these stoic practices, and how are they echoed in CBT today? Here are a few I stumbled across that caught my curiosity: 

Negative visualisation: the contemplation of loosing something important to you.

Ancient stoics would contemplate or visualise loosing something important to them, such as their hand, loved one, property or house in order to feel a sense of gratitude for what might otherwise be taken for granted.

Contemplating your death and the impermanence of everything.

Stoics would contemplate death and the impermanence of life once again as a reminder to feel grateful for each new day. Everything will change and one day we won’t be here at all, best to enjoy it while it lasts they suggested.

Develop accurate perception to prevent painful emotions 

Stoics believed emotions were a natural part of life but that we cause ourselves a great deal of unnecessary emotional turmoil due to seeing things through the lens of distorted thinking. They encouraged people to see life as accurately as possible, to look at “the facts”, be real and logical. “Clear thinking” they said is also a product of living a virtuous life. Simply doing the right thing, and doing your best in any given situation prevents emotions like guilt, remorse and regret. They also said that regularly practicing contemplations on what can and can’t be controlled creates a mental habit towards what’s useful and purposeful rather than pointless and depressing.

There are other practices and the philosophy is much more involved than what I’ve touched on above but hopefully you’re getting a sense for what they were teaching. 

CBT promotes many of the same ideas. Of course contemplating your death might be considered taboo or dangerous for someone who’s depressed but the rest of the ideas are integral to CBT; cultivating gratitude, examining emotions to find irrational beliefs, learning to see things as they are, operating with integrity and in alignment with our true selves, these are all themes and ideas you would probably discuss with a contemporary therapist. 

Ironically many people criticise CBT for being too “stoic” in its approach and see it as overly rational at the expense of exploring human emotions. To be honest I felt this way about it too until I delved a bit deeper into the history of it to reclaim some necessary context. This was the stuff of sages! Not those who wanted to repress their emotions and promote a “stuff it down soldier on” type attitude but rather the legacy of incredibly deep thinkers who possessed a pragmatic yet reverent attitude towards life.

As I type this blog and insert the quotes below to leave you with I marvel over the fact they’re still being shared all over the net thousands of years later. Perhaps simple truths last the test of time.

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3 thoughts on “How Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is repackaged stoicism

  1. Truth,
    Good article. It makes me want to study CBT in more depth. I have always believed that psychiatry/psychology/philosophy are inextricably aligned but the modern approach doesn’t appreciate that.

    I wonder if today’s efforts to divorce philosophy and religion from psychology has devitalized it and imparted a cold, mechanistic, “scientific” flavor that undermines the humanity of the field. To try to separate ourselves from our humanity seems deadening, yet that is what we do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! I was thinking that myself as I wrote the blog. CBT made a whole lot more sense to me once I read about the philosophy that inspired it. I think it can be very jarring for people to be just told hey your thoughts are irrational, your perception is faulty and the world is not the problem you are if they’re not given a broader philosophical context. I think the medical model influence on psychology has put emphasis on CBT being a “treatment” for people who have a “disorder” where as the ancient Stoics would have just seen their teachings as a healthy way of life helpful to anyone including those who feel “miserable” or wanting to increase their sense of happiness. I think there’s too much emphasis in modern times and on making people feel like there is something wrong with them. We’re all in this together. Thanks for having a read btw.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Truth,
        I have so many thoughts on this that they get crowded at the gate. Basically, I agree with everything you say, and then some. I think it’s so sad that people now think there’s something wrong with them because they don’t fit society’s model for how they “should” feel. Your analogy between CBT and the ancient stoics is a good one. It seems CBT tries to formalize what the stoics understood intuitively.

        Like

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