Altering Thoughts

As I’ve shared before, I suffer from moderate depression. Lately, in my effort to combat it, I’ve been reading a book called Feeling Good by David Burns, MD. Though I’m very skeptical of most modern psychology, this one is actually based on pretty solid insights, ones that harmonize with what I read from older authors (always a good sign) and which make philosophical sense. The author also makes a point of proudly noting that his therapy is actually scientifically tested, which apparently is not standard procedure for therapy methods (“cognitive therapy is one of the first forms of psychotherapy which has been shown to be effective through rigorous scientific research under the critical scrutiny of the academic community” – Feeling Good: chp 1. Translation: “most psychotherapy is pure snake oil”). In any case, I highly recommend the book, especially to anyone suffering depression, though I think the principles can be applied to many other disorders, as you will see.

The central principle of Cognitive Therapy is this: thoughts create emotions. We feel the way we do because of how we think, and we also act accordingly.

Now, thoughts are reflections of reality; there is the real thing, then there is our idea of it as perceived through the senses. A true thought is one that is accurate to the thing perceived as it really is (“Actual knowledge is identical with its object.” –De Anima, III, 5. “The idea of the thing known is in the knower,” –Summa Theologiae 1.Q14.A1). Basically it’s like we’re constantly making drawings or descriptions in our minds of what we perceive with greater or lesser accuracy.

Our emotions follow from these thoughts; because we perceive a thing a certain way, we react to it in a certain way. If your mind forms a picture of a beautiful woman, you react one way. If your mind includes the detail that she’s pointing a gun at you while brandishing an Antifa flag, you react another way. But which reaction you have, which of the passions is engaged, depends on the image you provide to them.  

Therefore, if your thoughts are a fair reflection of reality, your emotions will be reasonable and valid. If your thoughts are distorted, your emotions will be distorted and invalid. “The first principle of cognitive therapy is that all your moods are created by your ‘cognitions’ or thoughts…You feel the way you do right now because of the thoughts you are thinking at this moment. ” (Feeling Good: chp. 1. Emphasis in original).

The interesting thing about this is that it is exactly the same principle presented in the book Inside the Criminal Mind by Stanton Samenow Ph.D. regarding how to effectively reform people with criminal mindsets. Criminals commit crimes because of the way they think; because their minds are fundamentally fixed on what they want. They are reformed when their habits of thought are altered, which generally involves intensive, uncompromising therapy and refusing to allow excuses: “How a person behaves is determined largely by how he thinks. Criminals think differently…Our approach to change must be to help the criminal radically alter his self-concept and his view of the world. Some criminals can be ‘habilitated,’ that is, helped to acquire patterns of thinking that are totally foreign to them but are essential if they are to live responsibly” (Inside the Criminal Mind – Chp 1. Emphasis in the original).  

In the field of eating disorders, the lovely Beauty Beyond Bones also recounts a similar principle for how she was able to overcome anorexia, recounting the grossly distorted thoughts surrounding her disorder and how replacing those thoughts with the truth is what ultimately saved her. “She’s doing this to herself because of an inner voice that’s got a grip on her. An inner Lie that is louder than anything else… To beat the disease, you have to: A) name the Lie B) discredit the Lie and C) replace it with the truth.”

Even more encouraging, this is essentially the traditional view of the matter. What did the old Saints and Homilist’s say? “Meditate upon Christ.” Just as one example, much of St. Francis de Sales’s  Introduction to the Devout Life consists in telling people what to think about. “To attain such a conviction and contrition you must faithfully practice the following meditations. By the help of God’s grace they will be very helpful in rooting out of your heart both sin and the chief affections for it” (Introduction the Devout Life: The First Part, 8.).  

Our Lord Himself alluded to this: “The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome. But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be!” (Matt. 6:22-23). The eye, that is perception, determines one’s condition. If our perception is distorted or evil, our evil shall be great indeed.  

In short, this principle of thought creating emotion, leading to action keeps cropping up in different contexts, yet always, it seems, with actual evidence and actual successes to back it up.

Now, you will note the corollary; if thoughts determine emotions and consequent actions, and distorted thoughts lead to distorted actions, then mental health means having thoughts that adequately reflect reality. Basically, true thoughts. Everyone would agree with this; I would call it an axiom that of course we are obliged to think honestly. It is arguably the fundamental duty of mankind.

But if thoughts, as everyone agrees, can be true or false, accurate or distorted, that means that emotions can likewise be true or false, valid or invalid.

That’s great news when you’re dealing with depression or other painful psychological disorders. It’s somewhat less great news when you realize that this pretty much invalidates most modern thought.

For instance, you take this opening statement from a ‘Psych Central’ article found with a two-second Duckduckgo search: “Emotional invalidation is when a person’s thoughts and feelings are rejected, ignored, or judged. Invalidation is emotionally upsetting for anyone, but particularly hurtful for someone who is emotionally sensitive. Invalidation disrupts relationships and creates emotional distance. When people invalidate themselves, they create alienation from the self and make building their identity very challenging.”

The idea of emotional invalidation is now pretty much out the window, or at least heavily altered. Because your emotions can be invalid, and if so, the kindest thing to do would be to convince you of that, if possible, and the worst thing would be to validate them. Whether and how you can do that in any given situation is, of course, another story. The point is that emotional reactions are not somehow independent of objective reality.  

“When you do this, I feel mad.” But the question is, is that a reasonable response? What is the actual situation, and how are you perceiving it? What would be a more accurate perception?  

Because you see, when you validate someone else’s false emotions and false thoughts, you strengthen them. It’s right there in the word: you reassure them that their false thoughts are not false. You reinforce their habit of thinking that way and experiencing those emotions. The more you ‘validate’ someone’s invalid emotions and false thinking, the deeper you drive them into that pit (the bigger question, of course, is ‘just how do you convince them their emotions are invalid?’ Which I confess I don’t have an answer for).  

In short, since emotions follow thought and thoughts can be distorted, the mere fact that you experience a given emotion says absolutely nothing about the validity of that emotion. That has to be established on quite different grounds.

If distorted thoughts lead to distorted emotion and consequently to things like depression, criminality, and eating disorders, then you can see how distorted ideas can affect society at large. A given religion or ideology frames how we will perceive the world; that is, it provides the baseline for our thoughts and consequently for our emotions and actions. In the old days, societies were very cautious about the ideas they allowed or encouraged to be at large in the public mind, precisely because they understood this dynamic. Whether they were right or wrong to have done that is another question, as is the whole point of the specific ideas they opposed. However, it does rather undermine the whole idea of pluralism. The proposal that every man has the right to create his own view of the world and that all ideas are to be received as equally valid as far as society is concerned rests upon the notion that our ideas, our thoughts, do not substantially affect our actions or make us good or bad people. But, in fact, they are the only things that do (the fact that no pluralist society – including our own – actually lives by this principle further undermines it; try publicly suggesting that there are fundamental differences between races if you want to see how pluralistic we really are when it comes to ideas we as a society actually care about).

You see, if thoughts determine emotion and behavior, then whether people think truly or falsely is very much in the public interest and “all points of view are valid” is both false and dangerous.

I suspect, though I can’t prove, that pluralism factors into this dynamic in another way. As Uncle Screwtape explained, people in the old days used to be pretty well aware of the thoughts that governed their actions and were prepared to alter their lives on the strength of a line of argument. But we moderns are not like that; with the modern media and other such things, we are bombarded from morning until night with dozens of contradictory ideas and points of view, while at the same time we are encouraged to think of them less as true or false than as interesting or shocking or offensive or liberal or conservative or inspiring. In any case, the pluralistic environment we live in gives us an instinctual check to thinking anything absolutely true or false and acting accordingly.

The result, as I see it, is that we have a massive amount of mental static cluttering up our brains, and the actual ideas and beliefs that govern our actions slip by unnoticed. This might be one reason why there seems to have been an exponential increase in psychological and emotional disorders as pluralism became more widespread (there are obviously other factors, such as the breakdown of community, but that’s another story).

But to go back a little ways, if thoughts lead to emotions and distorted thoughts to emotional distortion (e.g. depression), and if ideas and worldviews provide the baseline for thoughts, then evil, false, and just plan insane ideas spread throughout society will create emotional distortions on a massive scale. Depression writ-large, in fact.

So if you have, say, the idea “men have always oppressed women, looked down upon them, and tried to keep them subservient,” abroad in society, then many people, perhaps most, will perceive the world through that lens. Whole institutions, laws, practices will be created accordingly, reinforcing the idea (again, action reinforces thought: when you live an idea, the idea and its consequent emotions becomes more fixed in your mind).

The result is…well, what we see. Widespread misery, injustice, and a maniacal, ongoing effort to fix the problem by continually reasserting the lie, like trying kill the pain by popping methamphetamines. Just like in matters of depression, where you think things like “If I can only stay in bed and do nothing today, I will feel better,” or “if the world weren’t set against me, I would be happier.”

One of my favorite games is Psychonauts, where you play as a young psychic who travels into people’s minds and battles their inner demons. One particular level has you helping a manic-depressive actress and concludes in a boss fight against her bloated inner critic, who fights by shooting words of criticism at you. You defeat him by shining spotlights on him. That is, exposing him and leaving him vulnerable to attack.

That’s how we defeat distorted thoughts, by exposing them to the light of truth and then mercilessly pummeling them while they’re down. Whether inside our own heads or abroad in the world, whether they take the form of actual statements of fact or emotional reactions, the thing to do is to show them for what they are and take them apart.

Because emotional reactions, that sense of hopelessness and despair, that feeling that the world is so cruel and unfair, those are only symptoms; symptoms of how you think. They are consequences of lies. “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Stop Feeding the Beast

I struggle with what is called Depression, though recently I’ve had better success in dealing with it by stumbling onto a very important insight, which I call ‘Don’t Feed the Beast.’

See, Depression takes the form of extreme negative thoughts, sometimes explicit, more often present as a kind of underlying assumption. E.g. “I am never going to amount to anything.” That these are, objectively, often untrue isn’t really relevant; they seem plausible enough, and you can always point to something that you do or don’t do, to habits and facets of your personality that seem to lend credence to them (every lie has some degree of positive evidence in its favor; just ask Herr vom Rath. It is usually the existence of counter evidence that shows it to be a lie).

A lot of the time it works something like this: we sit down to work and hear the thought “You’ll never amount to anything, so why bother putting in the time? You’ll only humiliate yourself”. For fear of humiliation, or because we just want the painful thoughts to go away, we comply, hoping that, perhaps later, we’ll feel better. But then an hour or a day later, with nothing much to show for our time, it becomes, “See? You just wasted all that time doing nothing instead of working. That’s why you’ll never amount to anything.”

But if once we realize that our depression is based on the fear that we’ll never amount to anything, we ought to see that a reluctance to work is exactly what would make that fear come true, and thus in giving into that fear, we only make it stronger. We are feeding the very beast that we’re trying to escape.

So, per the advice of the great therapist Bob Newhart, stop it.

A lie becomes stronger the more it is believed or acted upon. The more you treat as if it were true, the greater the hold it will have over you. It may even become true in the end.

I bring it up both because I hope it’ll help anyone reading who has a similar problem and because I think we’ve been living this pattern on a societal level, especially in the Church, for quite some time now: acting on lies that we know are lies in the hopes of sparing ourselves pain. The attitude of “Yes, this isn’t true, but…” But we don’t want to be thought intolerant. But there are people like that out there (remember Herr vom Rath). But people might turn away if we make a fuss about it.

And in so doing, we confirm the lie and lend our own credence to it. By saying something like, “this is true, but we can’t put it like that because people will think we’re bigots,” we only vindicate that interpretation. We are, in effect, agreeing that this particular truth is bigotry and thus cannot be spoken, when what we ought to be doing is challenging that interpretation: not “that’s intolerant; we don’t believe that. We believe (same thing in weaker words),” but rather “we believe that and it isn’t intolerant because….” In trying to be charitable, we in fact surrender.

As with depression, we really need to stop it; to stop admitting to lies or trying to make accommodations because we’re afraid of what others will think about us. By so doing, we only, in fact, confirm their worst ideas by acting as if they were true. Then we wonder why we keep losing ground.

Stop Feeding the Beast.

No Post Today

Because I was swamped with work (not all of which I even got to). Got to observe the sight of a Java program behaving directly contrary to what I was telling it to do (probably due to confusion from using threads).

Anyway, something better tomorrow. Probably.

 

New Catholic Match Post

I saw some people discussing this on the Catholic Match forums a while back and gave the question some thought. The results are now up:

The basic version is that men are more physically oriented, women more relationally oriented. A woman typically wants to learn more about a man’s character, personality, and capabilities. Thus, what a man fundamentally looks for is signs that a woman is studying his character, trying to dig out more of his personality, and liking what she sees.

Here are some specific, simple signs you can give to let the man you’re talking to know that you’re interested in him.

  1. Talk about yourself.

Sounds a little counter-intuitive, but there is a method to the myopia.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean talking non-stop about yourself, or making the relationship all about you. It means sharing your personal concerns, your ideas, and what’s going on in your life and (this is important) seeking his input and support. By talking about your own life, you signal that you want him involved in your life; that this isn’t just a means of passing the time for you, but that you want him to take an interest in you, personally.

Read the rest here.

Snakes, Snakes, and More Snakes

I’m very fond of snakes, so one of my favorite YouTube channels at the moment is ‘Snake Discovery,’ which is all about snake and reptile care, with lots and lots of gorgeous different kinds of snakes. But they’re almost all colubrids (which are ‘standard,’ mostly non-venomous snakes such as garter snakes, rat snakes, racers, hognoses, and so on), with one or two pythons (and one very interesting little alligator, but that’s another story).

Today, however, the hostess travels to a reptile zoo to learn about venomous species: the vipers and elapids, and we get lots of footage of the kinds of snakes you don’t normally see in someone’s home, along with advice of when and why to have a venomous pet. We also get a sense of just how big a King Cobra really is (it’s pretty huge).

Now, obviously a lot of people don’t like snakes, and often when I share my liking of them, I get a slightly confused reaction. People tend to think they’re nasty, scary, ugly creatures, and they certainly can be scary; some of them (like many of the ones on display here) are extremely dangerous animals with a very limited set of responses.

As this video displays, however, ‘ugly’ is something that is less true than you might think. There are lots of beautiful snakes out there (watch out for that Urutu Viper, and the two varieties of Green Mambas, not to mention a cameo by the Chinese King Ratsnake). For my part I find the fact that these limbless, ground-dwelling creatures are yet dangerous enough to intimidate some of the most powerful animals on Earth (even elephants are wary of snakes, since the larger venomous species – the Black Mamba and King Cobra – can kill them if they bite in a vulnerable place) to be inspiring. Snakes, as a rule, just want to be left alone; they’re solitary, shy creatures as a rule, minding their own business and keeping themselves to themselves, but they can and will defend themselves if they feel threatened.

Snakes, therefore, to my mind symbolize the desire for individual freedom; to be left alone to manage your own affairs and pursue your own interests without being badgered and bothered by rules or other people, and the willingness to fight for that right. And, on the other side, the danger inherent in the things (and people) you regard with contempt, the ones who are despised and ‘trodden on.’ There’s a reason a snake is on the Gadsden Flag.

Also, don’t forget the story in Exodus; when God announced Himself before the mightiest king on earth, the Pharaoh of Egypt, He used a snake as His first miracle. His serpent swallowed up the serpents of the Egyptian priests, and likewise the despised and trodden-on Hebrews would prove more dangerous than Pharaoh expected, and their descendants would live to swallow up the remnants of Egyptian culture and dig Pharaoh’s tomb out of the sand.

In short, snakes are a reminder that despising the humble, the simple, and the solitary is not as easy or as safe as it might appear.

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Found on the Internet

New Catholic Match Post on Holding Doors

My latest Catholic Match post is up, dealing with the subject of holding a door for a lady.

The great ideal of chivalry has, in our time, largely been reduced to things like “hold the door for a woman.”

As it’s largely been stripped of its context, some of us are even questioning this last and least remnant. After all, what does it possibly matter who opens the door? Also, shouldn’t a strong, independent lady be able to open her own bloody door or pay for her own meal? Isn’t it infantilizing a woman to cater to her in this sort of way?

I always found the latter objection especially strange. Apparently, to be catered to and deferred to now implies weakness on your part. By that logic, a king would be considered the weakest and least respected man in his own kingdom, as he is the one who is most catered to.

There is a moment in Ben-Hur where the Emperor Tiberius is preparing to give a proclamation. The servant tasked with handing it to him is momentarily distracted and doesn’t realize that Tiberius is sitting there with his hand held out, glaring at him and waiting for him to give him the scroll. It’s within easy reach, but he is the Emperor; he doesn’t move to meet his servants, his servants move to meet him. No one who valued his head would dare suggest this implied weakness on the Emperor’s part; quite the contrary. His power and authority is shown in that others do things for him, not because he can’t, but because he shouldn’t have to.

This is useful to know if you ever meet the Roman Emperor, but what does it have to do with dating?

Find out the answer here.

Things to Know Before Dating a Traditionalist:

After reading the staggeringly tone-deaf list of things to know before dating a feminist, I thought it might be useful to provide a list of what someone – a modern woman within what seem to me to be the typical range of socio-political views – ought to know before dating a Traditionalist (which is my present label for my own set of views), hopefully while avoiding the pitfalls of the other list.

  1. Just because he is not a feminist does not mean he doesn’t respect you. From his perspective, it is quite the reverse.
  2. He is going to pay for the meal, open the door, and walk you to your car or to your door. He is not going to ask to come up either on this date or any other. For goodness sakes, do not take offense at any of this.
  3. He will not swear in front of you and you shouldn’t swear in front of him
  4. He will not be offended if you question his beliefs. It will not be the first time.
  5. He is not necessarily going to ask that you share his views, only that you don’t call him a moron, bigot, or (God forbid) ‘Nazi’ for having them.
  6. You will never win a debate with him by using the word “racist,” “sexist,” or any similar term.
  7. Don’t expect much from the word “equality” either.
  8. Telling him how one of his favorite films / books is actually sexist is a good way to ensure there will not be a second date. This goes double if you haven’t actually seen / read it.
  9. Trying to justify the murder of children by appealing to ‘choice’ will end poorly.
  10. He will not find you more attractive the more skin you show or the tighter your clothes are.
  11. Just because he is polite and dresses well does not mean he is not dangerous. This is a good thing.
  12. His idea of ‘women’s history’ is “Theresa of Avilla and Maria Theresa.” Citing a suffragette or (God forbid) a politician as an example of a great woman will only tempt him to mockery.
  13. He does not want to talk about sex past, present, or future on a first date. Probably not on the second one either.
  14. There is about a 50/50 chance he will recite poetry during the evening. Remain calm and let it run its course.
  15. He expects you to be as rational as he is.