I read an article this week which shows that CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the psychological therapy style which for many years has been the standard treatment for many mental health conditions, particularly anxiety and depression) is ‘losing effectiveness’. The study found that the benefits from this therapy seem to be less than they used to be.
Why could that be? How can something that used to work, just stop working? There’s several reasons why this could be the case, but the most interesting reason given was that people no longer expect it to work as well! Nothing to do with the treatment itself, and everything to do with the lowered expectations of people going into therapy meaning they then experienced less benefits. It’s a kind of placebo effect in reverse – if you’re sceptical, it’s less likely to be effective. With regards to CBT, when it first came out, it was touted as a miracle cure. People expected great things, and they got them. But over time, its limitations leaked out. People started talking about the times it didn’t work. Expectations fell, and now it’s not as effective.
This might seem a strange thing to hearing about from a psychologist… am I telling you that psychology has no ‘real’ effectiveness?
Well, yes and no.
The fact is, perception is everything. A long time ago, William Shakespeare wrote into one of his plays ‘Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so’. If your team loses a big match, is it bad? For you, yes. For the other team and their supporters, it’s a good thing. And for people who are uninterested, it’s not good or bad. This is a really simple example of how the world (the game) itself has no objective meaning, but the way we view it affects how we feel.
We’ve all seen the effects of expectation in action. Magicians use people’s ideas about what they think is happening to trick them into being distracted from what is actually happening – the things they’re doing that make the ‘trick’ not a trick at all. The placebo effect – experiencing actual improvements in physical wellbeing after taking something you’re told will help (whether it has physical effects on your body or not) is experienced by around 25% of people.
Expensive items/ services show this effect too. If you’ve paid a lot of money for something, you don’t want to feel like an idiot for doing so, you want it to seem like a smart decision! So you focus on all the benefits of the product and downplay the not so good stuff.
I see it in my depressed clients all the time. Depressed people see the world (and themselves) as disappointing, sad and hopeless, and can only see the evidence which supports their judgement. Convinced they’re right, they focus on only the negatives to prove this, even as doing so is making them unhappy and despite the best efforts of other people to show them otherwise.
From birth, we’re engaged in this process of deciding how the world is, and then ignoring some information that isn’t important to that world view, and highlighting the information that seems to matter. We have to do this: otherwise we’d be overwhelmed by information all the time. Think about driving a car: you need to put your attention on the road and other cars first and foremost, and to a large degree ignore things that aren’t important like the colour of the houses you’re driving past, or the names of side streets you’re not turning down. Otherwise you’d cause an accident or be driving at 5km/hr!
Enough of the examples, what does this mean for me?
This stuff about perception is all very interesting, in an intellectual way. But what can you do with the information practically? How can you make your life better by realising that most of the truth, what we call reality, is formed inside your head?
I think this is a great, freeing piece of knowledge to have to hand. This means you get to choose how you interpret events, without fear of being wrong. It means that if an idea excites you, then you should wholeheartedly embrace that idea, because then that’s what you’ll perceive in the world.
Step One –What world do you want to live in?
So have a long, hard think about the type of world you want to live in. Is it a kind world? An ambitious one? A creative place? Know that whatever decision you make, is the sort of world you’ll end up creating for yourself by the way you see the world.
It’s easier to start with something really specific like ‘I want to live in a world where women help women’ because it's easier to recognise examples of this, and put into place your own examples. But if you can make it work with something more general, like a creative world, then great!
Step Two - Know that your negative beliefs about the world are just that: beliefs.
In almost all cases, our negative beliefs are not accurate perceptions: they are a way of filtering the too-much-information-flow we get minute by minute. You can choose to have a negative, positive, connected, disconnected, happy, sad, agitated, frustrated, loving, fearful filter. You can choose!
Using the example from before, there’s of course instances in the world of women helping each other out, and women tearing each other down. There may be more of one kind or the other in your world at present. But the fact is, the filter choose will impact on your world. If you say ‘oh, there’s only women tearing each other apart in my world,’ then that’s what you’ll train your mind to see, and it’ll be your reality. And the opposite is true, too. Personally, I’d rather believe in, and look for the best!
How amazing. There is no rule that says you have to be sceptical, or feel isolated. There’s no rule that says you have to feel unhappy when certain things happen. You can choose to see crisis as opportunity. There is no objective, accurate representation of the world that you have to try and find. You get to make it up as you go along.
Step Three: Set up Your New World
Once you’ve decided the world you’d like, it’s time to look for example that prove your world view is correct. It can take a bit of hard work to set up new filters based on how you’d like to see the world. The old ones are created through habit, and habits take a while to change. But if you can truly grasp the fact that you’re not ‘right’ when you view things negatively, then it will be much quicker and easier to remove that filter.
Back to the women helping women example. Once you’ve decided that’s the world you want, then look for times when women do help women. Anything will do. Tune in to the world around you and look for women shouting other women a coffee, holding the door open for their pram, supporting each other’s ideas in the board room.
Don’t forget to actively set up your new world too. Take action to support other women. Nothing will convince you faster than your own actions.
Keep up looking for example of your new belief, and creating new evidence for that belief, and soon enough, that’ll become your world.
So yes, psychology is all in your head. But the realisation of this isn’t cause for sadness or regret. It’s a chance to celebrate! Know that no matter what’s going on externally, if you’ve got a good filter in place, you can be satisfied and happy.
Need some help changing your filter from a negative or limiting one to something positive and full of possibility? Contact me today for your individual session in exploring your limiting beliefs and practical exercises on how to change them.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.