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Stoic Philosophy in Build your Resilience (2012)

Stoic Philosophy & Resilience-Building

Excerpts from Resilience: Teach Yourself How to Survive & Thrive in any Situation

Teach Yourself: Build your Resilience (2012)Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2012. All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1444168711

Details on Google Books

My previous book The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010) discussed the relationship between Stoic philosophy and modern cognitive-behavioural therapy in some detail, from an academic perspective. My new book, Resilience: Teach Yourself How to Survive and Thrive in any Situation (2012), is a self-help guide to psychological resilience-building, based on modern CBT. However, it contains many references to Stoic philosophy. The outline below is based on modified excerpts from the text, which is available for pre-order now from Amazon and other online book stores.

Most of the chapters begin with a quotation from Marcus Aurelius, linking ancient Stoic practices to modern cognitive-behavioural approaches to psychological resilience-building. However, the final chapter, looks at perhaps the oldest Western system of resilience-building, the classical Graeco-Roman school of philosophy known as “Stoicism”, which is derived from the teachings of Socrates and influenced the development of modern CBT (Robertson, 2010). The Stoics are, in a sense, the ancient forebears of most modern resilience-building approaches. Indeed, Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who has most influenced the field of psychotherapy, has been described as “the patron saint of the resilient” (Neenan, 2009, p. 21).

The Essence of Stoicism

So what practical advice do the Stoics give us about building resilience? Well, this is a philosophy that can be studied for a lifetime and more detailed accounts are available. An excellent modern guide to Stoicism already exists in the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by Prof. William Irvine, an academic philosopher in the USA (Irvine, 2009). My own writings, especially my book The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, have focused on describing the relationship between Stoicism and modern psychotherapy (Robertson, 2010; Robertson, 2005).

However, although, Stoicism is a vast subject, it was based upon a handful of simple principles. Epictetus summed up the essence of Stoicism as “following Nature” through the “correct use of impressions”. By “following Nature”, the Stoics meant something twofold: accepting external events as decreed by the Nature of the universe, while acting fully in accord with your own nature as a rational human being, living in accord with your core values. (Scholars capitalise “Nature” when referring to the nature of the universe as a whole, whereas lower-case “nature” means your internal human nature as an individual.)

Don’t treat anything as important except doing what your nature demands, and accepting what Nature sends you. (Meditations, 12:32)

Reverence: so you’ll accept what you’re allotted. Nature intended it for you, and you for it.

Justice: so that you’ll speak the truth, frankly and without evasions, and act as you should – and as other people deserve. (Meditations, 12: 1)

However, the basic twofold principle “follow Nature” leads on to an elaborate system of applied philosophy, which this chapter will explore in more detail.

The first few passages of the philosophical Handbookof Epictetus provide arguably the most authoritative summary of basic Stoic theory and practice. I’ve paraphrased the key statements below, to highlight the possible continuity with ACT, CBT and the approaches to resilience-building discussed in this book.

  1. The Handbookbegins with a very clear and simple “common sense” declaration: Some things are under our control and others are not.

  2. Our own actions are, by definition, under our control, including our opinions and intentions (e.g., commitments to valued action), etc.

  3. Everything other than our own actions is not under our direct control, particularly our health, wealth and reputation, etc. (Although, we can influencemany external things through our actions we do not have complete or direct control over them, they do not happen simply as we will them to.)

  4. Things directly under our control are, by definition, free and unimpeded, but everything else we might desire to control is hindered by external factors, i.e., partly down to fate.

  5. The Stoic should continually remember that much emotional suffering is caused by mistakenly assuming, or acting as if, external things are directly under our control.

  6. Assuming that external events are under our control also tends to mislead us into excessively blaming others and the world for our emotional suffering.

  7. However, if you remember that only your own actions are truly under your control and external things are not, then you will become emotionally resilient as a result (“no one will harm you”) and you may achieve a kind of profound freedom and happiness, which is part of the ultimate goal of Stoicism.

  8. To really succeed in living as a Stoic, you need to be highly committed, and may need to abandon or at least temporarily postpone the pursuit of external things such as wealth or reputation, etc. (Stoics like Epictetus lived in poverty while others, like Marcus Aurelius, tried to follow the principles while commanding great wealth and power – both were considered valid ways of living for a Stoic but Marcus perhaps believed his complex and privileged lifestyle made commitment to Stoicism more difficult at times.)

  9. From the very outset, therefore, the Stoic novice should rehearse spotting unpleasant experiences (“impressions”) and saying in response to them: “You are an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be.” (Something that closely this resembles the basic strategy we call “distancing” or “defusion” in modern CBT.)

  10. After doing this, ask yourself whether the impression involves thinking about what is under your control or not; if not, then say to yourself, “It is nothing to me.” (Meaning, it’s essentially indifferent to me if it’s not under my control – I just need to accept it; although the Stoics did admit that some external outcomes are naturally to be preferred, despite lacking true intrinsic value.)

The Teach Yourself book goes on to describe the basic principles of Stoicism in more detail and, in particular, to elaborate upon some of the basic psychological strategies employed for resilience-building by the Stoic sages, such as acting “with a reserve clause”, visualising the “view from above”, and contemplation of the ideal Sage, etc.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: What is Resilience?

  2. Letting go of Experiential Avoidance

  3. Values Clarification

  4. Commitment to Valued Action

  5. Acceptance & Defusion

  6. Mindfulness & the Present Moment

  7. Progressive Relaxation

  8. Applied Relaxation

  9. Worry Postponement

  10. Problem-Solving Training

  11. Assertiveness & Social Skills

  12. Stoic Philosophy & Resilience

About the Author

Donald Robertson is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Harley Street. He is a CBT practitioner specialising in treating anxiety and building resilience and director of a leading therapy training organisation. He is the author of many journal articles and three books on therapy, The Philosophy of CBT, The Discovery of Hypnosis, and The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapy, and blogs regularly from his website www.londoncognitive.com.

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New Book: Build your Resilience (Teach Yourself)

New Book: Build your Resilience (Teach Yourself)

This new book by Donald Robertson, the author of The Philosophy of CBT, contains a chapter on Stoic philosophy in relation to resilience-building.

Psychological Resilience-Building

Teach-Yourself-ResilienceCopyright © Donald Robertson, 2012. All rights reserved.

Based on my book for the Teach Yourself series, Build your Resilience(2012).

What is Resilience?

How can you improve your ability to “thrive and survive” in any situation? What disadvantages, stresses, or difficulties do you currently face? What future problems might you need to anticipate and prepare for? What strengths and assets have helped you to cope well with difficult events in the past? What can you learn from the way other people deal with life’s challenges? These are all questions about psychological resilience. Building resilience is a way of improving your ability to cope with adversity or stressful situations in general.

We all need some degree of resilience in order to cope with the problems life throws at us. Indeed, research shows that resilience is normal and involves ordinary skills and resources. Everyone is capable of being resilient and becoming more so by developing appropriate coping strategies. The types of adversity that demand resilience can range from ordinary “daily hassles” to major setbacks, stressful life events such as divorce, redundancy, bankruptcy, illness, or bereavement, and perhaps even more severe trauma in some cases. Most people believe that they are at least moderately resilient. However, few people are as resilient as they could be in all areas of life, and there are always more aspects of resilience that can be developed.

Building Resilience

So how is resilience built? The American Psychological Association (APA) has published its own research-based public information leaflet entitled The Road to Resilience, developed by a team of six psychologists working in this area. Their ten recommendations for developing and maintaining resilience can be paraphrased as follows:

  1. Maintain good relationships with family, friends, and others
  2. Avoid seeing situations as insurmountable problems and look for ways forward where possible
  3. Accept certain circumstances as being outside of your control, where necessary
  4. Set realistic goals, in small steps if necessary, and plan to work regularly on things that are achievable
  5. Take decisive action to improve your situation rather than simply avoiding problems
  6. Look for opportunities for personal growth by trying to find positive or constructive meaning in events
  7. Nurture a positive view of yourself and develop confidence in your ability to solve problems
  8. Keep things in perspective by looking at them in a balanced way and focusing on the bigger picture
  9. Maintain a hopeful and optimistic outlook, focusing on concrete goals, rather than worrying about possible future catastrophes
  10. Take care of yourself, paying attention to your own needs and feelings and looking after your body by taking healthy physical exercise and regularly engaging in enjoyable, relaxing and healthy activities, perhaps including practices such as meditation

Books like Build your Resiliencecan help you learn specific techniques and strategies to develop these attitudes and skills, and learn other resilient ways of thinking and acting.

The Penn Resilience Program (PRP)

The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) is perhaps the best example of an established resilience-building approach. It was developed initially as a means of preventing depression over the long-term with schoolchildren, based on Martin Seligman’s earlier work on “learned optimism” and adapting the techniques of standard cognitive therapy to serve a preventative rather than remedialfunction. It has been supported by compelling evidence showing its effectiveness as preventative treatment for depression and also, in some studies, for anxiety. For example, up to two years after undergoing classes in resilience-building, children considered at risk of depression were found to be about half as likely to have actually developed it as their peers in “control” groups, who did not receive any resilience training (Reivich & Shatté, 2002, p. 11). In schoolchildren, for whom this approach was originally designed, research found that “conduct problems”, their behaviour, also improved as a result.

The version of the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) described by Reivich and Shatté (2002) consists of “seven key skills”:

  1. Monitoring your thoughts: Learning to catch your unhelpful thoughts as they occur and to understand how they influence your feelings and actions
  2. Spotting “thinking errors”: Spotting common errors (or “thinking traps”) among your thoughts such as excessive self-blame or jumping to conclusions, etc.
  3. Identifying unhelpful beliefs: Identifying unhelpful underlying (“core” or “iceberg”) beliefs and evaluating them
  4. Challenging unhelpful beliefs: This includes problem-solving as well as learning to dispute faulty “Why?” beliefs, or rumination, about the causation of problems that can get in the way of solving them
  5. Challenging catastrophic worries: Dealing specifically with “What if?” thinking, or unrealistic worry, by challenging catastrophic beliefs about consequences of problems and focusing instead on the most likely outcomes (“decatastrophising” or “putting things in perspective”)
  6. Rapid calming and focusing strategies: Coping skills for use in real-world situations, consisting of a simplified form of Applied Relaxation (Reivich & Shatté, 2002, pp. 192-196) and coping imagery used to “calm” stressful emotions and distraction (“focusing”) techniques to quickly manage intrusive thoughts, worry, and rumination
  7. Real-time resilience”: This involves using a much-abbreviated version of the disputation skills (4 and 5) above to challenge unhelpful thoughts more quickly and replace them with resilient ones in specific situations by completing the “tag lines” or self-statements: “A more accurate way of seeing this is…”, “That’s not true because…”, and “A more likely outcome is… and I can… to deal with it.” (Reivich & Shatté, 2002, pp. 206-210)

New Book: Build your Resilience

Due for publication by Hodder in May 2012, as part of the popular Teach Yourself series of self-help books.

ISBN: 1444168711

Resilience: How to Thrive and Survive in Any Situationhelps you to prepare for adversity by finding healthier ways of responding to stressful thoughts and feelings. You will learn a comprehensive toolkit of effective therapeutic strategies and techniques, drawing upon innovative “mindfulness and acceptance-based” approaches to cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), combined with elements of established psychological approaches to stress prevention and management. The book also draws upon classical Stoic philosophy to provide a wider context for resilience-building.

This book is a complete course in resilience training, covering everything from building long-term resilience by developing psychological flexibility, mindfulness and valued action, through specific behavioural skills such as applied relaxation, worry postponement, problem-solving, and assertiveness. Each chapter contains a self-assessment test, case study, practical exercises and reminder boxes and concludes with a reminder of the key points of the chapter (Focus Points) and a round-up of what to expect in the next (Next Step), which will whet your appetite for what’s coming and how it relates to what you’ve just read.

The author, Donald Robertson is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Harley Street. He is a CBT practitioner specialising in treating anxiety and building resilience and director of a leading therapy training organisation. He is the author of many journal articles and three books on therapy, The Philosophy of CBT, The Discovery of Hypnosis, and The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapy, and blogs regularly from his website www.londoncognitive.com.

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Excerpts

The View from Above (Stoic Meditation Script)

The View from Above

Stoic Meditation Script

Socrates in the clouds
Socrates in Aristophanes’ The Clouds

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.

(This is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now.)

Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth. (Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations)

Take a moment to settle into your posture and make yourself comfortable… Close your eyes and relax… [Pause.] Be aware of your breathing… Notice the rhythm and pattern of the breath… Do nothing for while, just be content to contemplate your breathing more deeply… [Pause.] Now, begin by paying attention to the whole of your body as one… From the top of your head, all the way down into your fingers and down into your toes… Be aware of your body as one… every nerve, muscle and fibre… Don’t try to change anything. Don’t try to stop anything from changing… Some things can change just by being observed…

Just be content to notice whatever you notice, and feel whatever you feel… Be a passive, detached observer… As you continue to relax, turn your attention deeper within, and become more aware of your body… until you can almost imagine how you look right now… Begin to picture yourself as if seen from the outside… Now just imagine that you are taking a step back and looking at yourself. It really doesn’t matter how vividly you can picture yourself, it’s just the intention, just idea that matters. Imagine your body posture… your facial expression… the colour and style of your clothing…

Now keep looking at the image of yourself resting there, and imagine your own feet are gently leaving the ground. You begin floating serenely upwards, slowly and continuously, rising upwards. All the while your gaze keeps returning to your own body, now seated there below you as you rise above it. Keep looking down toward your body as you float higher and higher…. The roof and ceiling disappear, allowing you to float freely upward. Gazing down you see yourself seated comfortably below in the building, looking contented and contemplative. You see all the rooms, and any other people around.

As you continue to float gently higher and higher, your perspective widens more and more until you see the whole surrounding area. You see all the buildings nearby from above. You see the people in buildings and in the streets and roads. You observe people far below working, or walking along the pavement, people cycling or driving their cars, and those travelling on buses and trains. You begin to contemplate the whole network of human lives and how people everywhere are interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways…

Floating higher, people become as small as ants below. Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you. You see both towns and countryside, and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive… You float gently up above the clouds, above the weather, and through the upper atmosphere of the planet Earth… So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into outer space… You look toward planet Earth and see it suspended in space before you, silently turning… resplendent in all its majesty and beauty…

You see the whole of your home planet… the blue of the great oceans… and the brown and green of the continental land masses… You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south… You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the Earth… Though you can no longer see yourself from so far above, you know and feel that you are down there on Earth below, and that your life is important, and what you make of your life is important. Your change in perspective changes your view of things, your values and priorities…

You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the Earth. The population of the planet is over six billion people… You realise that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the Earth… You think of the rich diversity of human life on Earth. The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries… people of all different ages… newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life… You think of the enormous variety of human experiences… some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy… and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems.

And yet as you gaze upon the planet Earth you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of stardust, adrift in the immeasurable vastness of cosmic space… This world of ours is merely a single planet, a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space… a tiny rock in space, revolving around our Sun… the Sun itself just one of countless billions of stars which punctuate the velvet blackness of our galaxy…

You think about the present moment on Earth and see it within the broader context of your life as a whole. You think of your lifespan as a whole, in its totality… You think of your own life as one moment in the enormous lifespan of mankind… Hundreds of generations have lived and died before you… many more will live and die in the future, long after you yourself are gone… Civilisations too have a lifespan; you think of the many great cities which have arisen and been destroyed throughout the ages… and your own civilisation as one in a series… perhaps in the future to be followed by new cities, peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life…

You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless billions of species living upon the planet… Mankind arose as a race roughly two hundred thousand years ago… animal life itself first appeared on Earth over four billion years ago… Contemplate time as follows… Realise that if the history of life on Earth filled an encyclopaedia a thousand pages long… the life of the entire human race could be represented by a single sentence somewhere in that book… just one sentence…

And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless billions of years old… the life of the planet Earth too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed from the debris of an exploding star, unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up and consumed by the fires of our own Sun… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting with a cosmic explosion, a big bang they say, immeasurable ages ago in the past… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again… Who can imagine what, if anything, might follow, at the end of time, in the wake of our own universe’s demise…

Contemplating the vast lifespan of the universe, remember that the present moment is but the briefest of instants… the mere blink of an eye… the turn of a screw… a fleeting second in the mighty river of cosmic time… Yet the “here and now” is important… standing as the centre point of all human experience… Here and now you find yourself at the centre of living time… Though your body may be small in the grand scheme of things, your imagination, the human imagination, is as big as the universe… bigger than the universe… enveloping everything that can be conceived… From the cosmic point of view, your body seems small, but your imagination seems utterly vast…

You contemplate all things, past, present and future… You see your life within the bigger picture… the total context of cosmic time and space… The totality is absolute reality… You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, something truly vast, the “All” itself… Just as the cells of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a single cell in the organism of the universe… Along with every atom in the universe you necessarily contribute your role to the unfolding of its grand design…

As your consciousness expands, and your mind stretches out to reach and touch the vastness of eternity… Things change greatly in perspective… and shifts occur in their relative importance… Trivial things seem trivial to you… Indifferent things seem indifferent… The significance of your own attitude toward life becomes more apparent… you realise that life is what you make of it… You learn to put things in perspective, and focus on your true values and priorities in life… One stage at a time, you develop the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference… You follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great nature of the universe as a whole…

Now in a moment you are beginning to sink back down to Earth, toward your place in the here and now… Part of you can remain aware of the view from above, and always return to and remember that sense of serenity and perspective.

Now you begin your descent back down to Earth, to face the future with renewed strength and serenity… You sink back down through the sky… down… down… down… toward the local area… down… down… down… into this building… down… down… down… You sink back gently into your body… all the way now… as your feet slowly come to rest upon the floor once again…

Now think about the room around you… Think about action… movement… think about looking around and getting your orientation… raising your head a little… Begin to breathe a little bit more deeply… a little bit more energetically… let your body feel more alive and ready for action… breathe energy and vitality into your body… breathe a little deeper and deeper again… until you’re ready to take a deep breath, open your eyes, and emerge from meditation… taking your mindfulness and self-awareness forward into life… beginning now… take a deep breath… and open your eyes now… when you’re ready… entering the here and now with deep calm and serenity…

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Excerpts Philosophy of CBT

Foreword by Prof. Stephen Palmer

Foreword by Prof. Stephen Palmer

The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010)

Cognitive behavioural therapies are at the cutting edge of modern psychological therapeutic interventions. They are evidence based and therefore are underpinned by much research. In The United Kingdom (UK) the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has recommended cognitive behavioural therapy for depression and anxiety-related disorders such as panics, obsessive compulsive behaviour, body dysmorphic disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (e.g. NICE, 2004, 2005; 2006; 2009). It is no surprise that this interests stakeholders wishing to provide cost-effective psychological therapies to their customers, ie the public, in order to improve wellbeing and reduce financial expenditure. In the UK the Government has taken the next logical step and funded cognitive behavioural therapy training as part of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme. Stressed, depressed and anxious citizens cost countries billions of pounds according to the research data, and understandably reducing absenteeism from work due to psychological illness is an attractive target to focus on. An effective IAPT programme can benefit both the country and the individual.

Cognitive behavioural therapy has become one of the main approaches for dealing effectively with a wide range of psychological disorders and this has led to a large increase in the training of health professionals in this approach especially within the UK. Key handbooks available to trainees based on Dr Aaron Temkin Beck’s Cognitive Therapy (Beck, 1976) or Dr Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) (Ellis, 1958) only briefly, if at all, cover the historical roots of these therapies. Dr Albert Ellis in his publications is often more explicit about the early origins of REBT in comparison to the books on Cognitive and Cognitive-behavioural therapy. 

Yet, for many of us something is missing from most of the literature. What has been needed is a book that covers the underlying philosophy of the cognitive behavioural therapies in much greater depth. This book on the Philosophy of Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy by Donald Robertson provides us with the missing link between the theory and the philosophy. This book takes us on a historical journey through millennia and highlights the relevant philosophies and the ideas of the individual philosophers that can inform modern cognitive behavioural therapies. This book also includes some therapeutic techniques that seem to be modern yet were been developed and written about many years ago. It is a fascinating read. The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy could be considered as either a prequel or a sequel to the standard textbook read by a trainee or experienced cognitive behavioural or rational emotive practitioner who wants to understand these approaches to therapy within an historical framework.

Professor Stephen Palmer PhD  FAREBT  FBACP

Director of the Centre for Stress Management, London, UK 

REFERENCES

Beck, A.T. (1976). Cognitive Therapy and The Emotional Disorders. New York: International Universities Press.

Ellis, A. (1958). Rational psychotherapy. The Journal of General Psychology, 59, 35-49.

NICE (2004) .Anxiety: Management of anxiety (panic disorder, with or without agoraphobia, and generalised anxiety disorder) in adults in primary, secondary and community care (http://guidance.nice.org.uk/CG22/guidance/pdf/English).

NICE (2005). Post-traumatic stress disorder: The management of PTSD in adults and children in primary and secondary care (http://guidance.nice.org.uk/CG26/guidance/pdf/English).

NICE (2006). Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Core interventions in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder and body dysmorphic disorder (http://guidance.nice.org.uk/CG31/guidance/pdf/English).

NICE (2009). Depression in adults (update): Depression: the treatment and management of depression in adults National Clinical Practice Guideline 90. (http://www.nice.org.uk/nicemedia/live/12329/45896/45896.pdf).

Categories
Excerpts Philosophy of CBT

Excerpt: The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.

[F]or many of us something is missing from most of the [CBT] literature. What has been needed is a book that covers the underlying philosophy of the cognitive behavioural therapies in much greater depth. This book on the Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy by Donald Robertson provides us with the missing link between the theory and the philosophy. […] It is a fascinating read. The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy could be considered as either a prequel or a sequel to the standard textbook read by a trainee or experienced cognitive behavioural or rational emotive practitioner who wants to understand these approaches to therapy within an historical framework.
— From the Foreword by Professor Stephen Palmer PhD FAREBT FBACP, Director of the Centre for Stress Management, London, UK


This is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now. You can also now order The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy from Amazon, where you may preview a sample of the contents online free of charge.


Donald Robertson

Critics might say that it is actually a healthy sign that so little attention has been given to the historical and philosophical origins of CBT because it is inherently a forward-looking, scientific approach to psychotherapy. Just because ideas are very old, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are particularly valid or useful today. However, there are number of legitimate reasons for exploring this matter in more detail. As [US naval pilot vice-admiral James] Stockdale [who used his knowledge of Stoic philosophy to survive incarceration in a Vietnamese torture camp] wrote,

Most of what Epictetus has to say to me is “right on” for modern times. Will Durant [an American philosopher] says that human nature changes, if at all, with “geological leisureliness.” According to me, not much has happened to it since the days of Homer. Epictetus lived a tough life: born a slave, crippled by a cruel master, went from boy to man in the murderous violence of the household of a totally indulgent Emperor Nero. And he read human nature across a spectrum like this, and by the standards of my spectrum it rings with authenticity. (Stockdale, 1995, p. 180)

Indeed, a handful of cognitive-behavioural therapists have already attempted to make some headway in the direction of increasing dialogue concerning the relationship between Hellenistic philosophy and REBT or CBT (Still & Dryden, 1999; McGlinchey, 2004; Herbert, 2004; Reiss, 2003; Montgomery, 1993; Brookshire, 2007; Robertson, 2005).

The Philosophy of CBT (Karnac)

Moreover, there are still therapeutic concepts and techniques to be found in classical literature that have good “face validity”, appear consistent with CBT, and may well deserve empirical investigation in their own right. Nevertheless, in his recent article, Herbert, while defending the notion that comparisons between ancient philosophy and modern psychotherapy are interesting and valuable in their own right, has called into question the extent to which correlation in their respective ideas can be taken as evidence of causation, i.e., of a historical influence (Herbert, 2004). While I agree that the question of influence is a complex one, and perhaps something of a diversion from the bigger issues, in the following chapters I will discuss the extent to which the founders of both REBT and cognitive therapy have explicitly stated, in some of their principal texts, that Stoicism and other ancient philosophical traditions were regarded by them as providing the “philosophical origins” of their approach, e.g., ‘The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers’ (Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979, p. 8).

Hence, some of the key points of the following text might be summarised as follows, for the benefit of readers requiring an overview of what may seem a complex and somewhat inter-disciplinary subject matter,

  • The origins of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy can be traced, through early twentieth century rational psychotherapists, back to the ancient therapeutic practices of Socratic philosophy, especially Roman Stoicism.
  • The notion of Stoicism as a kind of “intellectualism” opposed to emotion is a popular misconception. Stoicism has traditionally attempted to accommodate emotion, especially the primary philosophical emotion of rational love toward existence as a whole.
  • Ancient philosophy offers a clear analogy with modern CBT and provides many concepts, strategies, and techniques of practical value in self-help and psychotherapy.
  • The contemplation of universal determinism, of the transience or impermanence of things, including our own mortality, and the meditative vision of the world seen from above, or the cosmos conceived of as a whole, constitute specific meditative and visualisation practices within the field of ancient Hellenistic psychotherapy.
  • Contemplation of the good qualities (“virtues”) found in those we admire and in our ideal conception of philosophical enlightenment and moral strength (the “Sage”) provides us with a means of role-modelling excellence and deriving precepts or maxims to help guide our own actions.
  • The rehearsal, memorisation, and recall of short verbal formulae, precepts, dogmas, sayings, or maxims resembles the modern practice of autosuggestion, affirmation, or the use of coping statements in CBT.
  • The objective analysis of our experience into its value-free components, by suspending emotive judgements and rhetoric, constitutes a means of cognitive restructuring involving the disputation of faulty thinking, or cognitive distortion. By sticking to the facts, we counter the emotional disturbance caused by our own “internal rhetoric.”
  • Mindfulness of our own faculty of judgement, and internal dialogue, in the “here and now”, can be seen as analogous to the use of mindfulness meditation imported into modern CBT from Buddhist meditation practices, but has the advantage of being native to Stoicism, the philosophical precursor of CBT, and to European culture and language.
  • The enormous literary value, the sheer beauty, of many of the classics with which we are concerned marks them out as being of special interest to many therapists and clients, just as it has marked them out for many thousands of previous readers throughout the intervening centuries.
  • Socratic philosophy has a broader scope than modern psychotherapy, it looks at the bigger picture, and allows us the opportunity to place such therapy within the context of an overall “art of living”, or philosophy of life.

The modern industrialisation of psychotherapy, the division of the therapist’s labour, has compartmentalised it in a manner that is bound to cause certain contradictions. What was once a lifestyle and calling, a vocation in the true sense of the word, has now been degraded into a mere “job”. By nature, however, we do not merely study the cure of human suffering in order to alleviate it, but also to understand and transform ourselves and our relationship with life itself. Perhaps, as the ancients seemed to believe, the philosopher-therapist must first transform his own way of life, making it a living example of his views, in order to be able to help others. By contrast, if the goal of the “rational” or “philosophical” therapist is merely to do his job and leave it all behind him at the weekend, to treat what we call “psychotherapy” as just another profession then perhaps that’s not a very rational or philosophical goal.

Philosophers and psychotherapists have a great deal to talk about, and a better common ground is required on which the two traditions can meet each other and exchange ideas. I hope that this study of the philosophical precursors of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy will help to clarify and strengthen the basis for further dialogue between philosophers and therapists in the future.


This is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now. You can also now order The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy from Amazon, where you may preview a sample of the contents online free of charge.


Categories
Excerpts Philosophy of CBT

Excerpt about James Stockdale from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy

Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.

“Donald Robertson has uncovered a wealth of connections between modern cognitive behavoural therapies and ancient Stoic philosophy. This book should be read by anyone interested in understanding the historical roots of CBT or in learning about how ancient psychotherapeutic methods can add to the modern therapist’s toolkit.”
– Tim LeBon, UKCP registed psychotherapist and author of Wise Therapy

(This is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now.)

James Bond Stockdale

Donald Robertson

According to James Stockdale, the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that if Plato were to return to life today, he would first ask to be introduced not to an academic, but to a boxing champion (Stockdale, 1995, p. 17). If the Stoic philosopher Epictetus were alive in modern times, the first person he would want to be introduced to would probably be Stockdale himself.

On September 9, 1965, I flew at 500 knots right into a flak trap, at tree-top level, in a little A-4 airplane – the cockpit walls not even three feet apart – which I couldn’t steer after it was on fire, its control system shot out. After ejection I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little [North Vietnamese] village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: “Five years down there [in captivity], at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” (Stockdale, 1995, p. 189)

At the outbreak of US involvement in the Vietnam War, James Stockdale (1923-2005) was captured by a mob of fifteen villagers who beat him to within an inch of his life, snapping his leg, and leaving him permanently crippled. The irony, not lost on Stockdale, was that he had lost the use of his left leg, just like the crippled slave, Epictetus, whose ancient Handbook (Enchiridion) of Stoic philosophy he had previously devoured after studying philosophy as a masters student at Stanford University.

Stockdale was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese and incarcerated in Hanoi where, as the highest-ranking US naval officer, the only wing commander to survive an ejection over enemy territory, he assumed charge of a community of captured soldiers which, at its largest, numbered in excess of 400 men. Stockdale said he never actually saw a Vietnamese POW camp as portrayed in the movies. He was imprisoned in an old French colonial “dungeon” which formed part of a large communist prison called Hao Lo, or the “Hanoi Hilton”, described as part psychiatric clinic, part reform school. The Americans, kept alongside Vietnamese criminals, were subjected to a constant programme of attempted psychological reprogramming by professional torturers and prison officers. During that time, as a prisoner of war, for seven and a half years, Stockdale spent four years in isolation, two years in leg irons, and was tortured fifteen times, in a manner (“taking the ropes”) not unlike crucifixion.

And if I were asked, “What are the benefits of a Stoic life?” I would probably say, “It is an ancient and honorable package of advice on how to stay out of the clutches of those who are trying to get you on the hook, trying to give you a feeling of obligation, trying to get moral leverage on you, to force you to bend to their will.” Because I first reaped its benefits in an extortionist prison of torture, I could go on and say, “It’s a formula for maintaining self-respect and dignity in defiance of those who would break your spirit for their own end.” (Stockdale, 1995, p. 177)

Stockdale’s experience obviously bears comparison with the better-known story of Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who was incarcerated in Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War, and published his bestselling self-help book Man’s Search for Meaning, after his release (Frankl, 1959). However, although both men arrived at similar conclusions regarding their plight, Stockdale was already aware of Stoic philosophy before being captured and therefore made explicit use of it in coping with his extreme circumstances.

Throughout his time in captivity, Stockdale drew upon the Stoic philosophy he had learned, which suddenly appeared to him to be of more value than anything else he could imagine. He called the many portions of Epictetus’ Handbook which he had learned by heart and memorised his “consolation” and “secret weapon” during captivity.

I’m not the only prisoner who discovered that so-called practical academic exercises on “how to do things” were useless in that fix. The classics have a way of saving you the trouble of prolonged experiences. You don’t have to go out and buy pop psychology self-help books. When you read the classics in the humanities, you become aware that the big ideas have been around a long time, despite the fact that they are often served up today in modern psychological “explanations” of human action as novel and “scientific.” (Stockdale, 1995, p. 24)

On his release, Stockdale became a well-known military hero, even campaigning as a vice-presidential candidate, supporting the independent Ross Perot, in a US election. He was one of the most highly-decorated officers in US Naval history and spent his later years lecturing on the relevance of Stoic philosophy to modern military life. A collection of his talks and essays was published in his book, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (1995). It’s surprising that more frequent reference is not made to Stockdale’s story by cognitive-behavioural therapists, who claim to derive their inspiration from the same philosophical source, ancient Stoicism. I hope this short digression helps to illustrate how Stoic philosophy, like Frankl’s existential psychotherapy, has been applied even to the most extraordinary psychological challenges imaginable in the modern world.

(This is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now.)

Categories
Excerpts Philosophy of CBT

Excerpt: On Autosuggestion from The Philosophy of CBT

The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Émile Coué, Autosuggestion, and Ancient Philosophy

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.


This is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now. You can also now order The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy from Amazon, where you may preview a sample of the contents online free of charge.


When the French pharmacist Émile Coué (1857-1926) was 28 years old he met one of the pioneers of hypnotherapy, a country doctor named Ambroise-Auguste Liébault (1823-1904), and assisted him for about two years in his hypnotic clinic at Nancy. However, by 1910 Coué had abandoned classical hypnotism in favour of his technique of “conscious autosuggestion”, in which subjects are taught how to use suggestion and imagination for themselves, without the use of a formal hypnotic induction. At this point Coué founded a movement he termed the “New Nancy School”, in reference to the Nancy School of hypnosis founded by Liébault, who had passed away a few years earlier. Coué became one of the most influential “self-help” gurus of the twentieth century, touring America with his public seminars and attracting an international following during the period when Paul Dubois’ theories were still popular among psychotherapists.

Strikingly, Coué wrote, ‘Pythagoras and Aristotle taught autosuggestion’(Coué, 1923, p. 3). Though his justification for this conclusion seems somewhat unclear, he could probably have found more material to explain and support it.

We know, indeed, that the whole human organism is governed by the nervous system, the centre of which is the brain – the seat of thought. In other words, the brain, or mind, controls every cell, every organ, every function of the body. That being so, is it not clear that by means of thought we are the absolute masters of our physical organism and that, as the Ancients showed centuries ago, thought – or suggestion – can and does produce disease or cure it? Pythagoras taught the principle of auto-suggestion to his disciples. He wrote: “God the Father, deliver them from their sufferings, and show them what supernatural power is at their call.” (Coué, 1923, pp. 3-4)

The practice of repeating aphorisms, short verbal “formulas”, seems to have been associated with the ancient mystery religions and oracles, and the philosophical-therapeutic sect of Pythagoras which evolved from them.

The Ancients well knew the power – often the terrible power – contained in the repetition of a phrase of formula. The secret of the undeniable influence they exercised through the old Oracles resided probably, nay, certainly, in the force of suggestion. (Coué, 1923, p. 27)

The most famous formulae associated with the Delphic Oracle of Apollo, the patron god of philosophy, were “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess.” The Pythagoreans compiled lists of such aphorisms, which acquired cryptic symbolic meanings, and were referred to as akousmata, the “things listened to”, and symbola, the “symbols” or “watchwords.” For example, according to Porphry, the precept “poke not the fire with a sword” was a reminder that one should not further provoke an angry person by attacking them with verbal criticisms; “eat not the heart”, meant that one should not wallow in morbid emotions (Porphyry, 1988, p. 131). These Pythagorean sayings, and those derived from the Greek Oracles, may well be the precursors of the Stoic precepts (dogmata) which, as we shall see, appear to have performed a similar function.


This is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now. You can also now order The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy from Amazon, where you may preview a sample of the contents online free of charge.

Categories
Excerpts Philosophy of CBT

Excerpt: Ancient Social Anxiety

The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.


CitharaThis is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now. You can also now order The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy from Amazon, where you may preview a sample of the contents online free of charge.


Social Anxiety, Value Judgements, and Rigid Demands

[Albert Ellis was the founder of Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy, REBT, a precursor of modern CBT.] Ellis’ approach differs from other modes of cognitive-behavioural therapy in that he places most emphasis upon the role of irrational or “absolute” demands placed by the subject upon himself, other people, or his environment. According to Ellis, REBT is based on the assumption that the tendency to make “devout, absolutistic evaluations” of events in life is at the core of emotional disturbance and that these value judgements are typically framed in terms of dogmatic “must”, “should”, “have to”, “got to”, “ought to” statements, i.e., unconditional imperatives (Dryden & Ellis, 2001, p. 301). These are called “irrational beliefs” because they are viewed as cognitions, spoken or unspoken, which embody rigid and unrealistic demands and conflict with the goals of enlightened self-interest. By being “rational”, in other words, Ellis often appears to mean something akin to being pragmatic in our pursuit of long-term happiness.

Other types of irrational thought, such as over-generalisations, or unfounded assumptions, are emphasised throughout other schools of CBT, most notably Beck’s cognitive therapy. Ellis concedes that these can contribute to human suffering, and that it can be useful to target them in therapy. However, he insists that fundamentally rigid demands are the pre-eminent underlying cause of emotional disturbance, and even that they are a necessary condition of it. Even if I falsely concluded that everyone hated me, an irrational over-generalisation, in principle, I could still say “So what?” to myself and dismiss it without becoming upset. The unconditional demand that people must like me when combined with the belief that they do not, according to REBT, inevitably generates emotional distress. However, other people’s attitudes and behaviour, like other external events, are not under my direct control. Ellis makes this point, again by reference to Stoicism, when he advises those using REBT for self-help as follows,

As Epictetus pointed out two thousand years ago, although you do have considerable power to change and control yourself, you rarely can control the behavior of others. No matter how wisely you may counsel people, they are independent persons and may – and, indeed, have the right to – ignore you completely. If, therefore, you unduly arouse yourself over the way others act, instead of taking responsibility for how you respond to them, you often will upset yourself over an uncontrollable event. (Ellis & Harper, 1997, p. 198)

The irrationally rigid demands which REBT warns against, which are similar to the “rules” and “assumptions” in Beck’s cognitive therapy, also bear a striking resemblance to the unconditional value judgements which Stoics believe are at the root of emotional distress. For the Stoic, it is the tendency to judge things as being inherently or absolutely good or bad which leads to irrational craving (epithumia) or fear (phobos) respectively. In Stoic psychology, irrational desire, or craving, which places too much value on external things and other people’s opinions, is the root cause of anxiety. Believing that “I have to” have (or avoid) something, or that other people “must” behave (or not behave) in a certain way, as REBT would put it, is tantamount to saying that these things are of overriding importance in themselves, or absolute external values, as Stoicism would put it.

As is often the case, the Stoics give clear examples which would not seem out of place in a modern psychotherapy text, e.g., in this striking passage Epictetus describes the relationship between desire and social anxiety, or stage fright, as follows.

When I see somebody in a state of anxiety, I say, ‘What can this man want?’ Unless he wanted something or other which is not in his own power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a person who sings to the lyre feels no anxiety while he is singing by himself, but is anxious when he enters the theatre, even if he has a very fine voice and plays his instrument beautifully. For he wants not only to sing well, but to gain applause, and that lies beyond his control. […]

He does not understand what a crowd is, or the applause of a crowd. He has learned, indeed, how to strike the lowest and highest strings; but what the applause of the multitude is, and what force it has in life, he neither understands, nor has studied. Hence he must necessarily tremble and turn pale. […]

He does not know that he is wishing to have what is not allowed him, and wishing to avoid what he cannot escape; and he does not know what is his own and what is not his own [i.e., his value-judgements]; for if he did know, he would never feel hindered, never feel restrained, never feel anxious. […]

If, then, things outside the sphere of choice are neither good nor bad, and all things within the sphere of choice are in our power, and can neither be taken away from us, nor given to us, unless we please, what room is there left for anxiety? But we are anxious about this paltry body or estate of ours, or about what Caesar will think [i.e., about health, wealth, or reputation] and not at all about what is within us. Are we ever anxious not to take up a false opinion? No, for this is in our own power. Or about following an impulse, contrary to nature? No, nor this either. When, therefore, you see any one pale with anxiety, just as the physician pronounces from a person’s complexion that this patient is affected in his spleen, and that in his liver, so you likewise should say: this man is affected in his desires and aversions, he is out of sorts, he is feverish. For nothing else changes the complexion or makes a man tremble or sets his teeth a-chattering, or ‘Shift from leg to leg and squat on one foot then the other.’ (Discourses, 2.13.1-13)

Instead of attaching too much value to other people’s opinions, absolutely demanding their approval and fearing their rebuke, the musician should patiently train himself, over time, to put value primarily upon his own intentions and judgements and to take the audience’s praise or leave it with similar equanimity. For the Stoics, to value something positively or negatively is to try to control it, and we have more control over our own judgments and intentions than over external events or other people, so we should shift the focus of our value judgements inwards, within the here and now, and focus on the importance of our own mental activity and responses more than other people’s opinions. The example of stage fright is extended by Epictetus to oratory and any similar social anxiety. Anyone who anxiously demands, rather than merely preferring, that others praise him is being unphilosohical, and has failed to understand the nature of things in relation to his sphere of control. He blames his nerves on the situation, neglecting the importance of his own misplaced value judgements in determining his emotional disturbance.

Nor does he even know what anxiety itself is, whether it be our own responsibility or outside it, or whether it be possible to suppress it or not. Because of this, if he is praised, he leaves the stage puffed up with pride: but if he is laughed at, his poor bubble is pricked and collapses.

We too experience something of this kind. What do we admire? Externals. What do we strive for? Externals. Are we then at a loss to know how fear and anxiety overcome us? Why what else is possible when we regard impending events as evils? We cannot help being fearful we cannot help being anxious. (Discourses, 2.16.10)


This is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available to order online now. You can also now order The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy from Amazon, where you may preview a sample of the contents online free of charge.

Categories
Excerpts Philosophy of CBT

Excerpt: Shame-Attacking Exercises

Diogenes FingerThis is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy.

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.

In certain concrete practical respects, REBT also contains therapy interventions that resemble techniques familiar within ancient philosophical therapy. Ellis was known for what he described as REBT’s “trademark” use of various “shame-attacking exercises”. In order to help clients overcome self-consciousness, social embarrassment and inhibition, Ellis would prescribe changes in behaviour which were designed to forcefully and directly challenge their sense of shame. For example, he refers to the technique of asking clients to repeatedly stop a bus without getting off, or asking strangers in the street to give them money, etc.

I realised, soon after I started REBT in 1955, that what we call “shame” is the essence of a great deal of our emotional disturbance. […] Seeing this, I created my now famous shame-attacking exercise in 1968; and perhaps millions of people, especially psychotherapy clients, have done this exercise and trained themselves to feel shamed or sorry about what they did, and about the public disapproval that often went with it, but not to put themselves down and not to feel humiliated about their personhood. (Ellis & MacLaren, 2005, p. 95)

Ellis further explains the exercise as follows,

Here clients deliberately seek to act “shamefully” in public in order to accept themselves and to tolerate the ensuing discomfort. Since clients do best to harm neither themselves nor other people, minor infractions of social rules often serve as suitable shame-attacking exercises (e.g., calling out the time in a crowded department store, wearing bizarre clothes designed to attract public attention, and going into a hardware store and asking the clerks whether they sell tobacco). (Dryden & Ellis, 2001, p. 329)

This aspect of Ellis’ work is strikingly reminiscent of the practices of the ancient Cynic philosophers who appear to have adopted, albeit in a more extreme manner, controversial lifestyles and behaviours in order to liberate themselves from social conventions.

The Cynics break with the world […] was radical. They rejected what most people considered the elementary rules and indispensible conditions for life in society: cleanliness, pleasant appearance, and courtesy. They practiced deliberate shamelessness – masturbating in public, like Diogenes, or making love in public, like Crates and Hipparchia. The Cynics were absolutely unconcerned with social proprieties and opinion; they despised money, did not hesitate to beg, and avoided seeking stable positions within the city. […] They did not fear the powerful, and always expressed themselves with provocative freedom of speech (parrhesia). (Hadot, 2002, p. 109)

Ellis seems unaware of this precursor to his “shame-attacking” exercises. However, the Cynics themselves specifically refer to the deliberate practice of “shamelessness” (anaideia) as a psychotherapeutic exercise. In the case of Diogenes, this was referred to metaphorically as his “defacing the coinage” of social conventions, which inevitably shocked others. So notorious were the shameless acts of Diogenes that Plato allegedly called him “Socrates gone mad”.

According to the Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius, the famous Cynic, Crates, who trained Zeno the founder of the Stoic school, was nicknamed “Door-opener” because of his habit of inviting himself into people’s houses to lecture them somewhat abrasively on philosophy(Laertius, 1853, p. 250). He also mentions another practice of Crates which sounds like an even more provocative version of Ellis’ shame attacking exercises, ‘He used to abuse prostitutes designedly, for the purpose of practising himself in enduring reproaches’(Laertius, 1853, p. 251). Epictetus seems to imply that Diogenes and the other Cynics, whom he greatly admired, deliberately broke wind in front of people, presumably also as part of their practice of shamelessness (Discourses, 3.22.80). Indeed, I am indebted to Still and Dryden for the following illustration drawn from Montaigne’s account of a quite surprising Stoic anecdote,

In the midst of a discussion, and in the presence of his followers, Metrocles let off a fart. To hide his embarrassment he stayed at home until, eventually, Crates came to pay him a visit; to his consolations and arguments Crates added the example of his own licence: he began a farting match with him, thereby removing his scruples and, into the bargain, converting him to the freer stoic school from the more socially oriented Peripatetics whom he had formerly followed. (Montaigne, in Still & Dryden, 1999, p. 157)

Crates’ exercises in shamelessness, or the overcoming of social anxiety and inhibition, can be seen as a practical training in his maxim, ‘That a man ought to study philosophy, up to the point of looking on generals and donkey-drivers in the same light’ (Laertius, 1853, p. 252). Zeno appears to have assimilated some aspects of his mentor’s philosophy into Stoic therapeutics, although moderated by a greater respect for society than the Cynics allegedly displayed.

Like Crates, Diogenes the Cynic, who was revered as a Sage by some Stoics, reputedly tested prospective students by instructing them to follow him around carrying a salted fish, or a piece of cheese, in their hands. When some refused, out of embarrassment, he would chide them: “See how a piece of salted fish was enough to dissolve our friendship!” (Laertius, 1853, p. 230). Notoriously insolent and iconoclastic, he once asked the Athenians to erect a statue to him, and when asked why he had done so, replied, “I am practising disappointment.” (Laertius, 1853, p. 235). These and many similar popular philosophical anecdotes illustrate the striking parallel between the ancient Cynics’ psychotherapeutic technique of anaideia, or shamelessness, and the “shame-attacking” exercises made famous by Albert Ellis within REBT, precursors of certain more modest “behavioural experiments” used to challenge social anxiety and inhibition in modern CBT. Beck and his colleagues also refer to “anti-shame exercises” and observe that cognitive therapy provides opportunities for clients to deliberately expose themselves to feelings of shame in order to conquer them (Beck, Emery, & Greenberg, 2005, p. 282). Indeed, there are many more parallels which can be drawn between the principles of REBT and those of Stoicism.

Addendum

I didn’t spot this quotation in time for the book but Diogenes Laertius writes:

Some one dropped a loaf of bread and was ashamed to pick it up; whereupon Diogenes, wishing to read him a lesson, tied a rope to the neck of a wine-jar and proceeded to drag it across the Ceramicus.

The Ceramicus was the busy potter’s district of Athens, as the name implies, but also the location of a major cemetery.  This exercise in shamelessness clearly anticipates Ellis’ “trademark” REBT technique of taking a banana for a walk on a string through a shopping mall, as if it were a dog on a leash.


This is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available to order online now. You can also now order The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy from Amazon, where you may preview a sample of the contents online free of charge.