“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.” Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
I sometimes wonder what Sylvia Plath would’ve made of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In a nutshell, CBT teaches you to recognise errors in your thinking and to change them, thus changing your usual behaviours and making yourself feel much better. Errors in thinking might include, for example, ‘catastrophising’ and ‘fortune-telling’, where you might think “Today is going to be a total nightmare, because year 9 hate me and do everything they can to piss me off”.
The trick is to break the thought down into more sensible, rational thoughts: “Year 9 don’t hate me, one of them smiled at me in the playground last week”, “Children aren’t naughty to annoy the teacher, in fact, they rarely think about how the teacher might feel anyway”, “There might be many wonderful things that happen today if I get out of bed and go see”.
And so, the thinker doesn’t stay cowering under the duvet and, instead, leaps out of bed full of the joys of spring and the whole day is wonderful. (sorta).
There are countless studies about how effective CBT is, compared to medications, other forms of therapy, and any other way you might try to treat depression and anxiety… but it has one flaw. You have to believe in the premise. You have to believe that in order to get better you have to change the way you think. You have to accept that YOU THINK WRONG.
And so, I wonder what an intelligent, creative woman like Sylvia might have thought.
My thoughts, for a long time included some of these beauties:
1. If I accept that my thinking is wrong, I have to accept that I am STUPID. I am an intelligent, creative woman… so my thinking must be perfect.
2. I do not want to be a smiling, affable goon. I want to fight injustice and get righteously ANGRY… and CBT will stop me from doing this.
3. I’d rather have a lobotomy and I bet it’d have the same results.
4. People who are happy and content all the time don’t get anything done. If Gandhi and used CBT, where would we be today? I am like Gandhi, obviously.
5. Teaching really *is* crap and people really *do* look at me funny and everyone else in the world is stupid and doesn’t *feel* things the same way I do – I am special and sensitive and better than most people. I am not of this world, and so your rules don’t apply.
And, for months, maybe years, I was comforted by these totally reasonable thoughts. I read The Bell Jar as a teenager and found it uplifting and inspirational. I read Prozac Nation and giggled at all the idiots she was surrounded by. Girl, Interrupted only made me love crazy Winona even more. How beautiful it was to be a crazy, intelligent, creative woman.
And how utterly pointless.
Because, now that I start to feel a little better, I can see that there are a few flaws in those thoughts of mine. So, to CBT ’em:
1. You’re intelligent… but you’re also prone to exaggeration, melodrama and romanticism. All of which might make for a good writer (one day) but not a very effective wife, friend, or teacher. Nobody’s thinking is perfect.
2. It will be a great deal easier to change the bits of the world that you want to, if you can actually get out of bed in the mornings.
3. If all you’re doing all day is staying in bed or drinking yourself into a stupor to cope with the crapness of life, then no one would notice if you had a lobotomy either. You are not being a creative, intelligent woman if you don’t change out of your pyjamas for days on end.
4. You aren’t Gandhi. And, even if you were, Gandhi did a great deal of smiling and laughing. None of which you are doing right now. Also, Gandhi got out of bed. (but he did wear the equivalent of PJs, but that was for a good reason).
5. Blah blah. Life isn’t always good, obviously. But, listen, no one owes you anything and things certainly aren’t going to get better while you sit around complaining. Nor is anyone else going to be able to fix this for you. However much they love you. Now shut up.
So, it seems, somewhere along the way, I got sold on the idea of CBT. And I feel so much better… and I am a great deal more pleasant to be around… and I am writing more… and I still get to wear a silly hat, and be ‘different’ and creative … but now I can do it all whilst smiling. (which, it turns out, makes you feel a lot better than sitting around cynically bemoaning the state of everyone else).