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The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, by Donald Robertson - Elf M. Sternberg
The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, by Donald Robertson
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological counseling in which the therapist eschews the traditional seeking of root causes for a more objective and forward-seeking approach. Rather than help the patient seek reasons for their problems, the CBT therapist trains the patient in the use of psychological tools and rationalizations to help the patient manage and overcome their disorder. Through the building of habits, repetition, and framing, the patient is expected to develop a behavior pattern that, through dissonance, drags their emotional state into compliance with their daily activities. This approach has demonstrated surprising efficacy in double-blind studies.

The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, by Don Robertson, is a sadly long-winded treatise that attempts, and mostly succeeds, to show that the roots of CBT can be found in ancient traditions, mostly Stoicism but also Epicureanism, Skepticism, and even Buddhism. But it's too long, too wordy, too desperate to make its case.

Robertson starts by showing that modern psychotherapy, the sort where the patient must do something to overcome his problems, is trying to be exactly what philosophy was two millennia ago: a practice, a daily routine, a way of living that was harmonious with both human nature and the inevitability of life and life's challenges. Each of these, be it Buddhism or Stoicism or whatever, taught people both a fundamental set of truths about the human condition, and a daily practice for how to manage the frustrations and even despair that comes from those truths.

Robertson then goes through the various standard practices of CBT and its modern precursors, and shows how the Stoics were already doing all of those things 2,000 years ago: mental rehearsal for tragedy or disaster, daily planning to do "the work the world has brought you," always with the tagline, "fate willing," nightly journaling of your day to ensure your actions were in line with your planning, actively imagining a present counsellor over your shoulder to see your own actions as others would see them; imagining your frustrations as others might see them to assess their true weight; and embracing a long-term sense of love, happiness, and joy that has nothing to do with immediate pleasures, but instead is ultimately about ensuring your own long-term mental health, by embracing trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, intimacy, productivity, and the ultimate condition: integrity.

This book, however, could have been half as long and accomplished twice as much. Robertson tries too hard, and co-opts too many different traditions, in his attempt to make his point. At several points Robertson quotes Spinoza, Montaigne, Descartes, and other philosophers, and this comes across much less as a connection between the two traditions and more as an argument from authority: "All these smart guys embraced Stoicism, so you should as well." At one point, Robertson makes a tenuous connection between the teachings of Jesus and his premise, but the material there is weak and desperate; it comes out as an attempt to reassure his audience that there's nothing un-Christian about either practice, and it's one that fails.

This is a thick book of small but valuable nuggets of knowledge and wisdom. It is most definitely not a self-help book, nor is it really a solid introduction to either Stoicism or CBT. Robertson jumps around too many different issues to do more than make his central case: everything in CBT has been done before, successfully, and CBT practitioners should both understand that and be proud of it.

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