Of Wise Men, Hamlet, and CBT

CBTThere’s a parable about a wise man who walks into the kingdom of an angry and mistrustful king and says, “Go out and find me one truly good man.”

The king puts on a disguise and tries to do so for the next year. He talks to everybody he meets not just in his own kingdom but in neighboring lands, as well. At the end he returns and declares that the truly good man, a mythical creature, cannot be found. “There were some who came close but when I really examined their hearts they were all bad.”

So the wise man goes to another kingdom, where the king is kind and loving, and says “Go out and find me one truly bad man.” This king also fails. “Some people I met seemed bad at first but once I got to know them I always found some good.”

All of us explain events according to our subjective realities, not the objective reality of the world around us. Take from Shakespeare’s Hamlet “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In short, these attributions are the crux of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an approach that reminds us that events are neutral and we must make judgments to bring meaning tot evens in our lives.

Naturally, these judgments say a lot about who we are. All of our prejudices, biases, and lenses become apparent. If we see others as good we will view them with kindness and act with openness. If we see others as fundamentally bad we will perceive them cynically and act defensively. When we see the world as a safe and inviting place we act with courage and feel secure. For us who see the world as dangerous we are destined for a life filled with paranoia, insecurity looking for a target to justify its fear.

CBT helps us to recognize the reflexive nature of our thoughts. Much like cracking knuckles is a behavioral habit, we also have well worn cognitive, or thinking habits. When we become more aware of how we make our attributions, as well as the non-stop chatter we do when talking to ourselves each day, we begin to develop some power of choice over the thoughts we entertain. While it’s difficult to stop a reflex from firing, it is possible to gain control over the second thought in our cognitive chains and start thinking in purposeful ways.

Do you want to be the person who finds the bad in others or the good? When you choose your thoughts you shape your reality.