Ask David featuring four terrific Should questions, and more questions about “asinine, stupid, narcissistic, self-serving humans! “
- Oliver asks: Can a thought be thought as moral or immoral?
- Vincent asks: I have suffered from depression for about 3 years and say to myself, “I should have gotten better sooner.” Isn’t this “should” appropriate?
- Charles says: Your concept of “no self” shot my anxiety way up and made me feel hopeless. . . . It makes me feel worse than before!
- Michelle asks: How is your requirement that new patients must agree to not make any suicide attempts for the rest of their lives any different to a “suicide contract” which you mention are not effective?
- Brian asks: I’ve done a few things that made me feel intensely guilty. . . . The knowledge that I didn’t do what I should have done led to a lot of guilt and shame, and eventually depression. Just wondering your thoughts on this
- Carrel asks: I’m a Democrat in Texas. How can we use disarming to heal the political rifts in our country?
- Natasha asks: How do I stop the dark thoughts of wishing harm to come to stupid humans who do asinine, narcissistic, self serving, irresponsible things—like driving massive, loud pickup trucks around the neighborhood, honking incessantly as they wave their 20 ft political flags; or bringing the family for a paddle boat ride in the local pond, taking delight in teaching their human offspring to paddle the boat as quickly as they can to chase after the beautiful, innocent geese and ducks trying earnestly and fearfully to swim to safety. and more.
Dear Dr. Burns,
Can a thought be thought as moral or immoral?
In many podcasts and articles, you use “Thou Shalt Not Kill” to demonstrate morally should statement, which is one of the 3 valid should statements in English. I’m still somewhat confused about this concept. To tell you where I get stuck, I come up with three thought experiments.
Imagine the following situations in which a should statement may come to mind:
Lisa stole some money from a grocery store. When arrested by police, Lisa said with tears, “I shouldn’t have stolen money. I feel ashamed for what I have done.”
In this case, it is obvious that “I shouldn’t have stolen money” is a morally should statement, and also a legally should statement, because Lisa did something that violates the law and her moral principle.
DAVID’S COMMENT: YES, YOU ARE CORRECT. LISA’S STATEMENT CAN BE CLASSIFIED AS A LEGAL SHOULD AND A MORAL SHOULD.
One day, Bob went to Walmart to buy a suit. When he was passing by a shelf, a thought appeared in her mind. “What would happen if I steal this suit? I really want it, but I have very little money.” When he came back home, he talked to himself,” I shouldn’t have felt the urges to steal things. And I shouldn’t have thought about stealing the suit.”
DAVID’S COMMENT: THESE WOULD NOT BE CONSIDERED VALID SHOULD STATEMENTS BY MOST PEOPLE, SINCE WE HAVE FREEDOM OF THOUGHT. HUMAN BEINGS HAVE ALL KINDS OF FANTASIES AND URGES ALL THE TIME—AT LEAST I KNOW THAT I DO! AN URGE ONLY BECOMES IMMORAL OR ILLEGAL WHEN YOU ACT ON IT.
HOWEVER, ALTHOUGH I DO NOT THINK THESE ARE VALID SHOULDS, BUT I TRY NOT TO IMPOSE MY VALUES ON OTHERS FOR THE MOST PART. I AM A SHRINK, SO I WORK WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE ASKING FOR HELP.
FOR EXAMPLE, PEOPLE WITH OCD OFTEN PUNISH THEMSELVES JUST FOR HAVING “FORBIDDEN” THOUGHTS, FEELINGS, OR URGES. THE FIGHT TO CONTROL THEM IS THE ACTUAL CAUSE OF THE OCD. THE SHOULDS TYPICALLY MAKE THE PROBLEM WORSE, NOT BETTER. SELF-ACCEPTANCE CAN BE ONE OF MANY HELPFUL TREATMENT STRATEGIES.
RELIGION CAN SOMETIMES BE A SOURCE OF OPPRESSIVE SHOULDS, ESPECIALLLY THE MORE FUNDAMENTALIST TYPES OF RELIGION. RIGIDITY MAY BE A PARTIALLY INHERITED TRAIT. FOR EXAMPLE, MANY RELIGIONS AROUND THE WORLD PROMOTE THE IDEA THAT HOMOSEXUALITY IS “WRONG” AND THAT PEOPLE “SHOULDN’T” HAVE URGES AND ATTRACTIONS TOWARD PEOPLE OF THE SAME GENDER. THIS IS AN AREA WHERE “SHOULD STATEMENTS” BECOME HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL, AND ARE OFTEN A SOURCE OF HORRIFIC HATRED AND VIOLENCE, SOMETIMES IN THE NAME OF SOME “HIGHER POWER.”
Lucy was buying fruits in a grocery store when she found that a man was taking an apple off the shelf and hiding it in his clothe! Obviously, the man was stealing an apple. Lucy was very angry and said, “the man shouldn’t steal things from the store. It’s not right!”
In this case, Lucy didn’t steal apples, the man did. But Lucy made a moral judgement about the man’s behavior, not Lucy’s behavior. Then is this should statement valid for Lucy?
DAVID’S THINKING. TO MY WAY OF THINKING, YES THESE ARE VALID LEGAL SHOULDS AND MORAL SHOULDS, SINCE OUR CIVILIZATION (AND ALL CIVILIZATIONS) HAVE DECIDED THAT STEALING IS ILLEGAL, AND IS ALSO CONSIDERED MORALLY WRONG IN MOST RELIGIONS: “THOU SHALT NOT STEAL” IS, I THINK, ONE OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.
THE GOAL IS NOT TO CLEAN UP YOUR SPEECH SO THAT YOU NEVER USE SHOULD STATEMENTS THAT DO NOT FIT INTO ONE OF THE THREE VALID CATEGORIES OF LEGAL SHOULDS, MORAL SHOULD, AND LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE SHOULDS. AT LEAST I HAVE NO INTEREST IN THAT. MY GOAL IS TO HELP PEOPLE WHO ARE SUFFERING BECAUSE OF SHOULD STATEMENTS.
What is it with “shoulds” related to recovery from depression? I suffer from depression for about 3 years and say to myself “I should have gotten better sooner.” Isn’t this “should” appropriate? Because who really wants to suffer through this agony?
Greetings from Geneva.
“I wish I had gotten better sooner.” This is a correct statement without the “should.” This simple shift in language is called the Semantic Technique, and it was developed by Dr. Albert Ellis who kind of gave birth to cognitive therapy in the 1950s, along with Dr. Karen Horney about the same time. Instead of using a should, you use “it would be preferable if” or “I wish X was true.”
In addition, it isn’t actually true that you “should” have gotten better sooner! The universe does not always conform to our expectations. Just because we want something, it doesn’t follow that it “should” happen. I’d love to have a new Tesla sports car, at least in fantasy, but it isn’t true that I “should” have one. It would be “great” if you had gotten better sooner, that’s absolutely true.
“I should have gotten better sooner.” That’s totally false.
In addition, although one might think that no one would “want” depression, my research and new clinical work indicate that resistance is nearly always the key to recovery. In other words, people do cling to depression, anxiety, troubled relationships, and habits and addictions, but don’t realize why they are resisting change. Once you suddenly see why you are resisting, your resistance paradoxically disappears, and recovery is then just a stone’s throw away.
You can learn more about this in my new book, Feeling Great, available now on Amazon. Thanks! PS let me know if you like the new book, and if you find it helpful!
All the best,
A new comment on the post “108: Do You Have a “Self?”” is waiting for your approval
First off I want to say thank you. Your work has been helping me through my anxiety. However, I really struggled with this podcast. The concept of no self shot my anxiety way up and made me feel hopeless. It made me feel almost as if I was not real or that there is nothing worth striving for. I love helping people. But I feel like I don’t have a purpose if I don’t have a self. It makes me feel worse than before.
The “great death” of the self is a challenging concept, and while it is incredibly liberating, lots of people—most, in fact—don’t “get it.” Some get angry. Some struggle with trying to understand what this could possibly mean. And some find the concept very threatening. That’s why I deleted the chapter from my book. In fact, a couple extremely brilliant and interested colleagues totally couldn’t grasp it, and felt frustrated by my writing on the concept.
sometimes, ideas are so simple and basic that people cannot grasp them. The Buddha ran into this problem 2500 years ago. People thought he was fantastic, but almost none of his followers experienced the enlightenment he was so excited to teach them.
The 20th century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, ran into the same problem. He solve all the problems of philosophy, but when he was alive, it was rumored that only seven people in the world, including one of his favorite students, Norman Malcolm, could grasp what he was saying. He went in and out of intense depression and loneliness during his life, in part because of his frustration with trying to teach the obvious.
In my book, Feeling Great, I teach that there are actually four “Great Deaths” for the patient, corresponding to recovery from depression, anxiety disorders, relationship conflicts, and habits and addictions. There are also four “Great Deaths” for TEAM therapists. Those sections might be helpful for you!
In addition, I focus on the fact that people can never judge your “self,” only something specific that you think or do. Depression cannot exist on the specific level, only up in the clouds of abstraction. For example, Overgeneralization is one of the ten cognitive distortions I described in my first book, Feeling Good. When you Overgeneralize, you see a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat, and you might also Overgeneralize from some specific flaw or defect to your “self.”
You will read about an attractive and vivacious young professional woman who had the thought, “I’m unloveable,” when her boyfriend of two years broke up with her. This is classic depression thinking, and “self” thinking. She thinks she has a “self” that can be loveable or unloveable. But this is simply not true, and it’s not productive, because she’ll spend all her time ruminating and feeling worthless.
An alternative is to focus on why the (overall excellent) relationship didn’t work out, and what she can do to change and learn and grow, so as to make the next relationship even better. You can pick up on the details in the chapter on Overgeneralization if you’re interested!
As I point out in Feeling Great, the “death of the self” is not like a funeral, it’ like an incredible celebration of life. Death of your old concept of what you are is liberating, and leads to instant rebirth.
My teachings cannot make you happy or unhappy. Your thoughts about what I’m saying create all of your feelings, positive or negative.
At any rate, thank you for a most important question that most of my audience will definitely related to.
As an aside, I lost my “self” years ago, and what a relief that was. Sadly, it comes back to life from time to time, and then I struggle again, until I realize what’s happening.
One day, what I’m saying may make sense! In the meantime, please accept my apologies concerning the “self!”
If it gives you comfort to believe you have a “self,” no problem. But the “self” is just a concept, and not a “thing” that could exist or not exist. When you lose your precious and protected “self,” you lose nothing, because there was never anything there in the first place! But while you lose nothing, you do inherit the earth, as nearly all great religious leaders—Buddha, Jesus, and others—have taught us.
Hi Dr. Burns,
I’ve just listened to your podcast episode on suicide and found it really interesting and useful but I have a few questions.
Firstly, how is your requirement that the patient agree to not make any suicide attempts for the rest of their life any different to a ‘suicide contract’ which you mention are not effective?
Also, you talk about doing this assessment at the intake and making non-attempts a condition of therapy. If the patient/client agrees to this, why then do you continue to monitor suicidal thoughts in each session in the BMS? Presumably because the agreement is no guarantee of cessation of thoughts. Surely if you’ve told them it’s a condition of therapy with you to not make any attempts then they’d be likely to not tell you about them even if they occurred, and don’t see how setting the initial ground rule resolves the problem.
And lastly, when suicidal thoughts, urges, or fantasies do come again in the BMS how do you handle it then? Do you tell them you’ll end therapy, say “but you promised”?
Looking forward to your reply.
I have scheduled your email for an upcoming ask david episode, and will use your first name unless you prefer that i use some other name. Here is a brief reply. Most patients with borderline personality disorder will become enraged by the gentle ultimatum at the initial evaluation, and if they decide this is not the type of therapy they want, so be it. The techniques I use will not be effective with patients who continue to threaten suicide. TEAM therapy requires TEAM work.
Most, nearly all, patients will “get it” and will decide to continue with the therapy. They can have suicidal thoughts and urges, and we can work on them together in therapy. However, to my way of thinking, it is important that they therapist and patient be protected, in a safe environment.
If the patient starts threatening to make a suicide attempt, then they will need another form of more intensive treatment like hospitalization, day care, or intensive outpatient treatment. These are options I cannot personally provide for them.
I monitor suicidal urges before and after each session with every patient with no exceptions to protect the patient and to protect myself as well. Thanks!
PS the suicide contract is an agreement not to attempt suicide “while we are working together.” This is very weak, as the patient can suddenly decide he or she is dropping out of therapy and making a suicide attempt. And this often happens.
My contract is more demanding, and intentionally so. Patients must also agree to do psychotherapy homework, too. Some patients want to make the therapist a hostage with suicide threats, which can and so work as a form of manipulation and hostility. Then the therapist is in an almost constant state of agitation, anxiety, and frustration. If I allow a patient to make my life miserable, how can I teach that patient how to be happy? We are all ONE—we go up and down together. If I allow you to make my life miserable, then I am allowing you to make your own life miserable, too.
Thank you so much for everything you do. I’ve listened to all of your podcasts, and read most of your books, and am very grateful for the changes you, Rhonda, Fabrice and the rest of the team have made to my life.
I’ve just listened to this episode, and there’s one thing I’m struggling with, which is the concept of the moral should.
I’ve done a few things that made me intensely guilty – one in particular was not standing by and supporting a friend who needed people when he was going through a particularly hard time. He was angry and disappointed with me, and, in hindsight, rightly so. He has since forgiven me but I still struggle with it.
I feel that supporting him was a moral should. The knowledge that I didn’t do what I should have done led to a lot of guilt and shame, and eventually depression. You say that a moral should is valid; so therefore, I feel that my negative thoughts on this are not misguided but valid – I did something morally wrong and deserved to feel bad for it.
Just wondering your thoughts on this.
Thanks again, and keep up the good work!
Hi Brian, thanks!
Would love to include this on an Ask David, using just your first name, or even a fake name if you prefer. A quick response might be to ask how many minutes per day would you like to dedicate to feeling guilty? And for how many days, months, or years?
In your spiritual or religious beliefs, is a person supposed to feel intensely guilty forever? Most of us have done things we are ashamed of, or feel guilty about. How much guilt and shame would you recommend for me, for example? And what is the goal of the guilt and shame? And how guilty would you recommend I feel, between 0% and 100%?
That’s one approach. Another approach would be A = Assessment of Resistance, listing what the guilt shows about you that’s positive and awesome, and then asking yourself why in the world you’d want to let go of the guilt, given all the many real positives.
Then you might validly decide to “dial it down” to some more acceptable level. For example, if you now feel 90% guilty, perhaps 15% or 20% would be enough. In addition, you could also decide how many minutes of guilt you would recommend. If you now feel guilty about eight hours a day, would 10 minutes be enough? If so, you could schedule your “guilt periods” ahead of time, and then really work hard at feeling guilty during those ten minutes.
Then, when you’re done with your “guilt work,” you can return to joyous and loving living!
Also, instead of one ten minute daily guilt binge, you could schedule, for example, three guilt binges, each three minutes long, in the morning, at lunch time, and in the evening, like three pills the doctor prescribed!
In reply to Dr. Burns.
Hi Dr Burns,
Thanks so much for your quick response! I really appreciate your advice; I will dedicate a bit of time today to approaching it the way you say.
And also, I’d be delighted if you included it on a podcast! You can use my first name by all means.
Comment from Carrel
I’m a Democrat in Texas. How can we use disarming to heal the political rifts in our country? How does one find agreement across that ever-widening divide?
Hi Carrel, It’s really tough, for sure! Have you listened to my podcast on this topic? There is a search function on my website. If you type in “political divide,” this podcast will pop right up: “127: How Can We Communicate with Loved Ones on the Opposite Side of the Political Divide?”
Let me know what you think! David
David emphasizes the value of the search function. Often you can find your questions have already been addressed.
In addition, the many podcasts on the Five Secrets of Effective Communication could be invaluable (links), and the emphasis would be on using the Disarming Technique to find some truth in what the other person is proclaiming and arguing for.
But first, you have a decision to make, and this is always based on ONE person you may want to interact with. First, ask yourself if you do actually want a better relationship with person X, Y, or Z. There is no rule that says we have to get along better with everyone.
I think that Joe Biden is doing a pretty good job of promoting unity, and not diverseness in our country. Hopefully, the forces of love and unity will win out over the forces of hatred and war, but it’s not at all clear what direction our country is heading for. And we’re seeing now that at times the tensions are become so intense, and the hatred so strong, that violence is once again on the increase.
In the next Ask David we’ll have a really cool session devoted to the intense anger that many of us feel when confronted by human behavior that strikes us as narcissistic, vicious, self-serving, and aggressive. This topic should appeal to lots of people! And we have a wonderful question from a woman who’s feeling pretty darn enraged!
David and Rhonda
You can reach Dr. Burns at email@example.com. Dr. Rhonda Barovsky practices in Walnut Creek, California, and can be reached at rhonda@feelinggreattherapycenter. She is a Level 4 Certified TEAM-CBT therapist and trainer and specializes in the treatment of trauma, anxiety, depression, and relationship problems. Check out her website: feelinggreattherapycenter.com
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