#280: A Beloved and Brilliant Voice from the Past: Dr. Stirling Moorey!

Podcast #280: A Beloved and Brilliant Voice from the Past: Dr. Stirling Moorey!

Rhonda and I are thrilled to welcome Dr. Stirling Moorey, from London, England, to today’s podcast. Stirling was one of my first students, and he sat in with me my on all my sessions as a co-therapist for a month for two summers in the late 1970s. I wrote about Stirling in my first book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, which was published in 1980.

One of the miracles of the internet, and zoom, is the chance to reunite with friends and colleagues from the past. Needless to say, Rhonda and I were SO EXCITED when Stirling accepted the invitation to join us!

Rhonda starts the podcast by saying that

“Dr. Stirling Moorey had the good fortune to be trained and supervised by two pioneers in the field of cognitive therapy, Drs. Aaron Beck and David Burns. In 1979, when Stirling was still in medical school in London, he did an elective with Dr. Aaron Beck at the Centre for Cognitive Therapy in Philadelphia.“

I (David) might put it a bit differently. I would say that during the early days of cognitive therapy, I had the fantastic opportunity to do co-therapy together with Stirling with many patients. I learned a tremendous amount from Stirling, even though I was, in theory, the “expert” and he, in theory, was a totally untrained and green novice. But he was phenomenal right out of the gates, and those months were among the happiest of my life.

What I learned by observing Stirling’s superb interactions with my patients eventually morphed into my Five Secrets of Effective Communication and my first book, Feeling Good Together!

Rhonda continues:

“Stirling was one of the first British therapists to study CBT when that discipline was in its infancy. David described their fantastic collaborative work with Stirling in Feeling Good, and has described Stirling’s brilliant empathy skills in dozens of workshops.

Stirling is currently a Consultant Psychiatrist in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and was the Professional Head of Psychotherapy for the South London and Maudsley Trust from 2005-2013. He has been a Visiting Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience in London.”

Stirling is a highly regarded therapist, trainer / supervisor / teacher and workshop leader. His main research interest is in the application of CBT to life threatening illness and adversity. He was one of the first therapists to develop CBT for people with cancer and has contributed to five randomized controlled trials in both early and late stage cancer.

Stirling is also co-author with Steven Greer of The Oxford Guide to CBT for People with Cancer, and has co-edited a book entitled The Therapeutic Relationship in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, published by SAGE (Moorey & Lavender, eds.)

During today’s podcast, Stirling reminds us that one of the aims of cognitive therapy is encouraging patients to examine their distorted negative thoughts and self-defeating beliefs in a way that is not threatening. If patients don’t feel validated, they may feel attacked and become defensive, which, of course, can undermine the therapist’s effectiveness.

He also reminded us that the grandfather of cognitive therapy, the late Dr. Albert Ellis from New York, often attacked the beliefs of his patients in a somewhat aggressive manner, and that this can frequently trigger therapeutic resistance. In fact, an overly aggressive therapeutic style can split patients and colleagues into two camps: those who love you, and those who may stubbornly resist and oppose you.

During the podcast, we reminisced a bit on shared memories, and Stirling said that

“David took me under his wing with such willingness to share his knowledge and experience . . . and I was just an ordinary medical student. We had many great moments!”

Although Stirling was tempted to relocate to America, he decided to remain in England, and has never regretted that decision. For one thing, he met and married his beloved Magda.

My own wife, Melanie, and I were honored to take our two kids to England to attend their marriage. We all loved England and had a ball!

Magda, Stirling’s wife

We discussed some of Stirling’s amazing work with the patients we saw together in Philadelphia, as well as his visit one summer when we were in California visiting with Melanie’s parents in Los Altos, where we now live. Stirling recalled that when we were out shopping one day, my wife and I tried to persuade him to purchase a large Stetson hat, but he resisted!

Stirling described the three ways in which he encourages people to change their negative thoughts using the Socratic Technique of gentle questioning: he  asks if the negative thoughts are realistic, if they are helpful, and if an alternative perspective can be taken.

The reality testing approach focuses on the important differences between healthy negative feelings, like healthy sadness or grief, which don’t usually need any treatment, and unhealthy negative feelings like depression, or a panic attack.

One key difference is that healthy negative feelings always result from valid, undistorted thoughts. For example, if a loved one dies, you may tell yourself, “I still love him with all my heart, and I’ll miss the many wonderful times we spent together.” In contrast, unhealthy negative feelings result from negative thoughts about the person who died that are distorted. For example, a young woman who’s brother committed suicide told herself,

“It’s my fault he was depressed because our parents love me more when we were growing up. I should have know that he was considering suicide the day he died, so I, too, deserve to die.”

Of course, the distorted thoughts don’t have to result from a traumatic event. For example, a chronically depressed patient may tell himself, “I’m a loser, and I’ll be depressed forever.”

A more pragmatic treatment approach focuses less on whether thoughts are distorted or not, but rather on their effects. It’s possible for a thought to be realistic but unhelpful. If a tightrope walker in the circus thinks during their act, ”If I fall I will die,” this may be realistic but not very helpful!

Stirling talked about how the third way to look at changing thoughts is based on the fact that our lives always have a narrative—a story we tell ourselves about what has happened, or what is happening right now in our lives. These stories can have a powerful impact on how we all think, feel, and behave, and may often function as self-fulfilling prophecies.

We can change these stories to make them more adaptive for us. For instance, rather than seeing the glass as half empty, we can see it as both half empty and half full; or we may choose to focus on what you can control vs. what you can’t.

What I’ve written so far are just some general ideas, summaries of things that we talked about on the podcast. But when you listen to the podcast, you will perhaps notice the warmth, richness, and depth in the way Stirling thinks and communicates. Then you will “see” and experience his true genius and his immense compassion!

We hope that we can entice Stirling to present to one of our free weekly training groups, and perhaps even see if he might agree to do another co-therapy sessions with me that we can publish on a podcast, so you can actually see and experience this master therapist in action!

Rhonda, Stirling and David

Dr. Rhonda Barovsky practices in Walnut Creek, California, but due to Covid-19 restrictions is working mostly via Zoom, and can be reached at 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 new website:

You can reach Dr. Burns at

You can reach Dr. Stirling Moorey at:

This is the cover of my new book, Feeling Great.
It’s on sale right now on Amazon, and it’s ridiculously cheap!
The kindle and audio versions are available now too! Check it out!