313: Ask David: Featuring Matthew May, MD

313: People who “yes-butt” you.

People who resist exposure.

Does God exist? Does the “self” exist?

How to you justify Ellis? 

“Should” we care about Putin’s war on Ukraine?

1. Rhonda asks: How can you respond to someone who yes-butts you?

2. Thomas asks: Do we have a self? Does God exist?

3. Thomas also asks: Ellis said we should upset ourselves over someone else’s problems, but how about Putin, and Russia?

Note: The answers below were generated prior to the podcast, and the information provided on the live podcast may be richer and different in a number of ways.

1. Rhonda asks: How can you respond
to someone who yes-butts you?

David’s Reply

Thanks, Rhonda. We can demonstrate this with Matt on the podcast recording later today!

Matt’s Reply:

The answer is to fall back to Empathy and try to see how we are creating the problem.  For example, when we are giving advice, we may have fallen into a trap, in which we are getting ahead of their resistance and would want to get behind it.

As often happens, the question, and its answer, went in an unexpected direction. Rhonda, like many therapists, noticed that one of her social anxiety patients was subtly resisting exposure—facing her fears. Matt and Rhonda model how to respond to patients who keep putting off the exposure.

This answer illustrates how therapists and the general public alike can improve your use of the Five Secrets of Effective Communication (LINK) with the use of “Deliberate Practice,” with role reversals and immediate feedback on your technique.

Rhonda starts with a low grade, and then rapidly achieves an A grade!

Click here for the Five Secrets of Effective Communication

2. Thomas asks: Do we have a self? Does God exist?

Thank you for giving me your time and attention. I appreciate it, even if we don’t agree. I have talked about whether or not God and the self exist. David Hume made the argument about not having a self, only perception. Of course, questions arise if we don’t have a “self.”


Thomas also comments on Nathaniel Brandon:

Why do we use the words who? Him? Her? He she they.?? I certainly don’t believe Nathaniel Brandon’s horseshit. He talks about a teenage self, a father self, and a child self

And all that is just horseshit.

But do we have any self?

David’s response:

Hi Thomas, Thanks for your question! You ask, “But do we have any self?” You ask about God, too.

People have been asking for my chapter on the “Death of the Self,” and my efforts to debunk the idea of a “self.” I have not had the time and motivation to bring that chapter back to life, since it is so hard for people to “get” what I’ve been trying to say, which is exactly what Wittgenstein and the Buddha were trying to say. But I will try to share one idea with you, in the hopes that it might make sense.

As I have previously suggested, these questions about some “self” or “God” have no meaning. For example, how about this question: ‘What would it look like if someone had no ‘self?’ What, exactly, are we talking about?

I know what this question means: “So you think Henry is too high on himself.” This means that we think some person named Henry is arrogant or narcissistic, something like that, and we want to know if someone agrees with us. I understand this question, it makes sense. There is a distinct difference between people who are quite humble and folks who are overly impressed with themselves. So, we are talking and using words in a way that has meaning and makes sense.

However, I cannot answer the following question because it does not make any sense to me: “Does Henry have a ‘self’?” So, this question, to me, is language that is out of gear, like a car in neutral gear. No matter how hard you press on the accelerator, it will not move forward or backward.

If you cannot “see” or “grasp” the difference between my examples of a meaningful question and a nonsensical non-question, that’s okay. In my experience, few people can grasp or “get” this. But to me, the difference is quite obvious.

Is it okay if I use your email as a somewhat edited “Ask David?” I can change your name if you prefer. I don’t think people will “get” my answer, but hope springs eternal!


Matt’s Response

Many brilliant minds have addressed this question in more eloquent and thorough ways than I could, including the Stanford-trained neurologist and philosopher, Sam Harris, in his book, ‘Free Will’ and Jay Garfield in his book, ‘Losing Ourselves’ There’s very little I can say, about this topic, that hasn’t been said more eloquently by individuals like these and many others.

Meanwhile, I’m glad that this question has arisen on the podcast because I see clinical utility in the implications of this question, including in the treatment of depression, anxiety, anger, narcissistic pride and relationship problems.

For example, I might be thinking, ‘I’m so mad at my (bad) self for eating all those cookies’.  Or, I’m so proud of myself for making a million dollars’.  I might start to think I deserve more, because of my special self and feel superior and angry, ‘that persons (bad self) shouldn’t have cut me off in traffic!’.

When we take the ‘self’ out of the equation, we realize that these thoughts don’t make sense.  If our brains are just following the laws of physics, without any self, jumping in there to influence the process, then we couldn’t have done differently, with the brains we had, and neither could anyone else.

Hence, the idea that people have ‘selves’, which can be good or bad, make decisions and the like, is a setup for suffering.  In the cookie example, I would have to train my brain, through practice with therapy methods, to develop a different set of habits, rewiring of my brain, to reach for a salad rather than a cookie.  I can’t simply insist that my ‘self’ rewire my brain for me.  I’d have to practice and do my TEAM therapy homework!

Anger and Narcissism are some of the hardest-to-defeat problems.  However, realizing other people are simply doing what their brains are programmed to do, takes away the anger and blame.  Just like we wouldn’t hold a grudge for years against a wild animal that bit us, we could also forgive and accept a person who bit us.   and we can’t feel unnecessarily superior or proud of our ‘self’ if we accomplish something wonderful, because we don’t’ have a ‘self’ that did those things, just a brain and the right environment, neither of which we can take credit for.

This approach is called ‘reattribution’ in TEAM, which is useful for defeating ‘self-blame’ and ‘other (self) blame’.

Here are some other methods to leverage the no-self concept and free your mind of this hazardous way of thinking:

1. Experimental Technique:  Try to define what a ‘self’ is.  Then conduct an experiment to see whether the self is capable of doing the things you think it can do.  For example, can your ‘self’ stop understanding the words you are seeing on this page?  Or does your brain helplessly decipher the shapes of these letters into meaningful sounds and language?  Can your self exert its free will to decide to focus exclusively on one thing for one minute, like your breath or a point on the wall?    It can’t.  If your self can’t do such simple tasks, what can it do?  One can see meditation as a kind of ‘experiment’ to see whether our ‘self’ is calling the shots, using its free will, or if our brains are just doing what brains do.

2. Socratic Questioning: You can ask questions that can’t be answered to show that the ‘self’ is more like a ‘unicorn’ than a cat.  For example, how big is the ‘self’?  What’s it made of? Where is it located?  Can you see it on a MRI?  No radiologist has ever visualized a ‘self’ and you probably realize you can’t answer these questions, any more than you can, ‘what do Unicorns like to eat?’, bringing us closer to understanding that it’s probably a made up thing.

3. Examine the Evidence: What evidence is there that there’s a Self?  What evidence is there that there is no self? On the latter side, Consider Occam’s Razor, which suggests that the better hypothesis is the simpler one which still explains the observations.  One hypothesis is we have a brain generating consciousness.  Another hypothesis is that we have a brain that generates consciousness and a self that is having those experiences, operating the brain.  Based on Occam’s Razor, the better hypothesis is the former, that we have a brain creating consciousness.

4. Outcome Resistance: People get scared off by the idea that there’s no self or free will, that their brain is making decisions, without a self intervening.  In Christian Tradition, for example, Thomas Aquinas essentially invented the concept of ‘free will’ so that God’s punishment of Adam and Eve could be explained, morally.

Otherwise, God would seem rather cruel, to create a system where he knew that would happen.  This is an example of how ‘free will’ and the ‘self’ are linked to blame and anger.

Even if you don’t believe in God, you might be concerned that the idea that there is no free will would mean that the criminal justice system would fall apart.  Criminals could say, ‘I had no choice’.  Talking back to these elements of ‘resistance’ could help free one’s mind.

For example, without free will, it’s true that blaming other people and retaliatory justice wouldn’t make sense.  However, one could still enforce laws, only in a compassionate way, for the sake of protecting others making the same mistake.  A murderer, if they realized this, could mind meaning in fulfilling their sentence, realizing they were doing a service to humanity, rather than being punished for their bad self.  Instead of seeing other people as having ‘bad’ selves, we can have a sense of sadness, connection and concern, even with a murderer, when carrying out justice, understanding that, ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’.

David mentions, in passing, a mild red flag with the concept of “free will.” He points out that this is another concept, like “God” or the “self,” that has no meaning, if you really grasp what Ludwig Wittgenstein was trying to say in his classic book, Philosophical Investigations. One way to “see” this, although it is admittedly almost impossible to “see:” because it is so simple and obvious, would be to ask yourself, “What would it look like if we “had” something called “free will?” And what would it look like if we “didn’t?”

The question is NOT “do we have free will,” but rather, “Does this concept have any meaning? Once you suddenly “see” that the answer is no, you will be liberated from many philosophical dilemmas. But as they say, enlightenment can be a lonely road!

the Buddha, as well as Wittgenstein, ran into this problem that people could not “grasp” the simple and obvious things they were trying so hard to say! As humans, we get spellbound by the words we using, thinking that nouns, like “self,” must refer to some “thing” that either exists or doesn’t exist! To my way of thinking the question is NOT “Does god exist” or “do human have free will,” but rather, do these questions make sense? Do they mean anything?

The answer, to my way of thinking (DB), is no.

However, . . . you might not “get” this!

3. Thomas also asks about Dr. Albert Ellis

Hi David,

Do you agree with Ellis that one is better off without making oneself upset over other people’s problems?

What about Putin and Russia and all the violence, another mass shooting, and trump running for president again?

Ellis didn’t think one should be disturbed about these things. Or at least upset. What do you think?

David’s reply

Hi Thomas:

Here’s my take. Healthy and appropriate negative feelings exist! One SHOULD be upset by horrific war crimes. I suspect that if Beck and Ellis, were they still alive, they would both strongly agree, but of course, I cannot speak for them!

Thanks for listening today!

Matt, Rhonda, and David!

Dr. Rhonda Barovsky is a Level 5 Certified TEAM-CBT therapist and trainer and specializes in the treatment of trauma, anxiety, depression, and relationship problems. Check out her website:

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Rhonda and I are convinced that Dr. May is one of the greatest therapists on the planet earth. If you have a question or would like to contact Dr. May, please check out his website at:

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