108: Do You Have a “Self?”

108: Do You Have a “Self?”

A podcast fan named Chuck asked if we could have a podcast devoted to the concept of the “self,” or the Buddhist concept of “no self,” so here it is.

David emphasizes that there are two issues. First, can your “self” be validly judged as not good enough, as inferior or even worthless? Or, can your “self” be validly judged as more worthwhile, or even superior? And is it really true that some people are more worthwhile, or less worthwhile, than others? Do more worthwhile, or less worthwhile human beings exist?

Second, do we even have a “self?”

Fabrice talks about the history of the concept of ego. For example, Freud divided the human mind into three parts: the id, ego and superego. Do these really exist as “things,” or are they just concepts, or metaphors for talking about the mind? When you try to think about the “ego” or the “self” as a thing, that’s when you get in trouble.

David argues that if you believe that someone people are “more worthwhile” or “less worthwhile,” you’d have to define what a of worthwhile human being is. Once you define it, you can always show that your definition has one of these problems:

  1. It applies to all human beings, and therefore has no meaning.
  2. It applies to no human beings, and therefore has no meaning.
  3. It is inherently meaningless.
  4. It does not apply to you.

David and Fabrice illustrate these traps with one of the most common definitions—thinking that your worthwhileness as a human being depends on your achievements, productivity, or success. They conclude that can only judge specific thoughts, feelings, or behaviors as more or less worthwhile, but there’s no such thing as a more or less worthwhile human being.

Next, they raise the question, “Does the ‘self’ exist?” And “What is the self?” David argues that the notion is nonsensical, or that there is no such “thing” as a “self.”

Although the discussion in today’s podcast is philosophical, and may go over the heads of some people, it has practical importance because most people who are struggling with depression and anxiety do believe that they are “not good enough,” and that their “selves” are somehow defective or flawed. Letting go of this notion can help to speed recovery, as well as what the Buddha referred to as “enlightenment.”

David expressed the hope that we may be able to return to this theme in future podcasts and perhaps find ways of making these potentially healing and liberating concepts more understandable! These concepts can take time to grasp, so be patient with yourself.


* * *

Coming Soon!
October / November / December 2018–
Cool Workshops for You!

TEAM-CBT Methods for the Treatment of Relationship Difficulties

Step by Step Training for Therapists

by David Burns, MD and Jill Levitt, PhD

Sunday October 28th, 2018 (9 am-4 pm PST)

Live in Palo Alto plus online streaming

Learn how to reduce patient resistance and boost motivation to change. Master skills that will enhance communication skills and increase intimacy with loved ones. This workshop will be highly interactive with many case examples and opportunities for practice using role plays.

Join us for a day of fun and inspiring learning on site in Palo Alto
OR online from anywhere in the world.

Learn from David and Jill–a dynamic teaching duo!

6 CE*s. $135

To register, go to the Feeling Good Institute

or call  650-353-6544

* * *

Rapid Recovery from Trauma

a two-day workshop

by David D. Burns, MD

October 4-5, 2018–Pasadena, CA


November 1-2, 2018–Woodland Hills, CA

The November workshop includes Live Streaming
if you cannot attend in person)

For further information, go to www.IAHB.org
or call 1-800-258-8411

Register Now!

* * *

Powerful, Fast-Acting, Drug-Free Treatment Techniques
that Defeat Anxiety & Worry

a 2-day workshop by David D. Burns, MD

November 29 and 30, 2018–San Francisco, CA (in person only)


December 3 and 4, Portland, Oregon (in person and live streaming)

PESI is proud to offer an exciting workshop by David Burns, M.D., a pioneer in the development of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Achieve rapid and lasting recovery with all your anxious clients, just as Dr. Burns has done in over 35,000 therapy sessions with severely troubled clients. Become skilled at treating every type of anxiety without drugs.

In this unique 2-day certificate course you’ll master more than 20 treatment techniques to help your clients eliminate the symptoms of anxiety quickly – even your most challenging, resistant clients.

Dr. Burns will illustrate concrete strategies that provide rapid, complete recovery and lasting change for your patients. You’ll learn…

  • How to integrate four powerful treatment models to eliminate symptoms.
  • How to enhance your client’s engagement in therapy.
  • How to develop a treatment plan that specifically targets each client’s unique problems and needs.
  • …and so much more!

David will provide you with guided instruction and share powerful video sessions that capture the actual moment of recovery. You will take away practical strategies to use immediately with any anxious client. Leave this certificate course armed with tools you can use in your very next session!

Don’t miss this opportunity to learn from one of America’s most highly acclaimed psychiatrists and teachers!

Sponsored by PESI

To register, or for more information, call: 800-844-8260

099: Nicole Bell’s Incredible Interview with Dr. David Burns

099: Nicole Bell’s Incredible Interview with Dr. David Burns

Behind His Brilliance: Critical Thinking

Lisa Nicole Bell is the host of the highly regarded podcast, Behind the Brilliance. In this lively interview, Nicole and David talk about

  • David’s path into the mental health field
  • the difficulties and rejections David faced getting his first book, Feeling Good, published
  • David’s advice to listeners interested in therapy
  • how he approaches perfectionism, depression, and anxiety with patients
  • the joys of a life free from the need to be special—
  • and much more!

Click here if you’d like to learn more about Nicole and hear more of her fantastic interviews! Lisa’s show delivers a smart and funny take on pursuing ambitions, designing a life, and living joyfully. Lisa’s most recent media work includes producing an Australian documentary on identity and gender politics within sports and a digital docu-series produced by Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis.

Solution to David’s Tuesday Tip #9*

Solution to David’s Tuesday Tip #9*

This was yesterday’s paradoxical tip of the day–

Once you develop unconditional self-esteem, try to get rid of it as soon as possible!

Here’s the scoop on self-esteem–there is no such thing! It’s just a buzz word, a marketing word. But still, lots of people complain of “low self-esteem” and they want–and deserve help. In fact, it says so right on the cover of my book, Feeling Good: “Feeling good feels wonderful. You owe it to yourself to FEEL GOOD!”

But if you’re depressed and feeling worthless, how do you do this? First, let’s see what people mean when they say they need better “self-esteem.”

When people say they have low self-esteem, what they really mean is that they are feeling depressed and criticizing themselves with a lot with distorted Negative Thoughts containing “Should Statements,” “All-or-Nothing Thinking,” “Self-Blame,” and other cognitive distortions. For example, you may tell yourself, “I’m a failure,” “I’m unlovable,” “I should be better than I am, ” or “I’m not good enough.” These kinds of thoughts trigger feelings of inferiority, hopelessness, and shame, as well as depression, anxiety, defectiveness, and loneliness.

In my books, such as Feeling Good, or in my Feeling Good Handbook, I describe many powerful techniques that can help you (or your patients) combat and crush these kinds of negative thoughts. In my new book, Feeling Great, I will include many additional techniques that are also mind-boggling, techniques that can trigger rapid recovery.

However, the goal is not to become an especially “worthwhile” or “superior” human being, but rather to accept yourself as a flawed human being in the spirit of joy, peace, humor, gratitude and even jubilation. Life can be pretty fantastic when you’re not putting yourself down all the time. In fact, when you suddenly “wake up” from the trance of depression and anxiety, you may discover that you’re so busy having fun and enjoying life and other people that you don’t want to waste any time worrying about or pursuing “self-esteem.”

I lost my self-esteem years ago jogging home from the train station in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania after work. It was a tremendous relief to finally get rid of it. It seemed to kind of fall off, and instead of stopping to look for it, I started jogging faster. After a few more steps my “self” fell off as well, and that was even better! I think my self-esteem and “self” may both still be on the side of the road somewhere between the train station and the house where my family and I used to live in Gladwyne, Pa.

Well, this may not make sense, so I’ll stop babbling, but all will be explained in my new book. What it boils down to is something I learned from my late cat and beloved friend, Obie. Obie was not special, he was just an ordinary feral cat we adopted, and I was not special, either–but when Obie and I hung out together, the heavens opened up. I learned that when you no longer need to be “special,” life becomes special.

Obie 1

I just returned from four days of teaching in Canada, and I’m a bit tired. So I think I’ll stop writing and just hang out with our new little kitty, Miss Misty, who was gifted to us by a kind neighbor when we lost our dear Obie in the middle of the night about a year ago. I am still grieving his loss.

I plan to stroke Miss Misty’s belly while she likes on her back in a few minutes. She loves that, and purrs loudly, and it gives me tremendous joy, too! Miss Misty also has no”self” or “self-esteem,” but wanted me to tell you she’s about as happy as happy can be without them!

Here’s the best photo I have of her right now, but I’ll try to get a more glamorous photo for you, as she is very very pretty, with colorful deep eyes and gorgeous silky black fur. I make up love songs and sing to her all the time. She smiles and blinks her eyes while I sing, even though my singing voice is fairly terrible, and I just make up the words while I’m singing.




* Copyright © 2018 by David D. Burns, MD.

Hey, I have a really great, all-new workshop coming on Friday of this week, right here in California. You still have time to register if you move fast.

A Day of Intimacy Training!


Friday, June 15th, 2018 in Mt. View, California

9:00 AM – 4:00 PM
Michael’s at Shoreline
2960 N. Shoreline Blvd.
Mountain View, CA 94043

Sponsored by the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of CAMFT
(California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists)

In this exciting workshop, you’ll learn how to develop more meaningful and rewarding relationships with your clients as well as the people you care about the most, and you’ll get plenty of helpful feedback while you learn. I’ll be joined by the brilliant and totally wonderful Kyle Jones, a 3rd year PhD student at Palo Alto University. Although I’ll be doing the main teaching, Kyle will help me provide helpful feedback to all of you during the small group exercises.

In the morning, we’ll focus on dealing with challenging, difficult clients, and in the afternoon we will take on a far greater challenge: how to deal with challenging, difficult loved ones!

All of that plus:

  • Free breakfast
  • Free lunch
  • 6 CE credits
  • Lots of fun while learning!

Click here for registration and further details

* * *

Coming in August!

David’s TEAM-CBT Summer Intensive

August 6 – 9, 2018, South San Francisco Conference Center, California

For more information, click here, or call IAHB.org at 800-258-8411

Here are just a few of the really cool things about this intensive:

  • You will have the chance to practice techniques in small groups after I demonstrate each technique with a live demonstration in the front of the room.
  • You will get immediate feedback and personal grooming from me and from many of my colleagues from my weekly TEAM-CBT training group at Stanford. They’ll be there to help you, and I’ll be there to help you, too!
  • There will be a live demonstration on the evening of day 1. The amazing Dr. Jill Levitt will be my co-therapist. Last year’s live demonstration, and in fact all of them in recent years, have been jaw-dropping and incredibly inspirational!
  • You’ll get a chance to practice TEAM-CBT in real time the evening of day 3. This will be an incredibly challenging but rewarding “solo flight.”
  • You will be able to do your own personal work on the last day of the workshop using the Externalization of Voices and Acceptance Paradox. In previous workshops, at least 60% of the participants indicated they experienced jubilant enlightenment during this exercise. Their fears and insecurities suddenly vanished!
  • You’ll learn how to do Relapse Prevention Training (RPT).
  • You’ll learn how to improve your empathy skills.
  • You’ll learn tons of powerful cognitive, behavioral, and motivational treatment techniques for depression and all of the anxiety disorders.
  • You will have the abundant opportunities to schmooze with colleagues, network, and have fun.
  • You will have two fabulous free luncheon banquets featuring talks by Sunny Choi, LCSW, who is using TEAM-CBT successfully with an underserved population in primary care with limited resources and language skills (“I must apologize for my success.”), and the wonderful Vandana Aspen, PhD, who will speak on “New Treatment Strategies for Eating Disorders.”)
  • And much more.

If you can only attend one of my workshops this year, the South San Francisco August intensive is the one to attend!

Self-Acceptance–Are We All Defective?

hike photo 9Hi everybody,

I’ve been getting lots of great emails with questions recently, and will try to get to as many as possible. Here is one from this morning.

Hi Dr. Burns,

I really hope you get to see this! I just wanted to say how I love your book and it has been helping me a lot I bought and read Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, and I’m currently reading your book on anxiety, When Panic Attacks.

But I did want to say one thing. On page 216, near the bottom, it says, ” … in fact, we’re all defective and you can view your ‘defectiveness’ as a reason for suicide or a cause for a celebration….”

I didn’t understand that. That we should view us being defective as a reason to kill ourselves?? It threw me off and I asked my friend to read it over. I just want to know what you meant!

It’s near the bottom second to last paragraph on page 216


Hi Nicole,

Sometimes I write things that may be hard to “get” at first, so I appreciate your question. First, let me emphasize that suicide is never appropriate or needed for someone who is feeling depressed and hopeless. However, was writing about something I call the Acceptance Paradox, where you achieve enlightenment by accepting your many shortcomings with a sense of inner peace, or even with a sense of humor. I call that “healthy acceptance.”

And when you “grasp” this notion that it is okay to be flawed and defective, or even wonderful, you can achieve liberation from feelings of depression, anxiety, shame and self-doubt. And it brings you a lot closer to other people, too, because, believe me, there are TONS of other defective people out there, so we can have a party and lots of folks will join us, and we can just hang out and not worry about having to impress each other.

But people who are depressed usually have what I call unhealthy acceptance. They wrongly believe that because they are defective, they should kill themselves.

If you CLICK HERE, you will find a chart that distinguishes healthy from unhealthy acceptance.  As you can see, healthy acceptance is characterized by joy, intimacy, laughter, and creativity. In contrast, unhealthy acceptance is characterized by cynicism, depression, hopelessness, and loneliness.

This is sometimes hard to “see” at first on an emotional level, especially if you are depressed, or prone to depression. But when you suddenly “get it,” it’s like seeing the grand canyon for the first time. It simply takes your breath away, and you discover that it’s only okay to be defective, it’s actually great–in fact, the very BEST way to be!

I am writing something more ambitious on this topic, and I’ll publish it here soon. This is just a beginning note intended to whet your appetite, hopefully at least! What I am writing about now are some of the more philosophical underpinnings of TEAM-CBT, although the notions are actually ancient, and go back at least 2500 years. I will try to address two questions:

  1. Is it possible to be worthwhile or to be worthless?
  2. Do we have a “self”?

Although these themes may seem abstract, they have powerful, practical, emotional consequences. Just one small example, let’s say you struggle with anxiety and shyness. You may have the fear that others will judge you because you are inferior, or not “good enough,” and this thought can cause tremendous suffering. But this thought is based on the notion that you have a “self” that can be evaluated or judged. When you see through this notion, you can experience liberation from your fears.

The Buddhists called this “The Great Death.” Of course, we all fear death, and struggle to keep our egos alive. But once you’ve “died,” so to speak, you can join the Grateful Dead, and then life suddenly opens up in unexpected ways. And for those who may misread me, or interpret my words literally, I am not referring to physical death, but death of the “self.”

So, stay tuned if this type of dialogue interests you! And thanks for reading this!

Doctor David

If you are reading this blog from Facebook or Twitter, I appreciate it! I would like to invite you to visit my websitewww.feelinggood.com, and register there as well. You will find a wealth of free goodies, including my Feeling Good blogs, plus all my Feeling Good Podcasts to date, and the Ask Dr. David blogs as well, along tons of resources, including videos for mental health professionals as well as patients and the general public!

Fitness and Self-Esteem

Hi website visitors,I recently received a lovely email and some cool questions from a journalist working for the website, POPSUGAR, (http://www.popsugar.com/), a wellness website which claims more than a billion visitors per year. Wow! That’s a lot! She asked for some help on the topic of self-esteem and body image.Here’s her note:

Hi! Dr. Burns,

Thanks so much for getting back to me; I honestly didn’t know if you’d see my message!

I have some questions for you, and would of course link my interview to Feeling Good, and mention your resources. I have to tell you — your book changed my life, and the lives of many people I’ve talked to who have also struggled with depression and anxiety. I got it for my dad last Father’s Day and he loved it, too.

My idea for our story is centered around the idea that many women deal with a lot of negative self-talk, whether it’s about their physical appearance, fitness journey, abilities, etc. I brought up your 10 categories of distorted thoughts in our staff meeting and how your book teaches someone to identify those and replace those thoughts with ones that are rooted in positivity and reality — we all thought this will be a wonderful trick to teach our readers as well.

Would love to include a quote or two from you in the intro about identifying these thoughts, and how to correct them. In fact, if you could answer these four questions it would be a great help:

  1. How do distorted thoughts affect body image?
  2. Do you think distorted thoughts can be a roadblock in someone’s wellness/fitness journey? How so?
  3. What’s a small piece of advice you could suggest to a woman struggling with poor self-esteem/body-image issues?

And less important, but if you have time:

  1. Do you believe that fitness and healthy eating plays a strong role in having a healthier mindset and more positive / realistic thoughts?

Thank you again for your help on this story, I’m so honored to work with you! Have a great night,


To read David’s response, CLICK HERE!

Or, if you prefer to read Dominique’s columns based on her email exchanges with David, here they are:

Dr. Burns,

I just realized I never sent you the finished piece! It did so well and my colleagues LOVED it! Here’s the link (CLICK HERE).


I also referenced you and that post we worked on together in my latest piece about food shaming. CLICK HERE


Let’s definitely work on something again soon — our readers love any mental health topics, and are starting to be more open about anxiety. Excited to do more together soon!

017: Ask David — Dare to be “average”—The perfectionist’s script for self-defeat

In this podcast, David answers a challenging question posed by a listener:

Dear Dr. David:

In your Feeling Good Handbook, you suggest that the reader just allows himself or herself to be an ordinary person instead of trying to be perfect. Contrary to your opinion in the book, you’re an outstanding therapist in reality. You’ve studied in one of the world’s top colleges, you’re well-educated with a doctor degree, and successful in your career and life. How can I believe your claim? I’m quite confused!

Sincerely, XXX

David first distinguishes perfectionism from the healthy pursuit of excellence, and then describes a painful incident when he was a Stanford medical student. One afternoon, he attended an afternoon Gestalt encounter group at the home of a friend and mentor in Palo Alto. During the group he was ripped to shreds by the other participants. At the end of the group, the other participants seemed elated, but he felt intensely humiliated, ashamed, and discouraged. This led to an unexpected interaction with his mentor that helped to change his life.

David also discusses his clinical work years later with a depressed and anxious professional who had never experienced even one minute of happiness in spite of a life of fabulous success and achievements.

At the end, David and Fabrice promise a future podcast on this topic: “Self-Esteem: What is it? How do I get it? How can I get rid of it once I’ve got it?”

Secrets of Self-Esteem, Part 1

* ©2013 by David D. Burns, MD

Do not copy, publish or reproduce without the written permission of Dr. Burns.

I’m going to start out with a few postings on the popular subject of how to boost your self-esteem and overcome feelings of worthlessness, inferiority, or inadequacy. These feelings are among the most important symptoms of depression, and most people fall into black holes from time to time when you begin to feel that you’re not as good as you should be.

Therapists are not immune from these feelings, either. In fact, when I give workshops for mental health professionals around the US and Canada, it seems that the vast majority of the therapists who attend have struggled with feelings of depression and anxiety. Cartoons often focus on the theme of therapists who are nuttier than their patients. There’s a lot of truth in that. Many people pursue a career as a psychotherapist primarily because of their own suffering, in the hopes of finding personal healing along the way. And there’s certainly no shame in that. In fact, therapists who have experience profound personal healing have much more to offer their patients than simply tools and techniques. They can say, “I know how painful your suffering is, because I’ve been there myself. And I also know how to show you the way out of the woods, so you can regain joy and self-esteem again.”

To get the ball rolling, I’m providing some information from a short interview I did on this topic for a Toronto newspaper recently. I pointed out that when you’re experiencing low self-esteem, the culprit is always your thoughts. You are giving yourself negative messages, like

  • “I should be better than I am,” or
  • “I shouldn’t have made that mistake,” or
  • “I’m inferior–there’s really nothing special about me.”

You may even tell yourself that you’re defective.

Although you probably believe these painful thoughts with all your heart, they are, in fact, distorted and illogical. You’re telling yourself things that aren’t really true. Depression is the world’s oldest con. You’re probably involved in All-or-Nothing Thinking, Mental Filtering, Discounting the Positive, Emotional Reasoning, Should Statements, and Self-Blame, to name just a few of the “cognitive distortions” that trigger depression and anxiety.

Here’s the good news–when you change the way you THINK you can change the way you FEEL. To find out how, check out one of my books, such as Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy or The Feeling Good Handbook. Numerous research studies have revealed that roughly two thirds of the people who read one of these books and do the exercises experience substantial, and even dramatic, improvements in mood and outlook within four weeks, even without antidepressants or therapy. These studies included individuals who were moderately to severely depressed.

What was equally startling was that the effects seemed to stick–long-term follow-up studies revealed that patients felt even better at their three-year follow-up evaluation.  So although these books are not panaceas that will cure all depression, they can certainly help. And it’s also good news that we now have powerful, fast-acting, drug-free treatments for depression and all of the anxiety disorders as well.

Most of us fall into black holes of self-doubt from time to time. Recovery from those feelings is one of the greatest feelings a human being can experience. I’d love to show you how to have this experience, too.

For more on overcoming depression and low self-esteem, stay tuned.

Error #2: Reverse Depression Hypnosis

* ©2012 by David D. Burns, MD

Do not copy, publish or reproduce without the written permission of Dr. Burns.

Last time we discussed the consequences of therapists’ failure to measure changes in symptoms as well as the quality of the alliance at every session. Today, I’m focusing on another common therapist error you may have never heard of—hypnosis of the therapist by the patient!

We all know that some therapists hypnotize their patients, but I’ll bet you’ve never heard of the reverse type of hypnosis—that’s when the patient hypnotizes the therapist, and the therapist doesn’t even realize that he or she has fallen into a trance. It’s important to know about reverse hypnosis, because it can sabotage the therapy.

Of course, the patient doesn’t dangle a pendulum in front of the therapist while saying “You are getting very sleepy, very sleepy”—but we can sometimes fall into trances without realizing it. And when you are in a trance, you will tend to believe things that are not valid.

There are three common forms of reverse hypnosis:

  • Depression Hypnosis—depressed patients convince you that they really are hopeless and worthless.
  • Anxiety Hypnosis—anxious patients convince you that they really are too fragile to confront their fears using exposure techniques.
  • Relationship Hypnosis—Patients with troubled relationships convince you that their relationship problems really are the other person’s fault and that they really are the victims of the other person’s bad behavior.

Depression Hypnosis

Nearly all depressed patients are totally convinced that they are worthless, inferior, or defective. They are usually equally convinced that they are hopeless, that their problems are insoluble, and that they will be miserable forever. If you’ve ever felt depressed, you know how powerful and painful these feelings can be.

The thoughts that generate these demoralizing feelings are nearly always distorted—you may be familiar with the list of ten Cognitive Distortions that I first published in my book Feeling Good. When you fall into the black hole of depression, your thoughts typically involve distortions such as:

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking—You look at things in black or white categories. If you’re not a complete success, you tell yourself that you’re a total failure.
  2. Overgeneralization—You see a negative event—such as rejection by someone you love, or failure to achieve your goal—as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  3. Mental Filtering—You focus on some flaw, failure, problem or shortcoming, as if this reflects your entire self. This is like the drop of ink that discolors the beaker of water.
  4. Discounting the Positive—This mental error is even more spectacular. You tell yourself that your good qualities don’t count. In this way, you can maintain the belief that you’re defective, or that you’re a total loser.
  5. Jumping to Conclusions—There are two common forms of this distortion: Fortune Telling involves making dire negative predictions that aren’t warranted by the facts. For example, when you’re depressed you tell yourself that you’re problems are hopeless and that you’ll be miserable forever. Mind-Reading involves telling yourself that others are looking down on you without any good evidence. Shy people do this in social situations, imaging that everyone else feels confident and that everyone can see how anxious and inept they feel.
  6. Magnification and Minimization—Blowing things out of proportion, or shrinking their importance. For example, when you procrastinate you dwell on ALL you have to do (Magnification) and tell yourself that getting started and doing a little bit would just be a drop in the bucket (Minimization).
  7. Emotional Reasoning—This is reasoning from how you feel: “I FEEL worthless (or hopeless), so I must BE worthless (or hopeless).”
  8. Labeling–You label yourself as “lazy” or “a loser,” or you label someone else as “a jerk.”
  9. Overt and Hidden Should Statements—As in, “I SHOULDN’T have made that mistake,” or “I SHOULD be better than I am.” Should Statements directed against yourself trigger feelings of depression, guilt, shame, and inferiority. Should Statements directed against others, or against the world, trigger anger and frustration.
  10. Blame—There are two common varieties. Self-Blame leads to depression, and Other-Blame leads to anger and conflict.

But when you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or angry, you don’t realize that your thoughts are distorted and misleading because they feel and seem overwhelmingly realistic. The goal of Cognitive Therapy is to help the patient put the lie to these distorted thoughts. And the moment you stop believing them, you’ll feel much better.

But here’s the funny thing. Toward the beginning of therapy, I usually buy into the patient’s negative thinking. Patients are extremely good and convincing themselves and others that they really ARE worthless losers who are doomed to lives of mediocrity and misery. So I get panicky for a little while in the first or second session because I start telling myself, “This person really DOES sound like a bit of a worthless loser. Maybe there aren’t any distortions this time!”

I don’t mean to mean to sound cruel or insensitive—it is just that I have fallen into a kind of depressive trance, and most therapists do the same thing. I have bought into the patient’s extremely negative and distorted thinking. You could even think of this hypnotic trance as a form of super-empathy, because the therapist can really SEE the world through the patient’s eyes. The patient’s intensely negative view of himself or herself and the world suddenly seems almost impossible to dispute.

Then, several weeks later, when the patient and I have been working together effectively, and the patient develops the ability to crush the negative thoughts, the patient and I can suddenly see how distorted they were all along. We have both snapped out of the trance, and the patient feels a sudden flood of relief, or even euphoria. At that point, it dawns on me that I had succumbed, once again, to the patient’s depressive hypnosis.

This is not a trivial or rare problem. In fact, therapists are sometimes even trained to buy into the patient’s negative thoughts. At continuing education conferences, for example, therapists might be advised to “educate” patients and their families into believing that the prognosis for depression is guarded, and that while they can be helped somewhat, they may always have to struggle with depression and may need to take antidepressants and other medications indefinitely to correct the “chemical imbalance” in their brains, much as diabetics need to take insulin forever. Or, they may need psychotherapy indefinitely. And, of course, once you give your patients that message, many of them will believe it, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Early in my career, I asked Dr. Aaron Beck, a brilliant pioneer who helped to create and develop cognitive therapy, if some patients REALLY WERE hopeless. He said that he had never once bought into the notion that any depressed patient was hopeless. He said that this optimistic philosophy had worked out well in clinical practice, and that I might have to make a policy decision of my own on whether or not I would buy into that type of thinking.

I settled on the same policy, and it has always paid off for me. I remind myself that no matter how severe or overwhelming the depression might seem, the patient can, in fact, recover and feel joy and self-esteem again. That policy has been invaluable in my clinical work, and it has never let me down.

Of course, the belief alone won’t cure patients. You have to have many good treatment tools to back up your vision.

I could write a chapter or book with examples of rapid recovery in patients who initially seemed hopeless or worthless, but I’ll just give you an extreme and brief one example here. When I was in Philadelphia, we had an intensive program for patients from out of town. The idea was to try to complete an entire course of therapy in a week or even less by seeing patients several hours every day. It was a pretty successful program.

I can recall an incredibly challenging woman named Eve who travelled all the way from Germany for treatment. (I always disguise or change the facts to protect patient identities.) Eve had struggled with intractable depression and OCD for more than 40 years, with no success at all. She’d been treated with every known antidepressant and tons of other drugs, and had been hospitalized on numerous occasions. In addition, she’d received more than 100 ECT (electroconvulsive) treatments. Psychotherapy didn’t work either. Eventually, she was given a frontal lobotomy, but that did not help, either. Two years later, she had a second lobotomy, again with no beneficial effects.

Eve wanted to know if there was any hopeThe situation did not look very promising, to say the least, but I tried to hide my pessimistic feelings. I told Eve that while I couldn’t make any promises, we’d sometimes had surprisingly positive results with even the most severe cases, and that the new treatment techniques that my colleagues and I had developed were definitely worth a try.

I wasn’t able to take her on myself, since my practice was temporarily full, so I referred her to a colleague who was working with me at our clinic. I must confess that I had a sense of relief that I didn’t have to treat. Her situation seemed impossible.

Two days later I asked my colleague how things were going with Eve. He seemed in a surprisingly chipper mood and said that the symptoms of depression and OCD had vanished and that she was feeling happy for the first time in decades. I asked him what in the world he’d done. He said that she was easy to treat and that he just used the same techniques we use all the time, such as the Daily Mood Log, Identify the Distortions, the Paradoxical Double Standard Technique, the Externalization of Voices, the Acceptance Paradox, and several others.

It dawned on me that once again, I had succumbed to a “depressive trance” without realizing it.

Now my colleagues at the Feeling Good Institute in Northern California have created a similar intensive program for people from around the country who want to commute it for short-term treatment. For more information, go to the FeelingGoodInstitute.com website.

Or, to learn more about how to defeat the negative thoughts that trigger depression and anxiety on your own using self-help techniques, check out one of my books, such as Feeling Good.

Thanks for reading this.  In my next blog I’ll discuss Reverse Anxiety Hypnosis.

David Burns, MD