Dr. Aaron T. Beck is called the “father” of cognitive behavior therapy, CBT. He died at 100 years old (1921-2021). Dr. Beck is a great hero of mine. So I wanted to write something to honor him, despite having such thoughts as “I won’t be eloquent enough” and “what could I possibly add that The New York Times or the Economist hasn’t covered better”? Both publications were just two of many who published obituaries on Dr. Beck.
Then, I remembered what I have learned from him, and from CBT. I have learned to question my stressful thoughts. I have learned to question them because they are cognitive distortions. As evidenced by the fact that they are stressful! After all, if I can’t question my stressful thoughts about my ability to explain how I admire Dr. Beck (and love CBT) then I have learned nothing from him.
Is it true that I am not eloquent enough? Maybe. But does that mean I shouldn’t try? And is being eloquent really the reason I want to write about him in the first place? The authors of those esteemed publications didn’t write about Dr. Beck because he had changed their lives. Or, if he had changed their lives, they didn’t say so in their obituaries about him. What I want to share is my personal gratitude for him, and for CBT, with a letter.
Dear Dr. Beck,
I never got to meet you but your life has had a great impact on mine and I’m very grateful to you.
I’m grateful you took your observations seriously. You observed that psychoanalysis didn’t seem to work. You must have observed people weren’t getting better. But instead of doubting your observations (or cashing in on the endless therapy this could mean) you doubted the theory. You looked for evidence. I love evidence. Apparently there wasn’t any for psychoanalysis. Which makes sense since there still isn’t any.
I first heard about you and CBT in graduate school. The story was compelling. As a young psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, exasperated by the ineffectiveness of the prevailing Freudian framework, you didn’t know what to do, and so one day you simply asked the patient you were working with, “What are you thinking right now?”
She answered, “Do you really want to know?”
You were surprised by this answer but you did really want to know.
“Yes,” you said.
“Well,” she responded, “I’m thinking about what you think of me.”
That made sense to you. It makes sense to everyone. But it didn’t fit into the theoretical framework of psychoanalysis. You took that response seriously. You really considered it. You started to notice that what people think about a situation has more to do with their reaction than the situation itself. You noticed confirmation bias. In other words, people find what they are looking for. People find confirmation for what they think about a situation. We do this without even knowing we are doing it!
In the beginning you were working with depressed patients and you noticed they found confirmation everywhere they looked for a dismal world. But it is not a dismal world, of course. Many people think the world is beautiful and wonderful, and mysteriously confusing sometimes certainly, but dismal, no. So how could the depressed be helped?
You developed a method. A simple, easy to understand, step-by-step method based in the present day lives of your patients. And low and behold, it worked! You conducted many studies and these were encouraging. Excitingly encouraging.
There is a difference between thinking and believing and it turns out when we learn what we are thinking we have a choice to believe it or not. The world is dismal? Are you sure? Could there be more to it?
The reason to consider the alternative ways of thinking about the world is not to prove a depressed person that they are wrong. It is to prove that when we think differently we feel differently. It’s to prove that by thinking of ways that maybe the world isn’t dismal, we feel better. And now, with neuroscience, we know that by doing this we actually even decrease stress neurochemicals (e.g. cortisol) and increase pleasure neurochemicals (e.g. oxytocin) inside our brains!
I use the CBT method in my work, and on myself, daily. I read in one of the obituaries that you also used the method on yourself daily, if not sometimes more. And that explains a lot. Right up until the end you seemed open and curious and humble. You came across as cheerful and patient and kind.
Thank you for listening to yourself and to your patients so deeply. Thank you for considering what you noticed so seriously and testing your observations. Thank you for the profound paradigm shift this created for all of us.
You will never read this letter of course. But gratitude is another kind of confirmation bias and I wanted to share mine publically. I started out having self-critical thoughts about why I shouldn’t write something to honor you and your legacy, but in doing CBT on my thoughts I realized I didn’t want to compete with The New York Times’ obituary, instead I simply wanted to acknowledge a hero of mine in a letter. So thank you very, very much Dr. Beck.
All the best,
Finally, I would also like to express my immense gratitude to all of you, everyone I have the complete honor to be sharing CBT with at MINDWELTH. I hope you all have a very happy holiday season and a happy new year!
Carey, B. (2021, November 1). “Dr. Aaron T. Beck, developer of Cognitive Therapy, dies at 100”. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/01/health/dr-aaron-t-beck-dead.html.
“Up off the couch. Aaron Beck, the psychiatrist who developed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, died on November 1st, aged 100.” The Economist. 13 November 2021.pg 90.
Kuhn, T.S. (2012). “The structure of scientific revolutions.” University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1962).