We are all born authentic. As children we are charmingly, unconsciously authentic. Then, in adolescence we learn to focus instead on fitting in with those around us. At length, in our adulthood, fitting in becomes less compelling and a journey towards conscious authenticity often begins. Conscious authenticity lies in this quest to discover how to be true to ourselves and to be a part of our world.
Aaron T. Beck, MD, the founder of cognitive behavior therapy, CBT, himself struggled with this at the beginning of his career. A young psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950’s, he started out practicing Freudian psychoanalysis, as his peers and professors were at the time. Soon though, he began to notice that the patients did not seem to be getting better.
Instead of going along with the prevailing way of doing therapy, instead of just accepting the psychoanalytic theory of psychological healing, he looked for evidence. When he could not find any for the benefits of psychoanalysis, he began conceiving of and designing studies of CBT.
The pillars of psychoanalysis came down upon him severely. They did not like him questioning their paradigm. This was painful for Dr. Beck, since, of course, he wanted to fit in with his peers. Yet, it turns out, he also wanted to be a good doctor. More than just wanting to fit in, he wanted to be true to the reason he went into his field in the first place, to heal people. So, his authenticity had made him vulnerable. He did not know how this would go.
Brene Brown, the social work researcher and author, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” What is vulnerability within the framework of CBT? Cognitive flexibility. To consider another perspective is to be open, and that is a risk, that is vulnerable. It is also consciously authentic.
For example, Dr. Beck may have believed, “I can’t be right. I should just keep practicing psychoanalysis. If the others haven’t noticed it doesn’t seem to heal people, I couldn’t possibly be smart enough to be the one who sees this.” Is there evidence for this thought? Is it true that you are not smart enough to be the one who noticed that psychoanalysis doesn’t seem to be healing people? Is it true that you are not smart enough?
Answering such a question is an act of authenticity. It brings us to the present. We sit quietly, mindfully, with the answers arising from our unconscious into our conscious awareness. We are no longer in the stressful, imaginary future or in the stressful, imaginary past. We are in the present. When we question a cognitive distortion, emotions and feelings arise. We are getting to know ourselves in the present. The place we actually live.
The answer, then, for Dr. Beck might have been, no. It’s not accurate. It’s not true. I am smart enough to know that there may need to be a different method. I don’t know how its all going to turn out, but I’m going to keep developing and studying this CBT method.
Dr. Beck wanted to be true to himself. And CBT is based upon that. He didn’t question psychoanalysis to upset his peers, he questioned it because he authentically could not find evidence for its efficacy. He created CBT (and questioned that also, by the way) and did find evidence of its efficacy. The reason authenticity is a kind of vulnerability is that by learning to be true to ourselves we take a risk. And this is where happiness lies.
As the American lecturer, abolitionist, and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote in his great 1841 essay Self-Reliance, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
Emerson’s wish was to bring people to themselves. His message to each person was that we should think for ourselves. Dr. Beck thought for himself and developed CBT.
Many people are not aware of the authentic greatness inside themselves until they learn to look. CBT shows us how to look. It shows us how to live in the vulnerable and consciously authentic realm of life, where we find greatness in ourselves.
Today CBT is practiced all over the world and helps to heal millions of people. Authenticity teaches us that ultimately we are loved for our vulnerabilities, not despite them. When we love ourselves enough to want to know our authenticity, this is greatness, and happiness.
America, New York, NY.
Brown, B. (2012). “Daring Greatly”. Gotham Books, New York, NY.
Emerson, R.W. (1983). “Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures, Nature; Addresses and Lectures, Essays: First and Second Series, Representative Men, English Traits, The Conduct of Life”. The Library of America, New York, NY.