Automatic Thoughts, a reflection

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by Clint Hamm, Refuge Center Intern

thoughtsModern cognitive therapists and early Christian writers, alike, recognize a profitable insight in the words of an ancient Stoic, Epictetus, who wrote, “It is not things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things… When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never blame anyone but ourselves, that means our own judgments” (Trader, 2011).

Now, let’s be clear: some experiences are disturbing, hindering, and grievous, and these experiences are every time and always to
be recognized as such. For instance, abuse (be it verbal, physical, emotional, sexual, etc.) is always disturbing and wrong, and this fact has nothing to do with the direction of one’s judgment. I believe that the above-referenced writers and therapists, however,
have another (more subtle) matter in mind.

They point to that all-too-common experience summed up by a Christian writer named Dorotheos who tells a story of three different people who observed the same gentleman standing at a street-corner: “One assumed that he was waiting for a prostitute; another suspected that he was preparing for a robbery; and a third thought that he was going to a friend’s house for prayer” (Trader, 2011). That’s quite a list of possibilities, isn’t it! And, yet, if we’re honest, it’s easy to see how each of us at different times carries all of these assumptions inside of our own hearts… about others and about ourselves.

It takes way more than “the power of positive thinking” to overcome these surprisingly cunning and potentially destructive automatic thoughts and assumptions. Our automatic assignment of meaning to everyday situations, indeed, has within it the force to whirl us down radically divergent paths. Whereas one may observe laughter in a lunchroom corner and experience vicarious delight and curiosity about the joke that must have just been told, another will feel shame, embarrassment, anger, and loneliness, because they assume that the “joke’s on them.” These paths point backward in time to the stories we’ve lived and the pain we’ve suffered . If you feel like you want to walk a different path but don’t know where to begin, you might consider the patient guidance of a counselor at The Refuge Center. Call us at (615) 5915262, or visit our website at http://therefugecenter.org/.

For more reading, consider Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: a Meeting of Minds by Fr. Alexis Trader, 2011

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