This article appeared in The Huffington Post.
I’m excited to announce that The Atlantic just published my feature article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which I co-wrote with my friend, best-selling author, and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In the article, we talk about the behaviors we have observed on college campuses and how some of these behaviors model what are called “cognitive distortions” in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
CBT, which has been enormously successful over the last several decades, is largely based on the idea that if you untangle some of the distorted and exaggerated things you tell yourself, you can overcome — or at least mitigate — anxiety and depression. Haidt and I believe that college administrators are not only modeling cognitive distortions for students but also actually teaching students to think in distorted ways. As a result, students are learning intellectual lessons that are bad for free and open discourse and even bad for their mental health.
I hope you’ll read the whole article, which defies a quick summary, but there are three additional things I need to say about the piece. Before finalizing the article, Haidt and I ran it by clinical psychologists, CBT practitioners, and an even larger number of current college students. They all gave useful feedback, and so I would like to recognize them.
First, I would like to thank the college students who reviewed the piece, particularly one student who was familiar with CBT who made an especially good point: that the article does not emphasize how challenging the practice of CBT is. I entirely agree with the student that the practice of CBT is and should be rigorous, ongoing, and, at times, quite challenging. Unlike other forms of therapy, CBT requires daily homework in which you critically examine individual thoughts that arise when you’re feeling either anxious or depressed.
Let’s say you’re about to do a public speaking event and you’re convinced you will blow it, and you’re saying to yourself, “If I blow this speech, my career is over.” CBT would encourage you to write down this thought and ask yourself if this is a reasonable, rational thing to think, or if it’s a cognitive distortion. In this example, this particular thought could qualify as several potential distortions, but it probably best fits “dichotomous” or “black or white” thinking, believing that there are no potential outcomes other than success or disaster. You complete the exercise by writing down a more rational version of your concerns. While this technique may seem too subtle to be effective, if you do it every day for several months, you may find that your automatic thoughts go from provoking great anxiety and depression to being milder, more reasonable, and less distressing. As I explain in one of the sidebars for the piece, I know this from personal experience, as CBT greatly helped me deal with my own serious bouts of depression.
Second, I would like to thank the psychologists who helped us review the article. I would like to begin by thanking Dr. Stephen Holland for his input. If his name looks familiar, it is because he is the co-author of one of the texts we used for definitions of cognitive distortions. Dr. Holland also runs an excellent practice in Washington, D.C. Haidt would also like to thank three clinical psychologists for their feedback: Drs. Bethany Teachman (University of Virginia), Lawrence Amsel (Columbia University), and Steven Tublin (private practice, New York City).
Most of all, I would also like to thank Dr. Jonathan Kaplan, a psychologist in New York City who specializes in CBT, who also offered feedback on the draft. I especially want to thank Dr. Kaplan because he was my therapist during the deepest depths of my depression and was the one who helped me understand and make the most of CBT. As I said in my first point, CBT is hard work, and your brain can be incredibly creative with the tools it uses to convince you that you should be miserable. Sometimes it takes someone much smarter than you to talk you out of those traps, and Dr. Kaplan is particularly skilled at helping his patients untangle themselves from their irrational thoughts.
(To be clear, Dr. Holland and Dr. Kaplan’s help should not imply their concurrence with the overall argument we make in the article; we sought their assistance only to make sure that we were describing CBT correctly, and I’m extraordinarily thankful to them and to the others who offered us advice.)
Finally, I’d like to thank Lenore Skenazy, who is an author, blogger, and founder of the “Free-Range Kids“ movement. Haidt and I cited Lenore’s concept of a “free range” childhood, or a childhood free of overprotective parenting, to illustrate just one of the contributing factors to the culture of campus protectiveness. Although we use “free range” in the article as shorthand, I wanted to make sure that we give Lenore credit for inventing and popularizing this term. (You can learn more about Lenore’s work in this video, as well.)
The most fascinating thing to me about CBT is that learning to argue more rationally and fairly with yourself not only can be good for you on an intellectual level, but it can also make you a happier person. My hope is that if we extend this idea to how we argue with each other that it might produce better arguments and more productive discussions over lines of genuine difference.