When recently interviewed as a prospective guest on a podcast, the question of cognitive vs. emotive therapy came up. The podcaster believed that cognitive therapy was the only way toward healing. He sent me a book that outlined a cognitive model for treating addiction. I enjoyed the book very much but couldn’t agree that this method is the best addiction treatment.

I do not believe in one-stop therapy for all. In college, my training was in behavioral/cognitive therapy. But in my practice, it didn’t take long for me to recognize that behavior modification didn’t work for everyone (myself included), and I had to learn more. That adventure took me through a spectrum of techniques — from Gestalt to Psychoanalysis and everything in between

Disappointed to be rejected as a guest with his enormous audience, I was soothed by my favorite Shakespeare quote, “To thine own self, be true.” I could not be true to myself if I merely complied just to get on his show.

Each person is unique, and it is impossible to fit everyone into a single model of treatment. Cognitive and Emotive therapies are equally important. One is medicine, and the other the root of the problem, but both are necessary to reach the end goal – peace.

Better Thoughts, Better Feelings

Cognitive therapy is about restructuring our thought process. One of the great theorists, Albert Ellis, believed that bad feelings resulted from bad thoughts. During our lives, bad things happen, and we have no control over those events. But we can control how we perceive those events, and consequently, how we feel.

If we believe an event is catastrophic, then catastrophic feelings result. If we change our belief about the event from disastrous to a learning opportunity or simply non-preferable, our emotions remain balanced.

Like A Course in Miracles, this model teaches us how to change our perception to remain at peace no matter what is happening. Powerful stuff. 

Better Feelings, Better Thoughts

With cognitive therapy, there’s just one caveat, and Freud said it best. A thing which has not been understood inevitably reappears; like an unlaid ghost, it cannot rest until the mystery has been resolved and the spell broken.”

In other words, if painful events are buried alive, they hide in the unconscious, haunting us again and again. Freud understood that unresolved pain would be reenacted. It doesn’t just go away with better thoughts.

Emotive therapy releases the pain that binds us.

We are human beings, with feelings and we can heal from any trauma. However, that recovery will not happen by thinking our way out of pain. There are two reasons for tears; to cleanse the eyes and to cleanse the heart. If we don’t feel our pain, we can’t expel it, and it will not die. Instead, it will haunt us in our sleep, and when awake, pulls our strings of fear that drive us in the wrong direction every time. It jerks us to and fro and allows no place of peace.

Pain cannot be buried alive. We must embrace it, let it run through us, and then it finds its place of rest in our hearts.

Better Thoughts Plus Better Feelings Equal Best Results

Both cognitive and emotive therapy have an important place in psychotherapy. If you try to think your way out of a traumatic event (past or present), you will only intellectualize the pain, and it will remain a dormant puppeteer in your emotional state.

If you try only to feel your way to healing, you can become addicted to drama, and there is little chance of permanent resolution.

I like to look at it this way. Cognitive therapy is the medicine, and emotive therapy is the condition that the medicine treats. Let’s say you have a bad cavity.  Thank God for the pain medication that keeps the pain under control. But that pill will not make the decay go away. 

We could go to the dentist as soon as we feel the pain. That would save a great deal of suffering. But we don’t like to go through the pain, so we put it off. Eventually, the pain killer won’t work, and if the cavity is left unattended, it could abscess, spread into the bloodstream, and in some cases, even cause death. So when the pain becomes overwhelming, we wind up in the dental chair after all.

Cognitive therapy is the medicine that soothes the pain. Emotive therapy gets rids of what causes the pain.

Cognitive therapy is essential; we all benefit from staying rational and balanced. Cognitive therapy can even help us to address the trauma so that it can be faced and mourned. Rather than having highly charged thoughts about feeling the pain, we can remind ourselves that it would be preferable to forget all about it, but since it won’t go away, it’s best to address the wound and allow it to heal.

We may not like how it feels to relive the trauma, but it’s better to feel the pain than to endlessly suffer.

Emotive therapy removes the rot from the tooth, and the pain is gone. Feeling balanced and peaceful is the result. Then, cognitive therapy can help us stay in the here and now and remind us to cease dramatizing an event that has been laid to rest. There is no need to redrill a cavity that has been treated, nor do we need to keep thinking about the tooth.

Thoughts and feelings are part of what makes us tick. Let us keep our best timing by maintaining a balance in both. As humans and therapists, we can benefit from as many resources as possible. After all, it’s about achieving good mental health, not about being right. Our primary goal is to achieve good mental health. Let us be open to the different paths that accomplish that goal.

Join the Movement

Donna Marks is an educator and licensed psychotherapist and addictions counselor in Palm Beach, Florida. Since 1989, she has worked with over 6,000 clients. Donna’s struggle with addiction brought her to a worldwide search for healing. She became licensed as a Mental Health Counselor in 1987. In 1989, she earned a Doctorate Degree in Adult Education, then became Certified in Addictions, Gestalt Therapy, Psychoanalysis, Hypnosis, and Sex Therapy. Donna developed an award-winning addiction training program at Palm Beach Community College. She co-owned an outpatient treatment program and is a consultant to treatment centers. Donna is the author of two books; Learn, Grow, Forgive, and the multi-award-winning, Exit the Maze-One Addiction, One Cause, One Cure, and created an online course for people who want to be cured of addiction. 

Donna is a public speaker and has shared her methods with hundreds of thousands of listeners on podcasts and radio shows.

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