His eureka moment: Cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques allow patients to fully exercise their free will
It was a typical afternoon in my life as a pediatric psychologist. I was working with a boy I have seen for a number of years. His life has been scarred by divorce, violence, and instability, but his mother persists in helping her son improve his emotional regulation and impulse control, among other skills.
I was using a chapter from Dawn Huebner’s What to Do When Your Temper Flares to illustrate the role of thoughts in our feelings and responses. He was reading aloud the following passage: “But there is a secret about anger, something that will save you from exploding when something goes wrong. The only thing that makes you angry is you.”
Suddenly, I was flooded by a new sense of awareness, as though a voice whispered to me, “You are engaged in a spiritual endeavor.”
Now, on the surface, my work with this boy was about using cognitive-behavioral techniques to teach him the skills of thought-challenging and reframing, and this I am trained to do. But my inner voice cautioned me, reminding me that as the saints tell us over and over, everything we do should be an act of faith and charity, that is, it should have a spiritual element.
In my professional life, I rely first on the Catholic doctrine of free will. As the Catechism states, “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life.”
In cognitive behavioral therapy, we teach kids and adults alike that events happen every day that we may or may not be able to control. However, our attitudes and thoughts toward these events directly affect our emotions, behavioral reactions, and internal states (e.g., headache, stomach ache). So, in order to improve how we feel, we must first return to the thoughts, which seem automatic at times, and challenge those that are unrealistic and/or harmful. Then, we must work to reframe them in a more realistic, positive way.
In essence, we are applying free will, inducing greater reason, and increasing the conscientiousness of how we think and act. Otherwise, we may find ourselves experiencing significant behavioral and emotional problems, including unnecessary fear and anxiety—which happens to be the number one thing God warns us against in the Bible — Be not afraid.
As Christians, we know that we can use prayer to ask for God’s help in reducing negative emotions. But God has also gifted us with the ability to “reframe.”
We may not regard this “re-framing” as a spiritual endeavor. But if unity with God starts with free will, and vices prevent us from seeking His perfection, then any exercise that we undertake to unite our will with His seems an opening to the authentically divine. All through scripture we see that prophets and apostles are not working with God from a place of worthiness, but of willingness. Simply being willing creates that opening; it connects us to the divine.
Sitting there that day with this little boy, it was clear. I am not responsible for his salvation. I am not responsible for his life. But I am responsible for giving of myself in a way that helps him transcend his challenges. Call it therapy. Call it psychological guidance. Call it what you want. But in the end, my hope was that his free will looks a little more like Thy will—being done.