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Seeing What Isn’t There

In 2021, we lost Aaron T. Beck, the father of cognitive behavioral therapy, who identified patterns of negative thinking in his patients, and as an estate planning attorney, I often encounter similar fatalistic traits in clients' loved ones, which require self-recognition and treatment.

In 2021 we lost Aaron T. Beck, a psychiatrist who was a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He is regarded as the father of cognitive behavioral therapy. Dr. Beck discovered it through his work at the depression research clinic he founded at Penn. There, he detected a pattern among his patients in the way that they interpreted events. They did so in negative ways that were damaging to their self-respect, and fatalistic. It was as if they had thought themselves into a condition that one of Beck’s most brilliant disciples, Martin Seligman, was later to call “learned helplessness.” Essentially, they kept telling themselves, “I am a failure. Nothing I try ever succeeds. I am useless. Things will never change.”  

As an estate planning attorney, I want to get to know who my client’s loved ones are through my client’s eyes. This is important when crafting a plan that will work for the family. It’s surprisingly often that I hear of an adult child who possesses these traits. How do these individuals continue to create this thinking that often becomes self-fulfilling prophesies?  

Here we turn again to one of Beck’s students, David Burns, who points out seven attributes of fatalistic thinking. The first is all-or-nothing thinking. Everything is either black or white, good or bad, easy or impossible. When there is no middle ground, achievement appears to be out of reach.  

Another is negative filtering. The subject discounts the positives as being insignificant, the focus is almost exclusively on the negative. The human brain is wired to seek out danger, and to discount good times. This is a trait necessary for survival, more so in pre-historic times but still useful. Noting this, it’s important to celebrate achievements and be grateful for those things in which we’re blessed. 

A third is catastrophizing, expecting disaster to strike, no matter what. One of my colleagues would continually do this. Whenever something mildly negative occurred, his brain immediately went to the worst-case scenario, and that is what he expected to happen. It never did.  

A fourth is mind-reading. We assume we know what other people are thinking, when usually we are completely wrong because we are jumping to conclusions about them based on our own feelings, not theirs. I’ve been guilty of this in the past. The older I get, the more I understand that it’s nearly impossible to gauge another’s mindset, as we haven’t lived her life. We don’t know how events are framed because we don’t have her frame of reference.  

A fifth is inability to disconfirm. Here the person rejects any evidence or argument that might contradict negative thoughts. I’ve seen this with one of my daughters. She was convinced that she wouldn’t get into a graduate program despite her stellar grades, excellent aptitude score, and full resumé. She was accepted and excelled. 

A sixth is emotional reasoning. This is letting one’s feelings, rather than careful deliberation, dictate thinking. We are not fully rational animals and can make momentous mistakes if we think we are. We have a limbic system, an emotional brain. And we also have an extremely powerful set of reactions to potential danger, located in the amygdala, that lead us to freeze, fight, or flee. Generally, the non-rational parts of our brain act are acting faster and more powerfully than the rational ones. Freud taught us that beneath the surface of apparently orderly lives were swiftly running currents of unconscious fears and drives. Nevertheless, recognizing this, we can filter out the most powerful emotions when making choices.  

A seventh is blame. The subject accuses someone else of being responsible for our predicament instead of accepting responsibility ourselves. It’s a victim’s mentality, that I’ve personally witnessed countless times, and have stopped myself from feeling this way. Everyone on earth is a victim of circumstance at one time or another, and we’ve all heard the retort that it’s not what happens to you, but how you react that makes the difference.   

In reading Burns’ seven traits it’s easy to identify the root causes of a loved one’s fatalistic thinking. Unfortunately, when these factors are present in an adult, it will be up to them to recognize themselves, and make the determination that they need treatment. I hope that today’s column gives you something to share which might trigger the epiphany needed to take that first step.  

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