Reverse CBT in the Church

This video points to a Triggernometry episode recounting a Gen Z woman’s experience with critical race theory and manufactured fragility:

The source video is from Tik Tok. The story is that a lesbian and her wife who use they/them pronouns walked into a gay bar and she melted down over being called a lady. So, the gay guys in the bar kicked her out. Notice that as she is whining and performing for the camera, she has an empathetic enabler reassuring her that the mean world has mistreated her.

This is a good illustration of the worldview we call expressive individualism (for an excellent primer, see here). Its basic premise is that our best life is defined as living as our “authentic self,” and that self is just whatever we think and feel and want at any given point in time. Authenticity is a matter of living according to any deeply-held belief about oneself, rather than objective reality.

If we are part of a community that does not affirm our “authentic self,” then that community is in the wrong. They are oppressive and cruel. In order for us to be okay, everyone needs to validate whatever thoughts, feelings and desires we consider to be our “authentic self.” The woman in this video has a TikTok name of LesbianSnowWhite/You Are Valid. (here is her full video)

There are plenty of lesbian couples who could go into that same gay bar and have a great time, because they have not adopted an identity construct that leaves them with a manufactured fragility, one that depends on unanimous validation from the rest of the world.

So, if you were this woman’s therapist, what would you do? Would you affirm all of her delusions? Or would you try to help her to move in the direction of better engagement with reality? The latter course would be difficult, because she would need to examine her expectations (“should” statements) toward the world around her. She would need to develop skills other than emotional reasoning. She would need to be willing to work on changing herself before demanding that the rest of the world change.

“Should” or “must” statements and emotional reasoning are what therapists call cognitive distortions. They are patterns of thought and feeling that contribute to poor mental health. The techniques commonly used in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and its many offshoots help people to uncover, challenge, and replace their cognitive distortions by developing more healthy and adaptive beliefs.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and researcher Greg Lukianoff talked about cognitive distortions and CBT in their book The Coddling of the American Mind, where they explored trends in American society, particularly among young people, that are making them more mentally and emotionally fragile. One of their insights is that there are groups and movements that are effectively doing “reverse cognitive behavioral therapy,” in other words, validating and even promoting cognitive distortions, and thereby creating, at best, a great deal of unnecessary emotional distress, and at worst, actual mental illness.

What Haidt and Lukianoff are saying is that if you are being fed cognitive distortions by your influencers, your entertainment, and more, then you will be more fragile and less able to engage with reality in a healthy way. You will tend to fall apart emotionally more often, even in response to normal human experiences. You will be more mentally fragile, less emotionally resilient, and not be emotionally self-reliant. People promulgating Reverse CBT, even though it may come from good intentions, are actually creating and reinforcing mental illness. Purveyors of Reverse CBT earn thousands of likes and reposts on social media, and are valorized for their “kindness.” Some unreflective admirers may even falsely believe these people are practicing Christlike love and empathy.

For Latter-day Saints, reverse CBT is very visible in exmormon communities, which is why those are so often a fever swamp of misery. The sad irony is that therapists are unfortunately quite well represented in those communities, often actively participating in the reverse CBT. Freddie deBoer has some sharp critiques of broader therapy culture in general, and most of his critiques are speaking to these therapists’ enabling behaviors that actively make people more fragile:

Prologue to an Anti-Therapeutic, Anti-Affirmation Movement

Trauma is Indeed Like a Car Crash

Within the church, believers also need to be on the lookout for cognitive distortions, because we can fall into these traps as well. The church’s emotional resilience course draws upon principles of Cognitive Behavior Therapy to help members develop a greater ability to navigate emotional and other challenges.

Another thing to note is that it’s normal to have frustrations in our church experiences from time to time. Frustrations over our own shortcomings, over the behaviors of people around us, and sometimes over decisions at church headquarters. And it’s okay to have idealism, a desire to see the church get better in some way. It’s a very valuable exercise to familiarize ourselves with the cognitive distortions so that we can keep our expectations and our idealism grounded in a healthy realism, and respond in healthy ways to disappointments that are inevitable as we engage with other human beings. We don’t want to be complicit in worsening our own or others’ mental well-being by unwittingly engaging in Reverse CBT.

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