The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar (2009)


Chapter 9. Second Meditation: Cognitive Therapy

Your emotions follow your thoughts, just as surely as baby ducks follow their mother. But the fact that the baby ducks follow faithfully along doesn’t prove that the mother knows where she is going!

David Burns

The cognitive revolution that was launched in the 1960s took the psychology world by storm, challenging the two schools that dominated twentieth-century psychology: psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Psychoanalysts primarily focused on subconscious drives and defenses in trying to understand patients and enhance their quality of life. Behaviorists focused on external forces such as reward and punishment to explain and modify behaviors and experiences. Cognitive psychologists came along and, while still acknowledging the roles of both the subconscious and conditioning, shifted their focus to the conscious mind—our thoughts, ideas, and judgments. Cognitive therapists introduced concepts such as choice and agency into the psychological vocabulary, differentiating themselves both from psychoanalysts (who believe that we are primarily slaves to our instincts or early experiences) and from behaviorists (who view humans primarily in terms of their reactions to their external environment).

While there is much evidence illustrating the positive effect of psychoanalysis and behavior-based therapy, more than forty years of research shows that cognitive therapy is at least as effective as, and usually more effective than, the two older schools of therapy. Cognitive therapeutic techniques are relatively straightforward, and, while ideally they should be learned and implemented with the help of a qualified therapist, the fundamentals can provide some benefit to most people even without direct professional guidance.

The basic premise of cognitive therapy is that we react to our interpretation of events rather than directly to the events themselves, which is why the same event may elicit radically different responses from different people. An event leads to a thought (an interpretation of the event), and the thought in turn evokes an emotion. I see a baby (event), recognize her as my daughter (thought), and feel love (emotion). I see the audience waiting for my lecture (event), interpret it as threatening (thought), and experience anxiety (emotion).


Research in cognitive therapy suggests that much of the emotional pain that we experience is avoidable, as it is caused by distorted thinking and irrational thoughts. If you ask someone on a date and are rejected (event), and you conclude that no one will ever want you (thought), with the result that you feel devastated for months (emotion), you are being irrational, and your emotional response is disproportionate and unhelpful. If, following the same event, you conclude that a particular person is not interested in you (thought) and you feel sad (emotion), you are being rational and your emotional response is proportionate and helpful.

The goal of cognitive therapy is to restore a sense of realism by getting rid of distorted thinking. When we identify an irrational thought (a cognitive distortion), we change the way we think about an event and thereby change the way we feel. For example, if I experience paralyzing anxiety before a job interview, I can evaluate the thought that elicits the anxiety (if I am rejected, it will all be over and I will never find a job) and reinterpret the event by disputing and replacing the distorted evaluation with a rational one (although I really want this job, there are many other desirable jobs out there). The distortion elicits an intense and unhealthy fear of failure; the rational thought reframes the situation and puts it in perspective.


Reflect on an intense emotional reaction that you have had to a particular situation. Was your reaction appropriate? Is there another way of interpreting the situation?

The PRP Process

One of the most useful methods that I have found for dealing with disturbing emotions associated with failure, whether it is fear of failure or the agony of having made a mistake, is to follow the PRP process: giving myself the permission to be human, reconstructing the situation, and gaining a wider perspective.

Permission. An emotion is an emotion, whether it is based on rational or irrational thoughts, on a correct evaluation of reality or a distorted view. To deal with an emotion in a healthy manner, the first step we need to take is to accept it as part of our reality, just as we accept the law of gravity. In addition to accepting the emotion, we also need to accept the reality of the event that elicited the emotion. Fighting reality, pretending that we are not feeling what we are feeling or that what happened didn’t really happen, only intensifies the painful emotion. To grant our emotions permission to be, it helps to write about whatever it is that we are feeling. We can also simply sit down and experience the emotion or observe its physical manifestation and accept it.

Reconstruction. Once we have truly accepted the reality of the situation and our emotions, we are ready to move on to cognitive reconstruction. This is where we change our interpretation of an event from a negative/unhelpful interpretation to a positive/helpful one.

Psychologist Joe Tomaka and his colleagues have demonstrated that the same event can elicit different physiological responses depending on whether we perceive it as a threat or a challenge.1 Over time, we can train our mind to gravitate toward interpreting events as challenging rather than as threatening. When I feel excessively anxious before a speaking engagement, I often reconstruct my assessment of the event from a threat to a challenge. I try to do the same with other events as well, changing my evaluation of them from, say, an obligation to a privilege or from a test to an adventure.

We can also change our interpretation retrospectively, after things have not turned out quite as we expected or hoped they would. By asking ourselves what we can learn from a particular failure, for instance, and how we have grown or can grow as a result, we can reconstruct our perception of the event. Though we may still feel disappointed that things didn’t turn out the way we had hoped they would, we can remind ourselves that no significant journey, no matter how successful the eventual outcome, is free of failure—that, as Thomas Watson said, to increase our success rate we need to double our failure rate. We can become benefit finders rather than faultfinders and recognize that while things do not necessarily happen for the best, some people are able to make the best of the things that happen.

Perspective. Wayne Dyer and Richard Carlson’s advice not to sweat the small stuff is invaluable.2 Often, when we look at a situation in its broader context, our worries and disappointments diminish. Realistically, will getting the B on the exam shatter my chances of ever making something of my life? Probably not. A year from now, will the fact that I stumbled over a few lines in my speech really matter? Probably not. We can also look at the bigger picture by appreciating all the wonderful things in our life, which, taken together, eclipse the particular experience that was painful.

Reconstructing a situation or gaining perspective is not about avoiding all painful emotions. Some unpleasant feelings are appropriate. The right time to use cognitive reconstruction or to remind ourselves not to sweat the small stuff is when our emotions are disproportionate to the situation.

I use the PRP process for dealing with painful emotions in general and with emotions related to perfectionism in particular. For instance, a few days ago, I intended to get some writing done between dropping my daughter off at day care and teaching a class. But by the time I left home with Shirelle, I realized that it was late and that I would not get any writing done that morning. I got very upset with myself for not being more efficient—for not living up to my expectations. So I applied the PRP process.

First, I gave myself the permission to be human, to experience the disappointment and frustration that I felt. I did not punish myself for feeling the way I did but accepted my emotions as they were. I then reconstructed the situation, seeking the positive, which in this case was that the experience helped me realize that I was too busy generally, and that I needed to limit my obligations in order to enjoy the things that were important to me, like spending time with my daughter or writing. Finally, I shifted my perspective and reminded myself that in a year from now—or, most likely, in just a week from now—that extra hour of writing won’t matter much. Instead of racing home to try to get some writing done, I took my time with my daughter: we had a leisurely walk outside her day care before I dropped her off.

Applying the PRP process is a skill, and like any skill it requires practice. Initially, working through the three stages may seem artificial. However, after a while the process feels more natural, and it can help with both mild and intense emotions, for situations involving rational as well as irrational thoughts. With some intense emotions, you may find that you need to spend a lot of time in the permission mode. In other situations, simply acknowledging the emotion may be enough, and you will be able to move on immediately to the next stage.


Image The PRP Process

Think of a recent event that has upset you emotionally or of an upcoming event that you are worried about. Begin by giving yourself the permission to be human: acknowledge what happened as well as the emotion that you are feeling as a result. You can write about or talk about how you feel, or, if you prefer, give yourself the time and space to experience the experience. This stage can last five seconds or five minutes or more.

Reconstruct the situation. Ask yourself what positive outcomes this situation can have. This does not mean that you are happy about it, but simply that there are benefits that can be derived. Can you learn something new? Can you gain a new insight into yourself or others? Can you become more empathetic or more appreciative of what you have in life?

Finally, take a step back and gain a wider perspective on the situation. Can you see the experience in the larger scheme of things? How will you see the situation a year from now? Are you sweating the small stuff?

Progressing through the PRP process does not have to be linear: you can move from permission to perspective, then to reconstruction, then back to permission again, and so on.

Repeat this exercise on a regular basis, either by actively looking for an experience that happened or by responding to experiences as they happen. The more you practice, the more benefit you will derive from it.