A good friend of mine is a talented therapist and an all-around reasonable person. I often call her to get her take on a situation when I feel I’m coming down too far on one side or I’m trying to draft an important email and want a second opinion on striking the right tone. In addition to the down-to-earth advice of a good friend, she is knowledgeable of all sorts of therapeutic techniques and uses therapist lingo like “unpack” and “holding a space” when explaining herself. So I was surprised when one day she advised, “It’s like Shawshank Redemption, you can ‘Get busy living or get busy dying.’” In non-therapist terminology she was telling me to cognitively restructure my perspective on the situation.
Cognitive restructuring is cognitive therapy in action – reframing negative thoughts into positive thoughts. Dr. Aaron T. Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, developed the therapeutic technique after working with depressed patients as a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania in the 60s. He found that those who suffered from depression had a negative view of themselves, the world, and the future. They believed they were personally defective, the world presented insurmountable obstacles, and the current frustrations would likely continue into the future. Instead of seeing reality for what it is – some good and some bad – depressed patients saw only the bad. Working with patients to change their perception of reality and witnessing positive results, Beck formalized his theory.
Less than 10% of the population is depressed, but rare is the individual who has not had a negative perception of himself, the world, or the future. Every day we choose how we interpret our experiences. The person who cut us off on the way to work is inconsiderate or we were in his blind spot. Our family member is upset with us or just having a bad day. Getting busy living is not only in taking action to move ourselves towards our desired destination but in learning to let go of the negative perceptions that stand in the way of our fulfillment.