Is A Cognitive Approach Enough?

Is a Cognitive Approach enough?

Cognitive approaches to psychotherapy get a great deal of attention.  Are they right for you?

You want to change your life and stop repeating the same mistakes and problems.  You want to stop having things go wrong the way they have always gone wrong.  Then you need to be able to step back and take a good look at how you are living.  But how do you do that? Will a cognitive approach work?

Cognitive Approaches

In the view of cognitive approaches you can examine the negative views that you hold about the world, yourself and the future.  From this base cognitive models and treatments aim to help you learn to change your dysfunctional and distorting negative views.  Aaron Beck proposed that you can identify your cognitive biases and cognitive distortions.

Beck proposed that a depressed person, may hold a negative self-schema, something that developed in childhood. A lot of very influential cognitive approaches have been developed from this.


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) developed out of this work

CBT works to help people become aware of the negative interpretations that they make, and the behavioural patterns which reinforce their distorted thinking.  CBT helps people to develop alternative ways of thinking and behaving which will help them to reduce their psychological distress.  In CBT the therapist helps the client identify distorted ways of thinking.

CBT may help some people.  For others it may be too prescriptive, too formulaic.  Failures may be put down to the clients failing to work properly, to do their homework.

It is easy to caricature a therapeutic model.  CBT may have suffered in the rush to roll it out to as many people as possible.  Some therapists may be rather limited in their use of the model, but that might be true of any model.  At its best, CBT practitioners try to develop sophisticated models of the mind.  Models that combine various aspects of psychodynamic theory with a better understanding of:

  • non-conscious processing,
  • attachment theory,
  • bodily memory
  • Eastern meditation and mindfulness

Philosophy and Plato’s Allegory of The Cave

A different approach of why it is so difficult to change our ways of thinking using our cognitive capacity is illustrated by philosophy and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

The ancient Greeks looked to philosophy to improve ideas and understanding of how they lived.  They saw philosophy as a kind of therapy.

Plato‘s Allegory of the Cave (Book 7, The Republic)

In Plato’s allegory, Socrates describes the image of a group of people who have always lived chained to the wall of a cave.  These people only see images on a wall in front of them which are thrown there by the light of a fire which is behind them.

These cave dwellers are fascinated by trying to understand more about the shadows they see upon the walls.

But they do not realize that what they are looking at is not real, it is only an image, a shadow of what is real.

In Plato’s allegory the prisoners do not know that:

  1. they are restrained
  2. they are sitting at the entrance of a cave and
  3. that the reason they see the shadows on the wall is that the light from a fire is entering the cave and projecting those images on the wall in front of them.

When objects are put between the fire and the cave the shadows from the objects are then seen upon the wall.  The cave people are restrained and so can only see the shadows which they take to be the real things themselves.

The cave people cannot free themselves, they are restrained.



What would happen if somebody came along and let the restrained cave people free?

But one day a prisoner from the cave manages to find a way out of the cave and comes to see that everything that he had taken for real is in fact only a shadow image of the real things in the world.


‘Previously he had been looking merely at phantoms; now he is nearer to the true nature of being.’

Released from their chains they would see that what they took to be reality, the shadows on the cave wall, was in fact nothing more than a projection, a set of shadows, an illusion.

And they would turn and see that they were trapped in a cave and that there is a whole world outside the cave that they did not know existed.

Plato‘s allegory helps us think about the possibility that though we take the world we live in for a fact, it may be that it is really something that is held together by a set of faulty and limiting cognitive perspectives and that actually what we want to do is to find a way out of that cave.  A way out of the cave of our own limiting minds and beliefs and into something more liberated that better gives us a chance:

  • to live and create
  • to love and be fruitful
  • to be the people we could be if we were not restrained by self-limiting beliefs and ideas.

Psychotherapy as a route to change

Psychotherapy at its best is a relationship in which it is possible to get an understanding of the ideas and beliefs that may be restraining you and stopping you from living a more creative and satisfying life.

You cannot expect to get a different result by simply doing the same things, even if you do the same things better.  If something does not work there is no likelihood that it will work differently however well you do it.

This is one definition of madness; doing the same things again and again and expecting different results. You need to stop.  You need to see what you’re doing that is not helping you and find a way of doing something else.

It is hard to do that on your own.  It can be hard to get any insight into how something could be done differently if you keep talking to the people who helped you develop the unhelpful way of doing it in the first place.

Perhaps you are like one of the restrained cave dwellers in Plato’s allegory?

Do you need to find a way out of the cave you are in?


How can Counselling Buckinghamshire help?

At Counselling Buckinghamshire we have a depth of experience of working with people who are trying to find ways out of the problems they keep going round. 

Contact now for a free telephone consultation to discuss how our approach may be relevant to you.

Working with Counselling Buckinghamshire could be a way out of your cave.