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  • Writer's pictureMatt Babb

Stoic Philosophy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

One of the most useful therapeutic modalities ever created

There are countless therapeutic approaches on offer. Many do work, while many others seem to be very impressive placebos. But one therapeutic method consistently shines both in clinical settings and in the lay public in the form of its philosophical predecessor (Stoicism). This modality goes by the name of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy ('CBT').

Few people know that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Stoicism are linked through time. The basic tenets and core principles of CBT come directly from Stoic philosophy, as stated by CBTs creators Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis. For a full dive into the philosophical history of CBT, read Donald Robertson's fascinating book The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Stoicism - The History

The ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism has had immense influence on psychology and philosophy ever since it’s explication and development hundreds of years before the Common Era. An endless number of books have been written on the subject already, so I won't go deeply into it here (again, Robertson's book is the place to start). But I will say that a deep look into this body of thought has given both myself and a huge and unknowable number of curious minds from the past and present the tools and perspectives to understand what their mind does, why it does it, and how to work with it to move ever closer to a state of eudaimonia (translated from Greek as “human flourishing”).

One nugget of wisdom that finds itself front-and-center in Stoic philosophy and CBT is called "The Dichotomy of Control". One also finds it at the core of Alcoholics Anonymous, in the form of the Serenity Prayer (God, grant me to serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference).

The concept is deceptively simple: “What is in my direct control? What is out of my direct control?” This distinction informs our focus and our actions.

Let’s get more specific: What things are OUT of our direct control:

-the economy


-the passage of time

-other people’s thoughts, words, and actions

So what do CBT and Stoic philosophy suggest we do with these uncontrollables? The answer is simple (but not necessarily easy) - Practice acceptance. What other choice do we have? Struggling to change the unchangeable is a sure-fire way to waste time and energy, and to utterly discourage oneself, making helpful change even less likely. But once you accept that things are the way the way that they are, you regain the ability to focus on something else that is more useful.

Which brings us to the next category in our dichotomy - What we CAN control. This includes:

-what we say

-what we think

-what we do

-what we focus on

With these things in mind, the solutions are clear: Practice diligent effort, and leave the rest to the dominoes. With your attention firmly fixed on what you can control, and off of what you cannot control, your energy is free to make real progress, and your heart is relieved from the endless and pointless worrying about the details in the universe that are not available for alteration.

Here is the principle summarized:

Something worth mentioning - Just because you can’t directly control the things on the right side doesn’t mean you can’t influence them. I’ve included an overlap category here on this image to acknowledge that. With patience, we can and we should use our thoughts, words, actions, and focus to influence, but you can only pull levers that you can reach. In general, stick to the left side of this image. You’ll be happier, you’ll be more effective, you’ll be a higher-quality person. Such is the Dichotomy of Control.

Take a moment and imagine how your life would be if you had the wherewithal to think like this all of the time. How would your days be different? How would your relationships be different? How would you feel about strangers, about politics, about death? Of course, the idea is far simpler than it is easy to implement. Time, patience, practice, and the help of a good therapist, however, can imbed this principle deep into your unconscious mind. You can start to live from this idea reflexively. And that is true freedom.

CBT - The Principles

The basic principles to engage with Stoicism and CBT are straightforward. They are:

1) Become intimately familiar with the active patterns of thoughts and emotions within you;

2) Notice the correlation between your thoughts/beliefs, your emotions, your actions, and the consequences of your actions;

3) Utilize philosophical and practical tools to deconstruct those patterns that are ultimately doing you more harm than good;

4) Replace those ineffective patterns with new healthy patterns that will continuously point you in the direction you actually want to go;

5) Repeat repeat repeat, and watch your life transform.

The Research

CBT has been consistently shown to improve client outcomes with the following conditions:

-depression [1]

-anxiety disorders (PTSD, OCD, GAD, and phobias) [2]

-alcohol and drug use problems [3]

-marital problems [4]

-eating disorders [5]

-severe mental illness [6]

This is just scratching the surface. When combined with hypnotherapy, even more becomes possible. I'll eventually write about this combination as well, but if you're curious now, check out this book Cognitive Hypnotherapy: An Integrated Approach to the Treatment of Emotional Disorders.

In Summary

Stoicism, though born millennia ago, is still relevant today for self-improvers the world over. Its incorporation into CBT within the last half-century has resulted in its principles becoming some of the most researched and evidentiarily supported styles of psychotherapy created thus far. These are go-to techniques for treating many conditions, including anxiety, depression, and habit-breaking/habit-formation. Coupled with hypnotherapy, Stoicism/CBT is the perfect counterweight to smoothly erode negative and unhelpful psychological patterns and to construct and reinforce robust, positive, and healthy patterns. With these modalities working in symbiosis, the mind becomes a tunable instrument that becomes truly virtuosic in its stability and its flexibility.

During your sessions, you and I will explore the tenets, philosophies, and techniques in Stoicism and CBT, and practice using them in real time to refine you reflexes and instincts. Over time, you will start to consistently demonstrate to yourself a newfound ability to reorient your mind, stabilize your emotions, and settle into reality as it is. The final goal is to essentially turn you into a natural Stoic Philosopher in your own right, so that as you navigate your life, you can respond consciously, gracefully, and rationally as often as you need.

If you'd like to set up your free first session, please reach out to me via the Contact page on my website.

Thanks for reading!


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