1. Rhonda asks: How can you respond to someone who
2. Thomas asks: Do we have a self? Does God
3. Thomas also asks: Ellis said we should upset
ourselves over someone else’s problems, but how about Putin, and
Note: The answers below were generated prior to the
podcast, and the information provided on the live podcast may be
richer and different in a number of ways.
1. Rhonda asks: How can you
to someone who yes-butts you?
Thanks, Rhonda. We can demonstrate this with Matt on the
podcast recording later today!
The answer is to fall back to Empathy and try to see how we are
creating the problem. For example, when we are giving advice,
we may have fallen into a trap, in which we are getting ahead of
their resistance and would want to get behind it.
As often happens, the question, and its answer, went in an
unexpected direction. Rhonda, like many therapists, noticed that
one of her social anxiety patients was subtly resisting
exposure—facing her fears. Matt and Rhonda model how to respond to
patients who keep putting off the exposure.
This answer illustrates how therapists and the general public
alike can improve your use of the Five Secrets of Effective
Communication (LINK) with the use of “Deliberate Practice,” with
role reversals and immediate feedback on your technique.
Rhonda starts with a low grade, and then rapidly achieves an A
2. Thomas asks: Do we have
a self? Does God exist?
Thank you for giving me your time and attention. I appreciate
it, even if we don't agree. I have talked about whether or not God
and the self exist. David Hume made the argument about not having a
self, only perception. Of course, questions arise if we don’t have
Thomas also comments on Nathaniel Brandon:
Why do we use the words who? Him? Her? He she they.?? I
certainly don't believe Nathaniel Brandon’s horseshit. He talks
about a teenage self, a father self, and a child self
And all that is just horseshit.
But do we have any self?
Hi Thomas, Thanks for your question! You ask, “But do we have
any self?” You ask about God, too.
People have been asking for my chapter on the “Death of the
Self,” and my efforts to debunk the idea of a “self.” I have not
had the time and motivation to bring that chapter back to life,
since it is so hard for people to “get” what I’ve been trying to
say, which is exactly what Wittgenstein and the Buddha were trying
to say. But I will try to share one idea with you, in the hopes
that it might make sense.
As I have previously suggested, these questions about some
“self” or “God” have no meaning. For example, how about this
question: ‘What would it look like if someone had no ‘self?’ What,
exactly, are we talking about?
I know what this question means: “So you think Henry is too
high on himself.” This means that we think some person named Henry
is arrogant or narcissistic, something like that, and we want to
know if someone agrees with us. I understand this question, it
makes sense. There is a distinct difference between people who are
quite humble and folks who are overly impressed with themselves.
So, we are talking and using words in a way that has meaning and
However, I cannot answer the following question because it does
not make any sense to me: “Does Henry have a ‘self’?” So, this
question, to me, is language that is out of gear, like a car in
neutral gear. No matter how hard you press on the accelerator, it
will not move forward or backward.
If you cannot “see” or “grasp” the difference between my
examples of a meaningful question and a nonsensical non-question,
that’s okay. In my experience, few people can grasp or “get” this.
But to me, the difference is quite obvious.
Is it okay if I use your email as a somewhat edited “Ask
David?” I can change your name if you prefer. I don’t think people
will “get” my answer, but hope springs eternal!
Many brilliant minds have addressed this question in more
eloquent and thorough ways than I could, including the
Stanford-trained neurologist and philosopher, Sam Harris, in his
book, ‘Free Will’ and Jay Garfield in his book, ‘Losing Ourselves’
There’s very little I can say, about this topic, that hasn’t been
said more eloquently by individuals like these and many
Meanwhile, I’m glad that this question has arisen on the
podcast because I see clinical utility in the implications of this
question, including in the treatment of depression, anxiety, anger,
narcissistic pride and relationship problems.
For example, I might be thinking, ‘I’m so mad at my (bad) self
for eating all those cookies’. Or, I’m so proud of myself for
making a million dollars’. I might start to think I deserve
more, because of my special self and feel superior and angry, ‘that
persons (bad self) shouldn’t have cut me off in traffic!’.
When we take the ‘self’ out of the equation, we realize that
these thoughts don’t make sense. If our brains are just
following the laws of physics, without any self, jumping in there
to influence the process, then we couldn’t have done differently,
with the brains we had, and neither could anyone else.
Hence, the idea that people have ‘selves’, which can be good or
bad, make decisions and the like, is a setup for suffering.
In the cookie example, I would have to train my brain, through
practice with therapy methods, to develop a different set of
habits, rewiring of my brain, to reach for a salad rather than a
cookie. I can’t simply insist that my ‘self’ rewire my brain
for me. I’d have to practice and do my TEAM therapy
Anger and Narcissism are some of the hardest-to-defeat
problems. However, realizing other people are simply doing
what their brains are programmed to do, takes away the anger and
blame. Just like we wouldn’t hold a grudge for years against
a wild animal that bit us, we could also forgive and accept a
person who bit us. and we can’t feel unnecessarily
superior or proud of our ‘self’ if we accomplish something
wonderful, because we don’t’ have a ‘self’ that did those things,
just a brain and the right environment, neither of which we can
take credit for.
This approach is called ‘reattribution’ in TEAM, which is
useful for defeating ‘self-blame’ and ‘other (self) blame’.
Here are some other methods to leverage the no-self concept and
free your mind of this hazardous way of thinking:
1. Experimental Technique: Try to define what a ‘self’
is. Then conduct an experiment to see whether the self is
capable of doing the things you think it can do. For example,
can your ‘self’ stop understanding the words you are seeing on this
page? Or does your brain helplessly decipher the shapes of
these letters into meaningful sounds and language? Can your
self exert its free will to decide to focus exclusively on one
thing for one minute, like your breath or a point on the
wall? It can’t. If your self can’t do such
simple tasks, what can it do? One can see meditation as a
kind of ‘experiment’ to see whether our ‘self’ is calling the
shots, using its free will, or if our brains are just doing what
2. Socratic Questioning: You can ask questions that can’t be
answered to show that the ‘self’ is more like a ‘unicorn’ than a
cat. For example, how big is the ‘self’? What’s it made
of? Where is it located? Can you see it on a MRI? No
radiologist has ever visualized a ‘self’ and you probably realize
you can’t answer these questions, any more than you can, ‘what do
Unicorns like to eat?’, bringing us closer to understanding that
it’s probably a made up thing.
3. Examine the Evidence: What evidence is there that there’s a
Self? What evidence is there that there is no self? On the
latter side, Consider Occam’s Razor, which suggests that the better
hypothesis is the simpler one which still explains the
observations. One hypothesis is we have a brain generating
consciousness. Another hypothesis is that we have a brain
that generates consciousness and a self that is having those
experiences, operating the brain. Based on Occam’s Razor, the
better hypothesis is the former, that we have a brain creating
4. Outcome Resistance: People get scared off by the idea that
there’s no self or free will, that their brain is making decisions,
without a self intervening. In Christian Tradition, for
example, Thomas Aquinas essentially invented the concept of ‘free
will’ so that God’s punishment of Adam and Eve could be explained,
Otherwise, God would seem rather cruel, to create a system
where he knew that would happen. This is an example of how
‘free will’ and the ‘self’ are linked to blame and anger.
Even if you don’t believe in God, you might be concerned that
the idea that there is no free will would mean that the criminal
justice system would fall apart. Criminals could say, ‘I had
no choice’. Talking back to these elements of ‘resistance’
could help free one’s mind.
For example, without free will, it’s true that blaming other
people and retaliatory justice wouldn’t make sense. However,
one could still enforce laws, only in a compassionate way, for the
sake of protecting others making the same mistake. A
murderer, if they realized this, could mind meaning in fulfilling
their sentence, realizing they were doing a service to humanity,
rather than being punished for their bad self. Instead of
seeing other people as having ‘bad’ selves, we can have a sense of
sadness, connection and concern, even with a murderer, when
carrying out justice, understanding that, ‘there but for the grace
of God, go I’.
David mentions, in passing, a mild red flag with the concept of
"free will." He points out that this is another concept, like "God"
or the "self," that has no meaning, if you really grasp what Ludwig
Wittgenstein was trying to say in his classic book,
Philosophical Investigations. One way to "see" this,
although it is admittedly almost impossible to "see:" because it is
so simple and obvious, would be to ask yourself, "What would it
look like if we "had" something called "free will?" And what would
it look like if we "didn't?"
The question is NOT "do we have free will," but rather, "Does
this concept have any meaning? Once you suddenly "see" that the
answer is no, you will be liberated from many philosophical
dilemmas. But as they say, enlightenment can be a lonely road!
the Buddha, as well as Wittgenstein, ran into this problem that
people could not "grasp" the simple and obvious things they were
trying so hard to say! As humans, we get spellbound by the words we
using, thinking that nouns, like "self," must refer to some "thing"
that either exists or doesn't exist! To my way of thinking the
question is NOT "Does god exist" or "do human have free will," but
rather, do these questions make sense? Do they mean anything?
The answer, to my way of thinking (DB), is no.
However, . . . you might not "get" this!
3. Thomas also asks about
Dr. Albert Ellis
Do you agree with Ellis that one is better off without making
oneself upset over other people's problems?
What about Putin and Russia and all the violence, another mass
shooting, and trump running for president again?
Ellis didn't think one should be disturbed about these things.
Or at least upset. What do you think?
Here’s my take. Healthy and appropriate negative feelings
exist! One SHOULD be upset by horrific war crimes. I suspect that
if Beck and Ellis, were they still alive, they would both strongly
agree, but of course, I cannot speak for them!
Thanks for listening today!
Matt, Rhonda, and David!
About the Podcast
This podcast features David D. Burns MD, author of "Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy," describing powerful new techniques to overcome depression and anxiety and develop greater joy and self-esteem. For therapists and the general public alike!