One skill taught in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy involves helping folks use Socratic questions to challenge unhelpful or ineffective interpretations of events. Unjustified anxiety, as an example, involves an overvaluation of a threat, undervaluation of our capacity to tolerate a threat or both. The Socratic method is a form of inquiry used by Socrates to help folks become better thinkers – we use it today in science, law, psychology – virtually everywhere -to get to the “truth”.
I’ll take an example from my own personal experience that a discussion with a client earlier this week reminded me of.
A few years back, I drove to a coffee shop and noticed a car parallel parked across three spots.
I immediately had the following thoughts…
“What a fucking asshole”
“Who does this?”
“This motherfucker thinks they could put the world on hold for their convenience.”
“I’m going to teach them a lesson”
I’m not sure if this is exactly what I said to myself, but I do use the word “fuck” a lot and this is the kind of shit that goes through my head when I experience something like this.
This interpretation led to a feeling of anger.
The interpretation and feeling prompted a desire to block the car in with my car and make the person who owned the car wait while I got my coffee.
Checking my thinking as it was happening using Socratic questions may have looked something like this…
Thought 1 – “What a fucking asshole.”
SQ – “What evidence do you have that the person who owns the car is an asshole?”
Answer -“Look at the way they parked?”
SQ-“What makes how they parked evidence of asshole behavior?”
Answer-“Because it’s inconsiderate, they are taking up three spots without regard for others.”
SQ- “Are there reasons outside of inconsideration that could explain why they parked this way?”
Answer – “I mean it could be an emergency, but who goes to a coffee shop during an emergency?”
SQ- “Don’t you go to coffee shops during emergencies?”
Answer- “Fuck you, Socrates.”
Thought 2 – “Who does this?”
SQ – “That’s a good question, who would do this or rather what would cause a person to do this?”
SQ – “Is that the only thing that would lead someone to act this way? Were there times when you behaved in ways others would interpret as rude but the behavior was justified or maybe even unjustified?”
Answer- “Fuck you, Socrates.”
I didn’t go through this line of questioning but I ended up not blocking the car – I didn’t know how big the dude was and I wasn’t in the mood to get my ass kicked. While waiting for a spot to open, I noticed a young woman who appeared anxious leaving the shop and entering the car. At this point, I started feeling bad because it was clear to me, by the look on her face, that she was not having a good day. She stayed in her car for a while so I walked to her car to find out if she was going to move it. She explained that the car had broken down near the shop and a few guys helped her push it out of the street and into the lot – she was waiting for a tow.
Next time you find yourself feeling angry, anxious or sad – ready to react through aggression, isolation or avoidance- consider using Socratic questions to challenge some of your thinking.