Insight Is Not Enough

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People who are struggling with life problems usually labor under the misconception that if they can just figure out the reasons for their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors they’ll be cured. This idea is ingrained in talk therapy and it’s something a lot of therapists are guilty of promoting, probably because the main theoretical premise of Freud and his followers, the creators of talk therapy, was that bringing unconscious drives and motivations into conscious awareness was the ipso facto cure.

But time has shown that premise to be unequivocally wrong. Insight is not enough on its own. People can come to understand all of the inner workings of their minds, all of the salient factors in their environmental situations, yet they don’t change. Their lives remain dysfunctional, they continue on with the same maladaptive patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, they just have a better explanation for why.

Insight is the foundation upon which the house of change is built but it’s not the same thing as change. Freud and his followers should have looked to the Buddha, the greatest talk therapist of them all, who knew that understanding the causes of ill-being was an essential but only preliminary step in overcoming ill-being. His four noble truths make this clear as day:

1. We are suffering and are aware that we are.
2. We recognize the origin of our ill-being.
3. We recognize that there is a way of overcoming our ill-being.
4. We accept that in order to overcome our ill-being we must follow certain norms for living and change our present practice of life.
(Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be, pg. 137)

The mistake a lot of us make is in believing that recognizing the origin of our ill-being is the way of overcoming our ill-being. But that would be like believing that isolating the factors responsible for high blood pressure cures that high blood pressure. No, once you know what you’re dealing with you put yourself in a better position to improve, that’s all. You’ve got to take concrete steps if you actually want to improve. Increasing insight around psychic issues is exactly the same thing. It’s important to know what you’re dealing with but this knowledge is not enough on its own. If you want to change you’ve got to change the present practice of your life.