Book Review: Feeling Great by David Burns

I watched Paw Patrol: The Movie because I have a four year old I love. In it, the police puppy Chase was scared of jumping over a gaping chasm between two buildings, so his owner the boy Ryder encourages him by telling him he’s the bravest dog he knows, and that type of thing. In the movie, this bit of cheerleading works, and the puppy makes the leap, performs extraordinary feats with his high opinion of himself restored.

What David Burns argues in Feeling Great, which I find so radical, is that in this situation:

  1. The cheerleading wouldn’t really work. For one thing, the puppy knows that’s a ridiculous claim. How is he the single bravest dog the boy Ryder has ever met? Define brave. Bravest every moment continuously with no other dog cutting in with a bit of bravery of its own ever? Really the bravest compared to even the other puppies on the Paw Patrol team (Marshall the firefighter puppy, Skye the pilot puppy, et al.)? Would Ryder say that were the other puppies within earshot? If not, how can Chase take Ryder’s cheerleading seriously? Cheerleading with affirmations, whether from others or as self-dialogue, in the form of “You’re/​I’m so brave, beautiful, smart, etc.” doesn’t really work because it feels phony, since we can always find counter examples.

  2. The cheerleading sets the police puppy Chase up for a turbulent inner life, in which how he feels is determined by his fluctuations on the bravery scale, as compared to other external dogs, or even to his own evaluations of his bravery. On days he feels/​acts less brave, ought he feel bad about himself? Or ought he maintain an unwaveringly exact amount of self-bravery evaluation?

One of Feeling Great’s philosophical points, separate from the new way of doing therapy (already reviewed by Steven Byrnes) is to embrace that there is no such thing as a brave puppy, by way of Ludwig Wittgenstein. That the words brave puppy are just sounds. A real puppy is not worried about whether he is brave, but is just enjoying life chasing squirrels or saving humans. Those actions can be well or ill done, but a puppy cannot be well or ill performed/​to be. Many problems of psychology are essentially linguistic problems.

Another of Feeling Great’s revolutionary and creative philosophical points is the argument to accept ourselves as ordinary, not extraordinary. And that paradoxically, by giving up the need to be special, life becomes special. His message is the opposite of self-help/​self-improvement.

David Burns on his cat Obie and himself:

“Clearly, Obie was not special. He was just an ordinary, homeless, desperate cat who appeared at our kitchen door on the verge of death, hoping for some food. And although he became a healthy, proud, and gorgeous boy, he was not a pure-bred and couldn’t win any cat shows.

And I’m not special either. I’m just an old fart now. But when I was with my buddy, Obie—just hanging out and not doing much—that was the greatest experience in the world. Obie taught me that when you no longer need to be “special,” life becomes special.”

David Burns dedicated Feeling Great to his cat Obie, his “best friend and teacher.”

On his student at Stanford Medical School, “Dr. Matthew May when he was a psychiatric resident. Matt was exceptionally skillful and a joy to work with”:

“One night, we were driving back to my house from a supervision session when we came to a stop sign. Matt looked at me with a very sincere look in his eyes and said, “Dr. Burns, I just want you to know that every day I’m trying really hard to become a better person.”

I gave him an equally sincere look and said, “Matt, I really hope you get over that pretty soon!”

He suddenly got it and broke into laughter. That was his moment of enlightenment.”

I hope you also get it now or perhaps soon. Because when your ego dies—and you discover that you are not “special” and that you no longer need to be special—life can become pretty incredible.”

David Burns advocates “the painful acceptance of the fact that you’re not actually special and the fantastically liberating discovery that you don’t need to be.”

Back to the police puppy Chase on that ledge, doubt-wracked. I think Feeling Great’s message to him would be how to jump over the chasm to save his owner is a real problem, but compounding that with self-questions of whether he is brave or not, special or not, how brave, how special, are linguistic problems that create psychological problems. To embrace being just an ordinary dog, would shed his feelings of “inadequacy, guilt, shame, inferiority, and worthlessness.” That he “will lose nothing but your suffering and your “self,” and you will gain the world.”

David Burns’s original book Feeling Good (1980) was cognitive behavior therapy. His new Feeling Great (2020) is philosophy, plus cognitive behavior therapy. Instead of finding what’s wrong with ourselves and improving, he turns and teaches us how to find those exact flaws as what’s best about us, and then to go a step further, and not only accept ourselves, but accept ourselves as just ordinary.

It isn’t laying down the Law of Jante, prescribing that we shouldn’t believe that we are special. Rather David Burns writes of sitting with open hands, instead of proselytizing. That he isn’t interested in telling people how to live their lives, but helping them when they go to him with a problem. Basing our “selves” on being brave/​special/​etc. has such a great cost, that if say Chase the police puppy were to choose to give up that volatile basis for how he feels about himself, then David Burns can show him the way out of the woods. But if Chase wants to go on trying to be brave/​special, then more power to him, and David Burns wishes him well.

I find these ideas heady, provocative, and deeply influential. And I can’t help but write them into my novel (this is my moment to shill), a serial wuxia adventure on Substack.

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