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  • Katrina Dennehy

Taking Control of Our Thoughts by Tom Conlon

The roots of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are located in the writings of Epictetus, an ex-slave-turned-Stoic-philosopher from the second century AD. And his core beliefs about freedom are central to the application of CBT in a clinical setting. So, what are some of these principles and how might they be applied? I present here three pieces of practical advice which would benefit all of us.

His core teachings are incorporated in a very short text called the ‘Enchiridion’. He tells us, very simply, that there are some things that are within your control; that are up to you; that you are responsible for; and it is wise to spend your energy trying to change these things. And then there are some things that are not within your control; that are not up to you; which you are not responsible for; and he tells us that you would be wise to spend not to waste your energy trying to change these things.

The key test when assessing a thought or impression is to ask yourself: ‘Is this something that is, or not, within my control?’. And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern’. He says it is foolish to try and avoid a situation over which you know you have no control, but it is wise to make changes to your judgments, impulses, desires, aversions, and mental faculties to reduce unnecessary suffering.

He goes on to say: “It’s not events that disturb people; rather, it is their judgements concerning them that causes the disturbance”. The central point here is that whilst we cannot do anything about some events, we can certainly control the way that we interpret them. When people speak to me about anxiety and compulsions, I say in return that we can certainly control and shape the thoughts that drive these situations.

The final piece of advice from our ancient philosopher friend that that I think is very helpful is the following:

“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want them to; welcome events in whichever way they happen; this is the path to peace.”

Epictetus has significantly influenced today’s application of CBT within the clinic. And, as somebody who knew intimately the privations of slavery, he also is uniquely placed to help us understand how to be free.


Epictetus “Discourses and selected writings”. Penguin 2008

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