Fortune Telling (How I Destroyed Christmas for a Young Man)

Cognitive therapy is based on the foundation that a person’s emotional state is not determined by what happens to him, but rather his understanding of what happens. In other words, your psychology is based on your perception of your world, not the world itself. For example, when a student gets a B+ on her exam, that in and of itself cannot create happiness, sadness, anxiety or any other emotion. The student, at varying levels of consciousness, decides how she feels by interpreting what a “B+” means to her.

Cognitive therapists spend most of their time helping clients to see if their thoughts/perceptions are both accurate and adaptive. Achieving a B+ on an exam could pose a problem for a student who is seeking to make the Dean’s List. A cognitive therapist would strive for a natural and healthy emotion such as concern or disappointment, ideally leading to a plan to work harder to get a better grade in the future. By contrast, a student who beats herself up over this and perceives this as complete failure because it wasn’t the grade she wanted would be encouraged to look more closely to see if this set of beliefs was causing excessive distress. Finally, a student who has struggled in that class and is elated at getting a B+ due to hard work would likely be pleased and not require any intervention on the part of her therapist.

One common error in perception that many of us make is known as Fortune Telling or simply “jumping to conclusions.” I happen to be an expert at making myself miserable in this fashion. Consider my work with Max, a bright 14 year-old boy with anxiety difficulties. Common areas of anxiety in this age group include peer acceptance, budding sexuality, friends and family’s welfare, forging through the early stages of independence, academics, and so forth. On one particular session, however, Max expressed a fear about aliens and their attack on Earth.

“Dr. Rob, I’m afraid they’ll come down and kill us.”

“Do you mean aliens like the ones in the movies?”

“Yeah, like in Independence Day.”

I shuddered at the thought of having to sit through two hours of that filth again. “You know, some people believe that there are other living beings in outer space, but I don’t think the aliens in the movie you are talking about are real.”

“They’re not? Are you sure? One kid at school said that they are real and that Will Smith couldn’t kill all of them on his own, that even though they died in the movie, they’ll come back.”

Quietly praying that Independence Day 2 was not in the works, I said “Right, he probably couldn’t do that on his own, but I’m pretty sure you don’t need to worry about that. Those aliens are made up. Like Santa Claus.”

“What?”

“I said that they are made up.”

“No, what about Santa Claus? He’s made up?!

“Yes, he’s simply a…um…oh dear.”

“Oh my God!” Max yelled.

I immediately began to feel panic set in. This was not because I told an adolescent that there is no Santa Claus. That reality in and of itself cannot cause extreme anxiety. It was my perception of that event and the accompanying Fortune Telling that generated my distress:

I’ve shattered his beliefs. His parents are going to be furious. Max won’t want to come back to therapy. I’m a failure as a therapist and will never be successful in life and my mother will agree with each of these thoughts which will simply lower my self-esteem and confirm my inferiority as a person. No one will ever love me.

“Santa’s not real?” Max asked, panicky himself now.

Therapist Rule: Do not lie, yet do not blatantly go against a parent’s value system.

“Well, there once was a man named St. Nicholas and…Max, would it be alright if I got mom and we talked about this together?”

“Yes, get her!”

Using a shaky hand to prompt Mrs. Max into the office from the waiting room, I tried to gather myself for what could be an ugly scene. The thoughts were still racing through my mind, and as my heart rate was accelerating, I’m sure beads of sweat became visible. Max is 14. If he were 6, I wouldn’t have dreamed of saying something like that. How could I have known he still believed in Santa Claus?

“Mom! Dr. Rob told me there is no Santa Claus!”

Rather than getting angry at me for exposing the jolly fat man as a sham, she seemed a bit sad. “Well, I suppose we all knew this day would come,” she said, lowering her head as if her son inadvertently found out he was adopted.

“I’m very sorry,” I said. “I had no idea this was an issue at his age.”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Mrs. Max asked, seemingly confused.

“Well most children don’t believe in Santa Claus at 14,” I said, feeling a bit more stable, like I could impart some actual wisdom instead of being simply a glorified Myth Buster. “That is generally reserved for much younger children, at least in my experience. I also wonder if this could be in some remote way connected to Max’s anxiety.”

“How so?”

“Max, do you ever talk to your classmates about Santa?”

“Sometimes. No one else believes in him. They tell me that it’s baby stuff and they make fun of me, so I just assumed that they would rot in hell.”

“See, Mrs. Max,” I said. “It can be very taxing for an adolescent to have these kinds of social difficulties. If Max is brought up to speed with things like Santa Claus…”

“And the Tooth Fairy!” Max said.

“Right, and the Tooth Fairy, then maybe he can relate a bit better with his peers. This might help with his anxiety.”

“His father believed in the Easter Bunny until he was 15,” Mrs. Max said, “so I don’t know what is normal. You seem to know your stuff, just please do right by Max.”

The moral of the story: do not assume that whatever is going on in your head is patently true. I created a veritable panic attack for myself based on thoughts and predictions that could have come true, but proved not to. That’s the essence of Fortune Telling, taking what is technically possible and turning it into a definitive. More importantly though my gaffe created a great therapeutic opening for Max. After a few months dispelling myths and teaching him interpersonal skills, he began to interact with his 14 year-old peers in a more traditional manner, discussing video games and getting to 2nd base rather than elves from the South Pole and pixies who take your molars and leave a dirty nickel on your sheets. This did, in fact, lower his anxiety.

My therapist was glad to know what I learned about misperception. She then spent two weeks psychoanalyzing why I need to bash Independence Day at every opportunity I get.

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13 Responses to “Fortune Telling (How I Destroyed Christmas for a Young Man)”

  1. Robin says:

    My favorite story yet! You hit the nail on the head with pixies dirty nickels on your sheets! Great one Dr. Rob!

  2. Amber says:

    awww why don’t you like Independance Day? I liked it, although, I did get a good bit of eye candy out of it.

  3. Charles says:

    Well I’m really glad I’m not alone on this one. I fortune tell a lot when things start to go bad and a lot of the times when it isn’t needed. I always figured my imagination was too active and I didn’t have enough to occupy my mind.
    Btw, Santa isn’t real?!

  4. MRG says:

    Good post and congrats on being the only rudius media writer posting on a regular basis!
    Dr. Rob Note: Thank you so much, although there are other regular postings going on as well (Ben Corman, Ryan Holiday, The Trixie, and others…)

  5. anxi says:

    This is a very interesting post on Anxiety attack! This website has helped me a lot on axiety attacks and it’s very useful. They have many great tips to guide to. Do check it out at http://www.attackanxiety.org
    Dr. Rob Note: This is the last time you’re spamming my site dude.

  6. not a doktor says:

    WELCOM TO EARF *pow* didn’t get one chuckle out of you?
    Wait, this just in, I am being told Independence Day was NOT a COMEDY; I’ll repeat that, INDEPENDENCE DAY IS NOT A COMEDY

  7. Maggy says:

    Um..hahahaha…I was at work and I read this story and I nearly spewed out the coffee I was drinking when that kid was shocked that Santa Claus wasn’t real. Oh my gosh…thanks, that just cracked me up. My poor Japanese co-workers…I think they think something is wrong with me…not that they’re far off the mark. =]

  8. Craig says:

    Heh, I’ve got to say, these posts do definitely brighten up my evenings – thanks, Dr. Rob!

  9. Derby says:

    you ruined a little kids dreams so now he has to chase tale.

  10. Wayland says:

    You continue to rock. I favor stories with Max in them. I’m glad he’s doing so well now. Good job man.

  11. John Smith says:

    Wow. I wonder what the connection would be between a fear of aliens and a belief in Santa Clause. Possibly an inability to deal with the world as it is and instead retreat into fantasy paranoia?
    Is it really fair to attack the perception as reality way of thinking? After all, isn’t quantum mechanics based on the idea that the observation of something changes its properties? And isn’t The Secret based on this idea too?
    Anyway, could the analogy between the devastation of the nonexistence of Claus to a 14 year old be analogous to telling a fundamentalist the same thing about God?

  12. Jackie says:

    Therapy isn’t about being able to infer someone’s reasoning behind their beliefs, only they themselves know that – and there’s no way to test our assumptions really. That’s why “projective testing” does more harm than good (not to mention research has shown time and time again that it doesn’t work). The job is to help them come to these conclusions. We could speculate about why people do what they do, but then if therapists had that power of decison wouldn’t it just come down to who is the better debater? Thats where dangerous arrogance comes in. This is also an unfortunate reality of psychologists appearing in court…
    So cognitive therapy isn’t really about “attacking” ones perceptions. It’s helping the person figure out what is and isn’t working for them. It’s not necessarily the therapist making a value judgement about their own, rather when they themselves learn to examine their own thought patterns – and testing them. There are lots of workbooks out there, many people even do it on their own.
    Anyway I constantly fall for the A to Z thinkings. I direct this residential camp for low functioning adults, and this A-to-Z-thing always comes to bite me in the ass. One of my (favorite) campers is a diabetic but she’s also schizophrenic… one of her delusions was about feeling very ill all the time (and having no pulse). Which is just awesome because her caregivers sent her up without any way for me to detect her blood sugar so everytime she decided that she felt “ill” this is what would initially go through my head,
    “she’s obviously going to go into diabetic SHOCK and then the ambulance won’t get here in time because we’re in the middle of NOWHERE and i HATE this job why did the nurse just get sent to ARGENTINA too young for this sh*t now she’s going to DIE and it’s all my fault and i can just see her funeral now and i’ll be FIRED to ahhhhhh i’m a terrible person i don’t deserve to liiiiiive”
    …. of course at the end of camp I found out her blood sugar had been stable for 3 years and that’s why they didn’t send her up with anything.

  13. :yb detsoP says:

    BUT….is Will Smith real?