What Is Philosophical Counseling? Part III – ‘Dolls That Remove Worries’

In Anxiety: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2012, Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman write:

Parents in Guatemala employ an unusual technique for helping children to overcome their worries. They give the child a small bag containing six tiny dolls fashioned from cloth and wood. Each night, the child tells one of the dolls a particular worry, and then places the doll under their pillow. The doll’s job is to take on – and take away – the worry, thereby allowing the child to sleep soundly. During the night, the parent may remove the doll. When the child wakes up in the morning, their worry has disappeared along with the doll.

Muñecas quitapenas – literally, ‘dolls that remove worries’ – are generally given to children by their parents, but adults use them too. And there’s a reason why their use has persisted since Mayan times: they really do seem to work. This is because simply expressing your worries is often enough to neutralize them. If you, or your child, are struggling with night-time worries, you might like to make your own muñecas quitapenas.

‘Simply expressing your worries is often enough to neutralize them’ – this observation dovetails with the common intuition that talking with anyone–no matter what their theoretical orientation, and in some cases, even their level of professional education and preparation–about what ails you will make you feel better. I want to suggest that a philosophical counselor is a doll that removes worry, or rather, could be one.

But wait: if talking to anyone could help with anxiety, even an inanimate figure, then why bother with a counselor at all? Because some kinds of ways of talking are likely to be more effective than others–you will ‘improve’ or ‘get better’ no matter who you talk to, but talking to some kinds of folks might work better for you. And the ‘improvement’ in question might be more ‘fundamental’ and ‘far-reaching.’ 

To see this note that almost all of the best evidence based therapies for dealing with anxiety are cognitive ones, like cognitive behavioral therapy – these are not neurobiological or purely behavioral. That’s because the ‘best theories of anxiety’ are metacognitive or cognitive. They treat the various ‘disorders’ associated with anxiety – panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder–as metacognitive or cognitive. We panic, obsess compulsively, or suffer from anxiety chronically because:

  1. We hold ‘incorrect’ beliefs that don’t ‘work for us’ (where ‘don’t work for us’ simply means ‘produces emotions and affect we find unpleasant and debilitating’);
  2. We hold beliefs about these beliefs that don’t work for us;
  3. We interpret events in light of these beliefs and our beliefs about our beliefs; these interpretations ‘don’t work for us’;
  4. We draw ‘incorrect inferences’ from these beliefs.

These cognitive theories of anxiety hold that it is not a event per se that causes us anxiety; it is our beliefs about it and the way we interpret that event that does so.The formation of these beliefs and the inferential patterns based on them can come to constitute a ‘personality,’ an established, enduring pattern of behavior. The success of cognitive behavioral therapy becomes evident; it constitutes an intervention in this pattern, diverting it to new norms of behavior and reasoning. 

Put this way, it becomes ever more important to examine our beliefs, our beliefs about them, and our inferences based on them. Talking about them, exposing the relationships between them, and facing up to the coherence of our interpretations is a therapeutic intervention, one that can be aided by a sympathetic audience, an engaged interlocutor, someone who understands the significance of such revisitation and can guide it when and as needed. In short, a philosophical counselor.  

Why might philosophical counseling work better for some folks? Because philosophers are often better placed to question justifications for beliefs and the interpretations and inferences that issue from them–this is part and parcel of ‘our trade.’ For some personalities, such firm yet sympathetic questioning can work better in eliciting further inquiry. This is where the analogy with the ‘doll that removes worries’ breaks down. For the philosophical counselor is not a passive listener, like a doll, but an active participant, one who does not direct, but listens, reflects, and questions. 

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