Fighting Vice v. Forging Virtue

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time you probably know that I use a lot of Athenian philosophy in thinking about interventions and symptom management.  I’ve also written about how this school of thinking has had tremendous influence on the field of psychology.

Today we’re going to take a page out of DBT (willfulness v. willingness) , Positive Psychology (virtues) and CBT  (changing our thinking and behaviors in understanding and responding to the “problem”).  The problem can be anything from a character trait that you are not happy about to a symptom that affects functioning in one or more important areas of your life.

Sometimes our distress is the result of our “fighting” something.  That “something” typically has to do with how we think about, feel about or react to an event.  This creates a set of problems because it keeps us stuck in an argument with ourselves or a reality that may not change.

Fighting vice can mean:

  • Fighting a belief, urge or tendency that many people have but engaging these to an extent that blocks helpful thinking or behavior. (For example-Ruminating on what another person said about you and its’ influence on the opinions of others.)

I’m sure I’m missing something but not much.  Seem’s pretty simple doesn’t it?  A few little things that get in the way of feeling more in control of ourselves and our lives.  Although simple in definition they can be difficult to overcome.

Fighting vice requires little thought or planning, it is a patterned response to an automatic belief that leads to (usually) predictable outcomes. Typically the outcomes are not good ones. Many times these responses were at one time survival skills that actually allowed us to get through a difficult part of our lives.  Because they are an established routine and tied to survival instinct, breaking the patterns can be difficult.

Forging Virtue means:

  • Understanding the vice and it’s harmful impact on yourself and those you are close to.
  • Using our reason to define (behaviorally)what it means to be virtuous.
  • Make a conscious effort to engage in the behaviors that meet your definition of virtue vs. fighting the desires/emotions that push you to vice.

Many times we fight something because we lack a concrete definition of what it is we want to work towards.  I use the term “forging” when it comes to virtue because virtue is work. Virtue involves using our reason to define what it means to be different (in a good way) than how we would normally respond to a situation behaviorally.  Being virtuous demands an attention to this definition when triggers occur and acting from those behaviors that define it, in response to the trigger.

Having a clear and reasonable definition of virtue allows us to no longer depend on our emotions, distorted thought patterns or the opinions of others in judging our character or worth.  It also provides us with a point of reference to work towards. An alternative to remaining engaged in a battle that lacks purpose, meaning or clarity and in the end usually leads to ineffective action and less than desirable consequences.

Friday’s Thought

“The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”

The characteristics we want others to see in us are usually virtuous and noble.  Our desire to be viewed in this way is really a goal related to how we want to live our lives.  As with trying to achieve any goal, there are times when we (and everyone else) fail.  Socrates asked us to make our actions consistent with our ideal;  to act the part so who we want to be becomes a matter of habit-who we really are.  Acting differently than our own ideal doesn’t make us phony nor does it make the ideal irrelevant.  It simply means we are human and the thing we’re shooting for isn’t easy.

The bumper sticker version of this quote used in mental health and addictions is  “Fake it until you make it”; act opposite of your symptoms so that the parts of your life that hold meaning for you don’t fall apart.   Being successful here means building the evidence of acting separate and apart from your anxiety or depression; having proof that your symptoms don’t define who you are.

Giving props to Aristotle

Props as in respect, not the thing used by actors-Aristotle didn’t need those kinds of props. He was the Chuck Norris of philosophy.   I’m thinking that was probably an unsafe thing to say.  Who cares? I feel like taking some risks today and my other desire (selling my house and moving to Alaska) would probably mean financial ruin.

Being the product of a Catholic education, I know my Aristotle. His writings are what got me interested in psychotherapy as a career.  Think about it. This is the guy who defined (or at least tried to define) what it meant to live a happy life.  He believed that happiness is the product of a person’s actions and habits.  He addressed the extremes people could experience in the face of distressing events.  He created a middle ground that honored the desire the emotions behind the extremes pushed us to meet while providing us with the greatest opportunity for self-respect and right action.  My psychoanalytically minded friends would tell you that he was talking about Freudian concepts before Freud was even a thought in his mommy’s mind.  Which makes sense since Freud’s mother was born well after Aristotle died.   The CBT and Positive Psychology folks will tell you he laid most of the groundwork for what they do.  The DBT therapists might look at you like you’ve just crossed some major boundary and have no business being in the same room with them.  That’s okay; I think they do that to everyone.

I’m just kidding guys….we should all be able to laugh at ourselves, right?


Nicomachean ethics was probably the world’s first self-help series.  Well, I don’t really know if it was actually the first one, but that would be cool if it were true.  As I’m writing this others come to mind, but whatever-I’ll save the post on T.S. Eliot for another time.  I can say that his work was the most coherent precursor to many of the modalities therapists work from today and probably the most influential in the development of Western Civilization.

So what if his work wasn’t scientific? Neither was Freud’s .  No it really, really wasn’t…..really.   Aristotle certainly had a greater influence than Freud did on the field of psychology and life in general.  I’m thankful for that because Freud freaks me out.

So, if some guy wearing a multi-layered robe and sandals opens up shop as a therapist, you may want to consider giving him a shot.  Just be sure he’s licensed.