Tennis, Lunch, and CBT: Reflections on my Lasting Friendship with Dr. Aaron Beck

Blog – Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy

By Robert DeRubeis, PhD Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training School of Arts and Sciences, University of Pennsylvania

Aaron T. Beck and I started working together in 1983. We had met four years
earlier, when I got to know him at a workshop he was leading. I collaborated
with his team and interviewed to join the Psychology Department at the
University of Pennsylvania, after which we co-wrote our first chapter.  A deeper relationship began to develop,
however, after he asked me if I wanted to hit some tennis balls with him. I
became part of his doubles tennis group, and during hitting practice we would
engage in extensive courtside conversations about CBT and our research, as well
as sports, tennis, family, movies, politics, world events, and more. About 15 years
ago, we started meeting for lunch once a week. At these lunches, which
typically last for two hours or more, he asks me what my team and I are
researching, and he shares the projects he has been working on. He is always keen
to get my feedback about his work and to reflect on what my team is up to.

Working closely with Dr. Beck has been one of the highlights
of my career. Two instances stand out to me, the first being the opportunity to
write a description of cognitive therapy and the associated research for an
edited volume that is now in its fourth edition. Doing so alongside Dr. Beck,
having the chance to explain what he had been doing for years, and witnessing him
react to, shape, and edit the piece along with me was a priceless set of
encounters and discussions. A second collaboration put me together with Dr.
Beck and Dr. Jay Fournier (an influential psychologist, researcher, and former
graduate student of mine) on an empirical paper that, I am told, influenced the
way the current DSM conceptualizes personality disorders. At the time, the DSM
Task Force (a group of health and medical professionals who are leaders in
their respective fields and led the development of the DSM) was about to
abandon the idea that there are different disorders, in favor of a dimensional
system, because there was insufficient evidence to continue to support the
existing categories. In our paper, we showed a rather close correspondence between
the respective clusters of beliefs obtained using the Personality Beliefs
Questionnaire (PBQ) and the diagnoses made by clinicians on the basis of
interviews, blind to the PBQ answers given by the patients. Dr. Beck sent the
manuscript to the DSM committee at the same time that we submitted for
publication. Last I looked, the personality disorders were still in the DSM.

Our working relationship has always been connected to our
personal relationship and vice versa. If I was puzzling over what to do regarding
issues with my children, for example, Dr. Beck would offer sage advice, which
usually could be summed up in one word: patience. To be advised by someone who
is known around the world for his insights, and to be asked for my opinion on a
wide variety of problems and issues, has been priceless.

This leads me to another quality I admire in Dr. Beck: his
humility. About five years ago, he was preparing a 90th birthday toast.
 Dr. Beck, knowing I am Google-savvy, asked
if I could find a list of famous people in their 90s so he could mention them
in his speech. The week after the event he thanked me, adding, “Everyone
thought it was so funny when I read my name from the list.” He really thought,
and evidently his delivery made the guests at the event believe, that I had
inserted his name alongside John Glenn’s, Zsa Zsa Gabor’s, and Carl Reiner’s,
among others. It spoke to his humility that I had to show him the website
before he believed that I hadn’t played a trick on him. Truly remarkable for
someone of his immense stature.

Dr. Beck’s vast influence is the product of so many things,
one of them being that when one is in his presence, one wants to listen
carefully to his every word. The attention he pays to what others are saying
makes him approachable and welcoming, traits that I find rare in those at the
top of their field. He has inspired countless mental health professionals around
the world. Those who have studied with him or worked with him inevitably want
to spread the word, knowing that the “exquisite common sense” represented in CBT
will connect beautifully with the minds of therapists and their patients. Dr.
Beck’s humanity shines through iall his writings,  presentations, and conversations with small
groups and individuals, as does his belief in the strength and power that
resides in all of us, and our collective ability to learn, grow, and heal.

As we reflect on Dr. Beck’s 100 years, I am reminded that as
I was hitting tennis balls with him when he was in his early 70s, he asked me
to hit him some high balls at the net, because he wanted to develop a net game!
It shouldn’t have surprised me that, within a few months, he was putting away
any ball at the net that he could reach. His spirit of perseverance and
dedication extends to every aspect of his life. At 100 years old, Dr. Beck and
I are continuing to work on a paper together. He is constantly excited and
willing to talk about CT-R, as it is his greatest passion to work with people
given a diagnosis of a serious mental health condition, those who have
historically been pushed to the margins of the mental health care system and
society at large. Dr. Beck has never been narrow-minded or restricted in his thinking
about human problems, their solutions, and how to help people live better. In
fact, quite the opposite. He doesn’t reject ideas, because in Dr. Beck’s world
the goal has always been to find what is most helpful to most people.

Ten years ago, at his 90th birthday celebration in
Washington, DC, I was extremely touched when Dr. Beck acknowledged me with some
kind words in his speech to the hundred or so people gathered there. He
concluded that portion of his remarks by saying, “But I could never return his
serve.” In fact, he had little trouble returning even my best ones, but he was
showing his playful side, and his humility, which I have had the privilege to
see countless times over the years. While what he has accomplished in his 100
years is nearly beyond belief, Dr. Beck’s personal qualities will always stand
out to me and those who have had the pleasure of meeting him. His work here is
not yet finished, and I feel privileged to have been a collaborator and friend
for all these years.
The post Tennis, Lunch, and CBT: Reflections on my Lasting Friendship with Dr. Aaron Beck appeared first on Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
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July 17, 2021 – 12:04 am /Hallie Grossman
Twitter: @hoffeldtcom

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