1. I make myself upset. It does not just happen to me.
2. I do not have to make myself upset - I have choice in how I react.
3. People and things do NOT have to be the way I want them to be.
If you wish to take control over your emotional reactions to adversity and thereby have greater control over your life forcefully remind yourself of the three following things:
1. I make myself upset. It does not just happen to me.
2. I do not have to make myself upset - I have choice in how I react.
3. People and things do NOT have to be the way I want them to be.
Keep reminding yourself that you disturb yourself when progress towards your cherished goals is slow or difficult to achieve. Strongly tell yourself at the tempting moment when you want to quit and avoid staying the course:
"Progress does not absolutely have to be quick and easy as I want it to be. I disturb myself by demanding quick and easy results and holding the rigid attitude that my goals absolutely should be quickly and easily realized. It is far better to accept reality as it is and accepting that worthwhile goals take time to achieve. It is uncomfortable to stay with my effort but not unbearable. I can tolerate the struggle. My goal is worth sticking with and I am committed to staying the course so I have greater pleasure in the long run."
Keep reminding yourself that you disturb yourself. Strongly tell yourself at that tempting moment when you want to engage in irrational thinking, irrational emoting and self-defeating whining:
"Things do not absolutely have to be as I want them to be. I disturb myself by demanding reality to be as I think it absolutely should be instead of accepting it as it is and then controlling and changing what is within my domain of influence."
Nothing AND no one have to be the way I want them to be. This is the bottom line. The sooner we all get this into our thick, fallible heads the more serenity we all will enjoy and perhaps we all will start working together a bit better. Try it!
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy appeals to me, and hopefully sooner or later to you as well, because it is a liberating philosophy AND psychotherapy. It is self-liberating. It emphasizes choice, self-responsibility from emotional disturbance and self-direction. This is why I practice it on myself and teach it to others. The premise in REBT is that we create our disturbance; we therefore are the liberators of our emotional prisons. REBT encourages patients to acknowledge that adversity in and of itself is not the sole cause of our emotional misery. Yes people and events help us along, but we largely disturb ourselves. No other form of cognitive behavior therapy puts it this way nor is as transparent about its assumptions. REBT is no nonsense. REBT teaches that we take views of events and when those views of adversity are rigid and extreme (the famous shoulds, oughts and musts of REBT which give rise to the equally famous awfuls, terribles, I can’t stand its and devaluation of self, other and life) we are responsible for the creation of the subsequent emotional disturbance. The roots of REBT, Stoic philosophy, have been around over 2,000 years. This philosophy works. It is time tested. With a confident yet compassionate stance I hold my patients accountable and I directly ask them questions like these:
People often give lip service to rational thinking and the Principle of Emotional Responsibility. They will agree that adversity in and of itself is insufficient for causing emotional upset when they are successful at using the ABC model and the Principle of Emotional Responsibility. However, sometimes a person will argue that under some conditions some people really do “push our buttons.” They argue that the person is “so bad” that unhealthy emotional upset is understandable and worse inevitable. When I get this argument from people I hold my ground. I show them that their escape clause from the Principle of Emotional Responsibility is doing them great harm. By carving out exceptions to the Principle of Emotional Responsibility they are setting themselves up and handing power over to other people. Don’t do this! Yes, some people may be better at getting under your skin or in your head than others but the Principle of Emotional Responsibility still applies. You might find it hard not to awfulize about their despicable behavior but that does not mean that person “causes” your upset. Work on applying the Principle even when other people are particularly difficult. This is when you need to hold yourself to task and control what you can control. You can always control how you think about the nasty things other humans do to you. You can choose to be strongly annoyed and displeased with their behavior so you can with a clear head think about the best way of behaving towards them and their misbehavior towards you.
Hold your ground! Stay responsible and keep your emotional poise! To do this forcefully rehearse this line till you use it effectively:
“I make myself disturbed over what this person does to me. My upset is making me play right into their hands. I can choose NOT to disturb myself by no longer holding my self-defeating rigid attitude that they MUST not do what they are doing. I will never like their misbehavior but upsetting myself by defining it as awful or unbearable will only cause me to disturb myself and render myself unsane. It is bad behavior but it is bearable. I want to control my emotional destiny and take back the power. I will hold myself accountable for my disturbed and self-defeating emotional reactions no matter how nasty they treat me. I cannot control them but I can control me and how I think and react to them. No escape clause for me!”
An important distinction I make with my patients is between healthy and unhealthy dissatisfaction. Depending on the context I may call it a healthy and unhealthy unhappiness. I go on to teach that it is good and useful to experience this state of healthy dissatisfaction when we are blocked in the pursuit of our goals and values. It is also good to experience a state of healthy unhappiness. Some patients think I have lost my marbles but I encourage them to stay with me and try to comprehend what I am trying to convey because it is important in order to use REBT effectively.
REBT makes a distinction between healthy negative emotions and unhealthy negative emotions and gives examples of corresponding pairs of healthy and unhealthy negative emotions. In order for you to appreciate the distinction between healthy and unhealthy negative emotions it is best to compare the emotion of concern with the related emotion of anxiety. One is healthy while the other unhealthy.
One reason anxiety is defined as unhealthy is because this emotion often leads to one or more self-defeating behaviors. It tends to encourage us to avoid dealing with the adversity that is looming, to be tempted to misuse alcohol to restore a sense of comfort, and it can reduce our capacity to think creatively and problem solve effectively because we cannot see the range of options for addressing a problem. Avoiding problems tends to be a poor way of managing our lives. On the other hand, concern is healthy because this emotion tends to motivate us to take constructive steps to deal with the adversity we find threatening. We are less likely to be inclined to abuse alcohol to restore a sense of comfort and we are more likely to retain our full cognitive resources to think creatively about solving the looming problem. We are in a healthy state by definition because we are fully able and likely to be trying to help ourselves. Ellis taught that unhealthy negative feelings largely stem from irrational attitudes about adversity while healthy negative feelings largely stem from healthy attitudes about adversity. Irrational attitudes tend to be rigid (i.e. musts, should) and extreme (i.e. it is awful, unbearable) while healthy attitudes tend to be flexible (i.e. wish, prefer) and non-extreme (i.e. it is bad not awful, it is uncomfortable not unbearable). Ellis argued that adversity in and of itself was not sufficient to cause our unhealthy emotions. When we encounter adversity, we are largely responsible for our emotional disturbance by holding rigid and extreme attitudes. If and when we encounter adversity if we hold flexible and non-extreme attitudes these will enable us to have healthy negative emotions that will likely lead to and motivate us to do what we can do to constructively address the adversity.
The goal of REBT is to teach you how to adopt healthy attitudes towards the adversities you face in order to feel healthy negative feelings towards these adversities. This is good because healthy negative feelings lead you to take constructive action to change what you can change AND also allow you to have some happiness or serenity despite the presence of the adversity in your life. This is a healthy state. I try to teach these ideas by telling people to adopt flexible and non-extreme attitudes that will lead to healthy dissatisfaction when their lives are full of adversities that they would prefer not to exist. Sometimes it makes even more sense, or psychologically “clicks” with people, when I tell them to strive to have healthy unhappiness. Yes, dear reader sometimes I want you to experience a state of healthy unhappiness. In a bad situation healthy unhappiness may very well be the only realistic therapeutic goal to pursue.
Healthy unhappiness is a healthy state when you are faced with certain conditions. When bad events occur, when life deviates from our ideal, when adversity strikes and we cannot prevent these things or quickly remedy them it is unrealistic to have a positive feeling about the situation. It is unrealistic to feel good under these circumstances. The thing which you need to determine is are you reacting with an unhealthy negative feeling towards the situation, which may lead to more problems and more misery, or with healthy dissatisfaction and healthy unhappiness that allows you to do your best in a bad situation. When you have determined that your reaction to adversity or undesirable conditions is one of unhealthy dissatisfaction and unhealthy unhappiness you had better take the next step in the REBT self-help process. This is where you look for your “absolute should” and “must” and try to put it in words. Once you get the rigid attitude leading to your unhealthy negative emotion you need to step back and question it. Then try to create an alternative rational attitude using a preference, wish, desire etc. Here is an example. “I wish it were easier to find a better job but it does not have to be so. I can keep trying to look for one AND have some degree of happiness despite not liking my job.” This attitude is what I say would lead you to a healthy state of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. This is good because healthy dissatisfaction is what inspires a scientist to keep working at a difficult scientific problem. Healthy dissatisfaction is what enables the student to keep trying to understand material even when they have made a good effort and still has not come to comprehend the material they have been studying. Healthy unhappiness is the state you want to be in when you find yourself in a job you wish to leave, but have financial responsibilities you want to meet, while you maintain a search for a better a job. Healthy unhappiness enables you to go to that job and remain able to do it reasonably well and not be miserable until you find a better job if you ever able to do. Healthy unhappiness or healthy dissatisfaction leads you to continue to do what you can do to find love when you are not in a relationship and wish to be in one. Healthy unhappiness helps you cope and adapt and still have some degree of happiness despite facing a difficult state of affairs. Being capable of having some happiness despite the presence of problems in your life is an important trick to learn to pull off in life in life because as soon as you solve one problem some other problem will eventually appear. This is the nature of life. Unless you learn how to be happy despite the presence of problems and challenges in your life, that is learn to have what I am calling healthy unhappiness, you will miss out on the happiness you can have now and always be looking forward to the day when this problem is solved. You will set yourself up to find that one day on your death bed you will have wished you had seen you could have made yourself happier despite the problems that existed at different times throughout your life.
I have written this post because it is important for you to understand what state is healthy for you to strive to reach when life is difficult. You need to know what choices you have on an emotional level and what choices you have on an attitudinal level. REBT is all about choice in the face of adversity. It is about choosing appropriate and healthy attitudes and feelings in order to produce constructive behaviors when facing adversity. It is about setting yourself free and choosing your emotional destiny. Healthy dissatisfaction and healthy unhappiness are good choices when life deviates from your ideal. Go for it!
People can come to have a good understanding of REBT in a fairly short period of time. The core ideas of REBT are fairly straightforward. In a few sessions with me and/or after reading a book by Al Ellis or Windy Dryden you will understand how REBT explains your emotional and behavioral disturbance. That is the easy part. People often then say to me “I know that I do not have to have the approval of others even though there are practical reasons to have it” or “I know I do not have to perform perfectly well even though it would be lovely to do so because the task is an important one to me but how do I get myself to believe this new, rational attitude?” I reply “The answer is to act against your need for approval and risk disapproval, strive to do well but allow yourself to do things that are hard and which you are likely to do less than perfectly. You will then develop deep conviction in the rational attitude once you force yourself to take action that is consistent with it. Face your fear and face your shame through action. Tell yourself you can bear to this even if it is very uncomfortable. This is the only path to deep conviction in the new attitude.”
This is where the groaning and moaning usually happens either overtly or covertly. The easy part of therapy is talking about your irrational attitudes or reading about REBT. However, I emphasize that therapy without action is a waste of time. Likewise, reading a self-help book without acting on the information you have read is also a waste of time. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said over 2000 years ago that "Learning that does not lead to action is useless." I agree with Epictetus. If you want to make real change you need to push yourself to act in a way that is both uncomfortable and different than the way that you usually do. And in all probability you will have to act in this alternative way many, many times to undo all the prior times you have acted and reinforced false ideas like “I need the approval of others” or “I have to perform perfectly well because the task is important to me.”
I have even more bad news for you my dear reader. Once you have done all this action and have changed your attitudes through action and effort you had better keep doing these rational actions because it will be all too easy for you to go back to your old ways of thinking and behaving. Yes humans backslide unless they keep at their rational fitness training. Just as a long distance runner must continue to run miles and miles almost daily to maintain their cardiovascular fitness, you too had better accept the fact that unless you keep after yourself and continue to act on these rational attitudes you will eventually return to your old tricks. This of course is bad but far from awful. If it were to happen it means only one thing. That you need to start pushing yourself again and again and again to act rationally until you even more deeply come to see and more deeply come to believe that the rational attitude is true and your old irrational attitude is false, false, false!
Remember, therapy without action is a waste of time.
Remember all definitions of a person's worth are arbitrary definitions. There are no standards for judging a person's essential worth and therefore rating the self is not valid. More importantly it is self-inflicted pain. Rate the parts of you; rate the behaviors you do, and work to modify those parts and behaviors that get in the way of accomplishing your goals and having greater personal happiness in life. This takes time but continue to remind yourself that a person's "self" is ever-changing and can't be rated as we know not what the future holds. You will change and evolve as time goes on till you cease to live. All we can do is rate what we have displayed so far and when we do that rating it is always an incomplete rating. Therefore, we cannot validly rate the self. When people invalidly rate themselves, which most of are very inclined to do, they focus on one deficit or a few bad behaviors and think "I should not have that deficit, I should not ever do that, I should have this or that strength therefore I, me, the person is inadequate, worthless or less worthwhile than I would be if I were different." REBT says NO. You, your essence cannot be summed or scored. When you sum it, rate it or score it you are overgeneralizing and creating disturbance. Feel bad about aspects of you (displeased say about your tendency to procrastinate or to avoid hard work) but never put the self down, never rate the self. Rating the self is invalid and you make yourself feel bad and then this bad feeling never helps you change the procrastinating behavior you do not like and wish to change. Accept the "self" unconditionally and then rate what you do and strive to change what you do which you do not like. Train your mind not to rate the self only what you do. Keep at it. When you do move significantly closer to unconditional self-acceptance you will experience profound psychological change and you will set yourself free.
You are a human being, a living process that does many things over the course of a lifetime. Humans are inclined to myopically focus on their errors and missteps missing the forest from the trees. Live in the present and learn from the past so you do not repeat missteps in the future. Do not rate, evaluate, score, or judge your dynamic self, personhood, essence, and worth. Do rate, evaluate, score, and judge what you do in the context of your goals. Ask questions about what you did and what assumptions you were operating under at the time of your misstep so you learn from your mistakes. You learn this way and bad feelings are contained to what you did or failed to do but you do not feel bad about you the person who did the mistake. Failing bad about you the person NEVER helps. Feel bad only about what you did or failed to do. We all do idiotic things we regret. No one is an idiot unless they wrongly and invalidly define their dynamic "self" as an idiot. The Romans used to say "Errare Humanum Est." Translation "To err is human”.