I think it’s a shame that self-help/pop psychology is such a huge industry, and yet most of the general public is unaware of the actual theories and techniques used by real licensed psychologists. While I think seeing a therapist is extremely beneficial, especially when dealing with severe psychological distress, there are many aspects of therapy that you can apply yourself. I know from personal experience that studying the thoughts of history’s most influential psychologists can be very therapeutic in it’s self. I would even go so far as to say that these ideas have the power to change a person’s life – not necessarily over night, but as an important part of self growth. So to do my small part in spreading the knowledge, I thought I would write a few quick n’ dirty explanations of some of my favorite psychotherapeutic theories. At the very least, maybe it will help you think about things a little differently.
There are several different models of therapy that clinicians may use, each with it’s own strengths and weaknesses. Not every model is a perfect fit for every person, but rather each individual may connect with one model over another, or get value from different aspects of several models. For my first post in this series I thought I would discuss Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). While REBT has been built upon and improved upon by more recent models of therapy (i.e. CBT) I like it because it’s simple to understand and easy to apply immediately. Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) was developed by Albert Ellis in the 50s after he got fed up with Freudian psychoanalysis. Below is a video of Ellis explaining and demonstrating his theory with a woman who is just so fabulously 60s.
Heads-up: he’s kind of an ass. He’s got a no bullshit/no sugar-coat/cut to the chase approach that I think is kind of badass… but it’s not for everyone, and it isn’t the only way to do this type of therapy.
Albert Ellis’ model of therapy boils down to the idea that our emotions are determined by our thoughts. Generally people think emotions are consequences of some external event, i.e. “I’m depressed because I lost my job.” However, Ellis would suggest that it’s our thoughts and beliefs about that external event that cause our emotion, i.e. “I’m depressed because I lost my job, and I believe that means I’m a failure and will never succeed at anything“. In other words, we don’t react to the event – we react to our perception of the event. This relationship is summed up by the ABCs of REBT, as shown below.
This is why the same event might devastate one person, while another is able to easily brush it off. Sandy can easily rebound when her boyfriend breaks up with her, because she believes she’ll find another partner. Susie, on the other hand, is devastated when her relationship ends, because she believes there is no one else in the world for her. When our perceptions are in line with reality, we’re thinking rationally and we experience healthy/appropriate emotion… but when we experience unhealthy emotions, it’s because somewhere along the way our thinking became irrational.
Ellis suggests that neurotic symptoms (depression, anxiety, etc.) are all the result of irrational beliefs. In other words, you might get upset by some event (your dog dying) and that might be an appropriate emotional consequence, but if you get overly upset (can’t stop crying, can’t eat, can’t sleep) it’s because you are not thinking rationally. Therefore the way to treat neurotic psychological symptoms is to train your self to think more rationally.
Step #1: Recognize Your Irrational Thoughts
When struggling with a psychological issue, search your mind for the irrational thoughts that might be at the root of the problem. Most irrational thinking can be recognized by the presence of any “shoulds, oughts, or musts”. We often bombard and berate our selves with “shoulds” and “musts” (but maybe not “oughts” cause who talks like that?) whether on a conscious or unconscious level: “I must get an A in this class” “I must get married and have children” “I should be in better shape” “I should be a better parent.” Ellis would say that all these statements are irrational because they assume that there is some pre-existing plan of how things ought to be – and there really isn’t. Things just are.
You also want to catch yourself catastrophizing. When we think in terms of “shoulds”, “oughts”, and “musts” we imply that – if not, something terrible will happen.
- “I must get an A in this class, or I will fail at life”
- “I must get married and have children, or I’ll never be happy”
- “I should be in better shape, because otherwise no one will find me attractive.”
Most of the time these beliefs aren’t conscious, because we know logically that they’re not necessarily true, and yet we react emotionally as if they were true. Without really recognizing it, we jump to the worst possible conclusion causing us to have emotional reactions that are disproportionate to the reality of the situation. Sometimes we don’t even really define a conclusion, but just associate some unwanted event with a vague but powerful sense of doom. “I’m not sure what will happen if I don’t get in better shape, but I bet it’ll be really really awful!”
REBT involves training yourself to recognize the irrational beliefs behind your emotional reactions, and challenging yourself to come up with more rational perspectives.
Step #2: Challenge Your Irrational Thoughts
For this step you have to play devil’s advocate to yourself. Once you recognize your irrational thoughts, try your best to poke holes in them.
- Are you really going to fail at life if you don’t get an A? Aren’t there lots of very successful people who didn’t get perfect grades?
- Will no one really find you attractive if you don’t get into better shape? Aren’t there people attracted to all different body types? Aren’t there people of a similar body shape as you who have managed to find someone attracted to them?
You get the idea.
If you really want to challenge your irrational thoughts, you can test them out in the real world. For example, maybe the idea of approaching someone you’re attracted to fills you with anxiety. Your irrational thoughts might sound something like “If I approach that person they might reject me, and I must not be rejected because that will be too awful to bear!” One way to challenge the rationality of this thinking, is to force yourself to approach someone who you’re attracted to. Yes, you may be rejected. Yes, it may not feel great. But as with facing most fears you’ll discover your ability to live through the experience, and find that it’s not as unbearable as you predicted. When faced with the situation again, it may still cause some anxiety but probably less now that you’ve been through it already. Thus you can start to adjust your thought to something more rational such as “If I approach that person they might reject me, which might feel bad temporarily but will help me eventually find the right person.” Which brings us to our next step…
Step #3: Look For More Rational Alternatives
From a more rational perspective “It would be nice to be in better shape, because more people will find me attractive. Otherwise fewer people will probably find me attractive, which wouldn’t be preferable but also wouldn’t be the end of the world” This type of thinking might still involve feeling down or frustrated that you’re not in better shape (an appropriate emotional response), but it wouldn’t lead to an inappropriate/debilitating self-hatred.
Often making your thoughts more rational simply requires completing an incomplete thought. For example, when stressed out or anxious we might ruminate on thoughts such as “I must get this done.” Our thought stops there and repeats over and over again. However if we finish the thought by answering “I must get this done, or what?” we return to a more rational way of thinking. Another way to look at it is realistically defining the worst-case scenario. It’s the difference between “I must get this done, or something really awful will happen” and “I must get this done or I might fail the class and have to take it again. That would be pretty inconvenient, but I guess I could still graduate”.
Easier Said Than Done
Now I know that simply realizing your irrational thoughts and thinking of alternatives isn’t going to make your psychological issues just disappear.
1) It’s not that easy to think rationally when you’re emotionally charged.
Typically, the parts of our brains involved in emotion (limbic system) communicate with the parts of our brain involved with rational thinking (prefrontal cortex), and both work together to guide our reactions to the world. So when we hear a loud “boom” outside our window, our emotion centers might sense a threat and cause us to tense up. However our prefrontal cortex then reasons that the loud noise was simply a car backfiring and presents no real threat, so our muscles relax and our heart beat slows down again. Our brains are wired in such a way that when faced with a threat (either real of perceived), the areas of our brain involved with emotion can dictate our behavior without consulting our prefrontal cortex. This is so we can react for survival when there’s no time to reason. For example if something comes flying towards us, we’ll duck or get out of the way without needing to think about it. While this is great for survival, sometimes our mind can perceive a great threat, and cut off communication with the rational part of our brain, when our survival is not threatened: an argument with our spouse, a social situation, the loss of a loved one. Therefore in times of heightened emotions it can be very difficult to engage rationally.
2) Identifying rational alternatives doesn’t necessarily stop your mind from ruminating on the irrational thoughts.
Every time some event triggers an irrational thought which then triggers an emotion, the connections in our brain between that event, thought, and emotion get reinforced. Therefore, even if we are able to identify the irrationality of our thoughts and recognize more rational alternatives, our minds might still want to focus on the irrational thoughts causing psychological symptoms. It’s like our brain is yelling at us “Hey! We’re supposed to be ruminating on this irrational thought! We’re supposed to get upset over this!!!”
So What’s the Solution?
I don’t point out these problems to invalidate this method of psychotherapy. I merely want give a disclaimer, so that when you run into these problems you don’t become discouraged and give up. REBT is simple and easy to apply right away, but that doesn’t mean it’s a quick fix. These obstacles can be overcome, but it will take time, patience, and practice. Just as connections can grow in your brain between events, irrational thoughts, and emotions, so too can you build new connections between rational thoughts, events, and emotions. Having a therapist to help guide and encourage you can be a wonderful resource, but it can be done on your own as well.
One technique that supplements REBT very nicely is mindfulness meditation. I know it sounds very new age-y and maybe you don’t think meditation is for you, but hear me out. All mindfulness meditation really does is build the skill of consciously focusing your awareness, so that you are more present and in control of your experiences. This works well with REBT because it helps you develop an awareness of your thoughts/emotions, and eventually a mastery over your thoughts/emotions. You might be surprised by changes you feel even after just starting off with simple breathing exercises. Below is video of Jon Kabat-Zinn introducing and guiding a simple mindfulness meditation at Google. Go ahead and get your toes wet, and stay tuned for more on mindfulness at some point!
A Guide to Rational Living by Albert Ellis and Robert Harper
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel Siegel