Do you ever feel anxious, guilty, ashamed or depressed? There are two reasons that you shouldn’t, not ever, no matter what happens to you.
First, one of the tenets of rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) is that these emotions are psychologically unhealthy. They can lead you to see your situation as hopeless or to condemn yourself as worthless.
Second, the starting point for the development of REBT is the view, developed by Albert Ellis its founder, that our unhealthy emotions are not caused by the bad things that happen to us. They are caused by the irrational thoughts that we have about those events.
Ellis formed this view as a result of his work as a Freudian psychoanalyst. The goal of REBT is to help us to recognise the irrational thoughts that lead to unhealthy emotions and to learn new thought patterns that lead to healthier emotions.
Ellis believed that the tendency to think irrationally is innate although he accepted that we may also learn – or be taught – irrational thought patterns in childhood. This possibility is similar to the Freudian view that unconscious memories of childhood frustrations and traumas cause our psychological problems. However REBT differs radically from the Freudian approach in that the aim is to work on the thought patterns rather than on the memories that may have led to them.
The unhealthy emotions all have healthy counterparts. The difference is that whereas unhealthy emotions like anxiety tend to be directed in ways that make it difficult to accept them or to bring them under control, their healthy counterparts focus on specific events that can either be resolved or accepted.
RIgid beliefs – that the world should be a certain way – such as “I should have supportive friends” or “I absolutely shouldn’t have all this pressure at work” – are often at the root of emotional problems. They lead to three kinds of irrational thought pattern.
The first is a low tolerance of frustration – the irrational tendency to believe that any event that turns out to be inconvenient for us should not have happened. The second thought pattern, known as “awfulizing” is the belief that some events are so terrible that they cannot be countenanced, they simply should not happen. Finally there are thought patterns that lead us to condemn ourselves or others such as the view that if I lose my job I am worthless.
These thought patterns are irrational because they make demands over events that are outside our control. They are self-defeating because they make it impossible for us to do anything about a bad situation except be anxious that it might happen or depressed if it already has.
The rational approach is firstly to accept that our intrinsic worth does not depend on what happens to us or on what we do and secondly to have flexible preferences rather than rigid demands about the conditions of our life. This means that if I lose my job, or my wife leaves me, I recognise that these are bad events, but I do not feel that I am a less worthwhile person for having no wife or no job.
The REBT therapist uses a framework called ABCDE to help clients deal with irrational chains of thought. ABC describes the process that links an event in the world, referred to as A, to an unhealthy emotion or bad consequence, referred to as C. The crucial point is that the link is not direct: it depends on the client’s assumptions or beliefs (referred to as B).
To identify the crucial beliefs that link an emotion to an event the therapist may use a process called “inference chaining”, asking at each stage “what happens next?” For example if I am anxious about giving a bad lecture she will get me to identify all the links in the chain that lead from my red-faced, tongue-tied, stammering, sweaty incompetence through student sniggers and staff-room gossip to my unbearable shame, the prospect of which is so awful that I will probably avoid giving the lecture.
The therapist may help me learn to dispute (D in ABCDE) my assumptions in order to develop an effective (E) rational outlook. The truth is that although everybody would rather give a good lecture than a bad one, giving a bad lecture is not the end of the world.
REBT has been used for all kinds of problems from stress-management through relationship problems to alcolism. The process is as much educational as therapeutic “They learn to accept responsibility for their problems and to become their own therapist” says Judith Wheeler, who practises in Leatherhead in Surrey.
Time-course, costs & contacts
REBT tends to be a once-weekly therapy and in some cases may be available on the NHS. After an initial assessment therapist and client will usually agree on a set programme of sessions – usually 25 or fewer – which will be reviewed frequently.
The general referral organisations (UK Council for Psychotherapy and the American Psychological Association include REBT therapists on their registers. There are also specialist REBT referral services both in the UK (The Association for REBT) and in the US (The Albert Ellis Institute).
Tel: 0207 436 3002
AREBT 01782 631361
Tel: 1 800 964 2000
Albert Ellis Institute www.rebt.org
Tel (212) 535-0822