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Transforming the Mind ~ by Peter Shepherd

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Rational Emotive Therapy


Beliefs are conclusions that are reached as a result of past learning, whether this is directly from personal experience or indirectly assimilated through peer and parental pressures to conform to a "normal" way of thinking (for that culture).

Having perceived a situation in a certain way, i.e. having picked on an aspect of it that he considers most significant, the individual will then make an evaluation, according to his beliefs, about how he relates to that aspect of the situation. He will (perhaps semi-consciously) say a sentence to himself, based on an underlying assumption or belief.

This belief may be rational, i.e. based on reality and what exists and is logical, or it may be irrational, based on delusion, prejudice and ideas that are fixed and not open to inspection.

For example a person is nearly knocked over by a bus, and he infers that the driver was going too fast, and then believes rationally that the driver, like anyone else, is a fallible human being and he had better make more allowance for poor driving in future, when crossing the road. Alternatively, he may respond irrationally and say to himself that it is absolutely terrible that the driver should do such a thing, and if he could get hold of the driver he would shoot him. This is a greatly exaggerated evaluation based on an underlying irrational belief, that the driver's behavior was impossible to tolerate.

These priciples are the basis of Rational Emotive Therapy, used to help a client who has painful, inappropriate or self-defeating emotional reactions to the everyday events that occur. These are the steps involved:

1. Emotional Reaction

Having targeted the precise problem that the client wants to resolve, the first step is to assess the resulting emotions and behavior. The emotions to look for are exaggerated ones such as anxiety, damning anger, guilt, shame, depression and morbid jealousy. Each of these has an equivalent that is not so extreme and may well be appropriate to the circumstances - there's a lot of difference between consuming anger and being a bit annoyed - so there would be no point in looking for an irrational belief underpinning it.

Alongside the strong emotional reaction there is likely to be self-defeating behavior as the negative emotion has a destructive effect.

2. Inferences

Then it is necessary to spot the activating event, and the inference about the situation that triggers off the response - what specifically the client is disturbed about in the example of the problem that is being examined, both objectively (the key practical aspect of the situation) and subjectively (what was inferred about this aspect, how it was interpreted in his own mind).

Different emotion are evoked by different interpretations of an event. Interpretations that involve distortions of reality, i.e. distorted thinking, give rise to emotional disorders.

A difficult or traumatic situation may not be viewed as clearly by a person under stress as it would be by somebody not in that situation, who can view it objectively. The person under stress is likely to be reminded, at least subconsciously, of previous, somewhat similar traumatic situations, and may therefore view the reality of the situation through a filter of prejudice or fear and make all sorts of inferences that would not bear scrutiny to the objective viewer.

For example, the person who was nearly knocked over by a bus may have made a rational inference that the driver was going too fast, since he would normally have had time to cross safely. Or he may have inferred that the driver was going too fast to excuse his own carelessness. Then again, he may infer that the bus was deliberately trying to run him down. The interpretation of a singular event may then differ for each individual observer according to their belief systems. A joke told at a party for instance, may provoke embarrassment to one person but send another into fits of laughter.

One inference may lead on to another. For example, the rejection of an approach to a potential girlfriend may infer in the man's mind that he is not good looking enough. This may provoke further anxiety in that he may then feel that he will never get a girlfriend who is attractive. Furthermore this makes him anxious because he worries what his male colleagues will think of him, and he may be afraid that his career will suffer. A chain of such inferences may stem from the actual situation in reality. But only one of these will be the main provocation, from the person's point of view, which triggered off a fixed belief and caused an irrational evaluation and the inevitable inappropriate emotion and self-defeating behavioral response. So this must be assessed and handled first.

3. Secondary emotional disturbance

The painful emotional response that the client feels, when faced with a problem about which there is an underlying irrational belief, is a problem in itself though - it may trigger in the client a further, secondary emotional disturbance. For example a client may feel embarrassed about getting angry and "blowing his top". This embarrassment may well need looking at first, as until it is out of the way, his attention may be stuck on this response and prevent him contacting and understanding the feelings of anger.

Alternatively the secondary emotional disturbance may become apparent when the primary one has been dealt with, and the client denigrates himself for the original response, or for responding again in that way after he knows it is irrational.

“The client has to be introduced to the possibility of another point of view, and to test out the feasibility of his old belief against the evidence of logic, reality and what is best for him or her.”

4. Irrational Beliefs

The next step is to assess the irrational beliefs that the client is holding, to support the emotions that result. Irrationality occurs when unrealistic and absolute rules are applied inappropriately and arbitrarily. Therapy attempts to substitute a more realistic world view, but to be helpful this has to be derived by the client, not evaluated by the therapist.

Self-imposed rules seem to focus on danger versus safety and on pain versus pleasure. Dangers and risks involved in common situations may be overestimated. Psycho-social dangers are the source of most problems - fears of humiliation, criticism, rejection and so on. Attitudes that predispose people to excessive sadness or depression include the following:

"In order to be happy, I must be successful, accepted, popular, famous, wealthy, and so on. If I make a mistake, I am incompetent. I cannot live without love. When people disagree with me, they do not like me." These beliefs are framed as absolutes or extremes and cannot be satisfied.

Usually there will be a demand (should, must, ought) from which the belief is derived. The client is asked, "What are you telling yourself to make you feel and behave (as resulted)?" Discussing the reasons for the belief, the therapist should question any "musts" and "shoulds", and exaggerated views such as "It's awful", signs of low frustration tolerance such as "I can't stand it any more" or "It must never happen again", and damning generalizations about self or others.

5. Spotting the Irrationality

Having got the client to explicitly recognize his underlying belief and also to connect it with his emotional and behavioral response, the next step is to examine the rationality of the belief with the client, to help him to see that it is getting him nowhere and that it is illogical, unrealistic and does not stand up to rational inspection.

There should be a Socratic debate between the therapist and the client, who should be asked to demonstrate the belief is logical, realistic and helpful, so that he can see for himself that it is not. He may be asked what is the worst thing that is likely happen to him in the circumstances, and what good things may come out of it.

It is necessary that the client comes to this conclusion by his own reasoning, examining alternatives, rather than being fed the realization on a plate. To do so will likely provoke a resistance to the evaluation, however sensible it may seem to the therapist and this approach (though the norm in psychoanalysis) is unlikely to get the client to really look at the practicalities for himself.

The client has to be introduced to the possibility of another point of view, and to test out the feasibility of his old belief against the evidence of logic, reality and what is best for him or her. This would not happen in most cases without a positive intervention by the therapist.

Experience of logical analysis is also an education, and this may be applied by the client in other life situations, to recognize existing false ideas as they emerge in the reactivation of everyday affairs, and to prevent the build up of further misconceptions.

6. Shame-attacking

The feeling of shame is always dependent on an underlying irrational belief, e.g. that you simply cannot stand up to the disapproval of others. So a "shame attacking exercise" is a good way of practicing a new-found awareness of an irrational belief, by deliberately testing this out in a real-life situation (equivalent to the activating event) designed to trigger that belief. If the irrational belief triggers, it may be spotted and replaced with the more rational alternative, and this put to test. behavior is then changed as confidence is built up that the new belief is workable and results in more pleasurable feelings than the irrational belief caused.

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Return to Transforming the Mind - Contents

Continue to the next article, Self-Esteem versus Self-Acceptancenext

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