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Controlling Your Emotions
before They Control You:
Rational-Emotive Behavior
Therapy in a Nutshell

Men are disturbed not by things but by the views they take of them.

 — The ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus


The above epigraph nicely sums up the gist of REBT.  After all, if a hundred different people experience the exact same misfortune — say, an earthquake — they won’t all react in exactly the same way: Some will sulk and wallow in self pity, while others will be prodded into action to help out the less fortunate . . . and still others will just start looting, the bastards.


The ABCs of REBT

It’s not a particular Adversity (A) that causes our emotional Consequences (C).  As the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacy reminds us, correlation does not imply causation.  The Adversity precedes the Consequence, but although it is a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient condition.

     Our Beliefs (B) about the Adversity are what mainly determine our emotional Consequences.  With Low Frustration Tolerance (LFT), for example, we tend to get inordinately angry when things don’t go our way.  At this very moment, as a matter of fact, my neighbor’s obnoxious collie is once again barking incessantly — and now I’ve suddenly got a hankering for Chinese food.

     In a perfect world, obstreperous dogs would not distract me from important tasks that require my focused concentration.  But in this world, sometimes it’s just one damn thing after another.  If I hold the Rational Belief (RB) that this is merely a temporary inconvenience that I would prefer not to interfere with my goals, I’ll feel appropriately frustrated and annoyed.  If, however, I hold the Irrational Belief (IB) that this sort of thing just should not happen, that my being inconvenienced is an outrage that is truly unbearable, and if I unreasonably demand that people and things never thwart my efforts, I’ll tend to be inappropriately enraged.

     REBT asks — nay, insists — that we aggressively Dispute (D) our Irrational Beliefs and replace them with Rational Beliefs.  And we need to keep vigorously Disputing those Irrational Beliefs until we arrive at a new Effective philosophy (E).  (As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, Mr. Ellis has quite an affinity for initialisms — an affinity that I do not share, but what can you do?)

     REBT has three specific methods of Disputing Irrational Beliefs: (1) the empirical method, in which you ask yourself, “Does this belief mesh with reality?”; (2) the logical method, in which you ask yourself, “Does this belief that I need someone or something follow from my assumption that I want her, him, or it?”; and (3) the pragmatic method, in which you ask yourself, “What practical, real-world results will likely follow from my holding this belief? Will it really help me to get more of what I want and less of what I don’t want?”


Rationality contra Irrationality

REBT encourages us to feel appropriate sadness, irritation, and concern — rather than inappropriate depression, anger, and anxiety — when we encounter an obstacle that blocks one of our goals.  And these appropriate responses to life’s vicissitudes result from our rationally preferring things to go our way — rather than irrationally demanding that they do so.

     Any particular Adversity is best seen as unfortunate, inconvenient, disadvantageous, or frustrating — as opposed to awful, horrible, terrible, or unbearable.

     REBT encourages us to see transitory annoyances for what they are — merely temporary inconveniences.  And it implores us to accept the harsh realities of the world and the more permanent inconveniences (e.g., the probability that after we die, we’re actually dead) without bitterness: We should try to change everything that is in our power to change, but there are many things over which we have little or no control (the Bush administration, for example) — and being bitter about those things is neither pragmatic nor psychologically healthy . . . because, for one thing, bitterness detracts from our enjoyment of life.

     REBT asks that we accept the “sinner” no matter how strongly we may disapprove of their “sin.”  We humans are fallible animals, so we often say and do foolish things.  That’s why we would do well to practice what in REBT is called Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA) — to rate and evaluate our thoughts, feelings, and actions in relation to our goals and purposes, while refraining from rating our personhood as a whole.  And it’s only fair that we extend that same courtesy to others as well — to practice what in REBT is called Unconditional Other-Acceptance (UOA): Rather than judging others as people who are intrinsically good or bad, it would be more just — and realistic — to instead judge the usefulness and ethicality of their deeds.

     Finally, and perhaps most importantly, REBT cautions us against making the following three godlike demands of people and things — because these three musts are at the root of almost all disturbed thoughts and behaviors: (1) musts directed at oneself (“I must perform perfectly everywhere and all the time”); (2) musts directed at others (“Other people must treat me justly and fairly at all times”); and (3) musts directed at environmental or world conditions (“Things should always go my way — and nothing must ever get in my way — or the whole world is completely worthless” [there’s that dreaded floccinaucinihilipilification that George W. Bush is always complaining about]).


Well, There You Go

That’s Albert Ellis’s Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy in a nutshell.  Though not all-inclusive, of course, the previous synopsis is about as comprehensive as can be expected of any short summation of a complex psychological theory.

     As you can see, REBT provides us with a plethora of practical tools that can help us to live a more rational — and enjoyable — life.  And although assiduously applying the principles of REBT in your everyday life won’t necessarily make you totally, perfectly, utterly unflappable, it will take an awful lot to get your ass flapping.

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