How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable
Rational emotive theory (RET) is an action driven approach for accepting and changing self-destructive thoughts. My first exposure to Rational Emotive Theory was from my father, telling me I need to take control of angry outbursts and then handing me How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable by Dr. Albert Ellis. While there are many critics of RET and Dr. Albert Ellis within the realm of psychology, I cannot deny its affect personally.
According to Rational Emotive Theory, people are not disturbed by events but by their perception of the event. Ellis suggests when people hold irrational beliefs about themselves or the world, then they are driven to mistakenly blame external events for negative emotions and unhappiness.
Albert Ellis first began formulating this theory as an adolescent. As a youth, he had been longing for a relationship, but also experiencing a crippling fear of approaching women. To challenge his fear, Ellis began his first pseudo experiment with RET. Over a thirty day period, he forced himself to speak with one-hundred different women in a nearby park. Ellis eventually lost his original perception of approaching women and realized it is not as intimdating as he thought it would be. He later credited this early experience as a building block for developing RET.
Rational Emotive Theory 101
Rational Emotive Theory suggests what leaves us plagued with anxiety, doubt, and fear is our perception. Ellis elaborates by offering what is called the ABC Model of psychological distress.
- A or Activating Event - Something happens around us out of our control
- B or Beliefs - We hold an existing belief about the activating event
- C or Consequence - We experience an emotionally charged response
Fortunately Dr. Ellis also offered a solution to prevent this chain of events. The beginning of implementing RET is acknowledging the underlying irrational belief. Often toxic thoughts stem from unrealistic and self-imposed absolutes. In some cases, the thoughts begin with phrases such as "I must" "I should" or "I can never" and end with a strong personal belief. Once an external event happens violating our existing belief, we feel stress and experience internal conflict. This uncertainty fuels a cycle of negative emotions needing outlet.
Ellis offers a resolution. We need to embrace and change the way we perceive these triggering events. Logic can be used to push people towards changing thought and subsequent behaviors.
Let's imagine a demeaning boss named Jan. Jan consistently criticizes and marginalizes both you and your work. Naturally your initial reaction might be somewhere along the lines of thinking "Wow I hate this person, I can't believe Jan would say that, What a hypocrite to make such statements etc."
As an example, these negative feelings might manifest themselves by driving a person to drink nightly or treat those around them in a similar negative fashion. What Dr. Ellis and RET offer is accepting Jan is not going to change, she will continue to act as she always has. Our power lies in our perception of Jan's actions. We might consider Jan's own boss treats her even worse, or she believes what she is doing is best for the group. Regardless our reaction is all that matters, Jan will act tomorrow as she has today.
We might be holding the belief "I should never receive negative reviews of my work" and once Jan violates our belief we feel threatened. At some point it is foolish to let this external event negatively impact our daily life. A more productive belief to implement with less negative results is "I would prefer my work is not criticized but it is ok if it happens." This makes the daily criticisms all the more tolerable.
Ellis also suggests tying goals to our beliefs. We might alter our existing belief to "I do not like being verbally attacked but would prefer a promotion" or "I do not like being verbally assaulted but would prefer to separate employment on my own terms" or "I do not like Jan's criticisms, but would prefer to treat my family with patience and caring."
Rational emotive theory can be applied to nearly every behavior you would like to change. "I miss talking to my ex-boyfriend but would prefer to be someone who respects and cares for me," or "I enjoy smoking cigarettes but would prefer a long, healthy life," or "I do not enjoy studying but would prefer passing the exam on my first attempt."
A final piece to implementing rational emotive theory is understanding RET is not intended as an overnight solution. A large portion of using RET successfully is self-acceptance. Self-acceptance of past behaviors, irrational beliefs and acceptance of making changes. Acceptance with RET initially means understandingg you are not going to "cold-turkey" this behavior you are trying to alter. Certainly you will fall back to whatever you were doing now and trying to stop. For me, this is the beauty of Rational Emotive Theory. It would be wonderful to be perfect and never make mistakes, but it is not realistic to expect immediate success. Even if I smoked a cigarette today, spoke with an ex, got angry when I went home etc. all that can be be done is accepting I made a mistake, learning from the situation and moving on. Maybe tomorrow is the day I can be a little bit better.
Challenging existing beliefs and replacing them with healthy ones promotes personal growth. Rational emotive theory begins with identifying irrational thoughts, re-directing beliefs to align with reality and a conscious effort to implement them. Rational Emotive Theory was particular effective for me because of the snow-ball like affect. Maybe I repeated the behavior I was trying to avoid, but after reading Dr. Ellis' work I was at least able to recognize it. The next time I did the same thing, it was not as bad as it had been previously. And so on and so forth, until I progressively gained control of my outbursts.
For anyone interested in implementing rational emotive theory I would also suggest reading How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable by Dr. Ellis. It is generally considered the magnus opus of RET and based on my readings of his work, I would agree. The first three chapters are particularly poignant.