Guide to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

This article will introduce to you one approach to help you help yourself. This treatment approach is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, REBT for short. Often, people come to the clinic to get us to change the behavior or personality of someone else. For example, a husband annoyed at his wife's nagging may ask us to treat her until she stops bothering him, and by the way, could we do it today? We do not attempt to help anyone change someone else. Sometimes a person comes ready to end the pain she is suffering, but not yet ready to work sufficiently at it. We see this in the person who simply does not do agreed-upon homework. We do not do work it is necessary for the patient to do. Sometimes, patients just want a friend to listen to them and commiserate with their problems. They often believe that just talking about their problem is enough, if their friend really cares for them. We have strict rules that are in our patients' best interests, which prevent us from becoming friends, fraternizing, or socializing with them. Sometimes a patient may want to unload his dilemma onto us. This patient may say that we are her last hope, or he can do it if only we will help enough. We are simply not responsible for fixing anyone's life. We offer guidance in a structured format, that is all. A first step may be to ask if you are ready for psychotherapy. It is often easier to solve life's practical problems once one has returned to a more manageable emotional state. If this is appropriate for you, then you may be ready to consider REBT.

We might view ourselves as having the ability to think cognitively, feel emotionally, and behave physically. We know that there is no clear line of distinction, that there is overlap. Nonetheless, this is a clear way to conceptualize. Thinking may be conscious or unconscious, emotions may be directed toward others or toward one's self and behavior may be external or internal. Epictetus proposed that it is not the event that upsets one, but how one perceives the event. Dr. Albert Ellis developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy to help people make use of this principle in our daily lives. REBT operates on the hedonic philosophy that long-term gain is worth short-term sacrifice. Knowledge and practice change lives.

If I insult you, you may well be expected to react; however, you don't absolutely have to react-it's just likely that you will. You might say then that I provoked you, but it would be incorrect to say that I made you react. Further, you may well have several options from which to choose your specific reaction. For example, if I jump in front of you, clinch my fists, grit my teeth, and call you everything but a child of God, and otherwise act in a threatening way, you might react. You might be so intimidated that you'd wet your pants, or you might get hopping mad and punch me in the nose. If you chose to hit me, would you say that I made you mad? Ridiculous. I merely provoked you. I may have acted wrongly, or unwisely, but I didn't make you feel anything. You choose your feelings, consciously or unconsciously. Maybe you have practiced one style of reacting to perceived conflict so well and so often that you are just good at it. So good, in fact, that you use it preferentially, and habitually, but you still do the choosing. It isn't the event-my threatening act-which upset you. What went through your mind, what you thought about, caused your emotion. We are likely to act on our emotions, but we don't absolutely have to. Haven't you ever been mad at someone and not acted on it? Of course. I am not suggesting that my threatening behavior is okay, or irrelevant. It certainly is not okay. And it is appropriate for you to respond. It does not, however, make you have an emotional feeling, nor does it determine what you will specifically do in response. There is power and freedom in training myself to manage my emotions and behavior, and though it is reasonably simple, it is not easy. I have the only tool I need, my thinking.

Why not gain pleasure and satisfaction in life, when it is so readily available to me to do it. You can think in a conscious, deliberate way or in an unconscious, automatic way. You can make yourself sad, simply by concentrating on a subject that will sadden you. You can think yourself to sadness. Everyone can do it. I can make myself sad by thinking how much I will miss my Dad after he dies. This is an example of conscious, deliberate thinking. There is no doubt how I get sad. I don't require any effort or insight or psychotherapy to understand or to control it. You can practice responding in a similar way to similar situations or circumstances. You learn to cross the street only after looking for traffic until you get so good at it that you don't even notice that you do it, but you know you do it or you'd be run over by now. This is an example of unconscious, automatic thinking. Sometimes, actually most of the time for most people, it works very well for us; it makes our lives simpler and easier and presents no problem at all.

Once I was in our apartment playground supervising my son. I observed two children, both in diapers, but older diaper-age children, I guess about two years old each. Not knowing their names, I'll call one Carl and the other Joe. Carl was quietly playing with some toy when Joe came over, took the toy, pushed Carl down, and left. Carl hardly reacted; he looked around a little, then went about playing with other things. Carl had some choices about how to deal with this situation, and that was the choice he consciously, deliberately made. But Mom would have none of it. She ran over to Carl, yanked him to his feet and scolded him. She demanded he go over to Joe, snatch the toy back, and push him down. "You can't let him get away with that, you can't let anyone push you around." So Carl wandered over to Joe, snatched the toy, and pushed Joe down. Then he went back to his area while Joe sat there and wailed as if he had been mugged. Mom praised Carl for taking up for himself. How often do you suppose Mom will have to repeat this process before Carl catches on? After all, this is his Mom. The message is, "There is one right way to handle conflict, fight back." So, Carl believes his Mom, takes the message to heart, actually to brain, and practices it until he is so good at it that he doesn't have to think about it consciously and deliberately anymore. One day, after Carl is married to the love of his life, they have an argument and Carl slaps her. Carl stands around, confused and frustrated, trying to figure out how this thing got out of hand. This is the result of unconscious, automatic thinking. Carl doesn't remember how or why he learned to respond this way. He may even believe he didn't learn it. He probably won't even think thinking had anything to do with it. It isn't Carl's previous experience or his wife's behavior that made him slap her. It is his present, here-and-now thinking. Yes, it's unconscious, automatic thinking, but nevertheless it's thinking that happens right now, not in the past. Carl will have to work and practice if he wants to change his response style, but it is well within his power. He has marvelous brainpower to do it.

As we negotiate our way in the world, we develop beliefs that orient us. These beliefs may be rational beliefs or irrational beliefs. We operate on these beliefs in our conscious, deliberate or our unconscious, automatic thinking. Maxie C. Maultsby, in his book with David S. Goodman, Emotional Well-Being Through Rational Behavior Training, defines rational thinking as "that form of thinking or acting which, (1) is based on objective facts, (2) is life-preserving, (3) helps a person achieve his self-defined goals, (4) enables him to function with a minimum of significant internal conflict, and (5) enables him to function with a minimum of significant conflict in his environment. Whalen, Wessler and DiGiuseppi, in their book, A Practitioner's Guide to Rational-Emotive Therapy, say that "irrational beliefs include exaggeration, over-simplification, over-generalization, illogic, invalidated assumptions, faulty deductions and absolutistic notions." My goodness! If it weren't for these beliefs, my mind would be nearly blank. They continue that "most irrational beliefs fall into four basic categories: (1) 'awfulizing' statements, (2) shoulds, oughts and musts, (3) evaluation of human worth, and (4) 'needs' statements." I heard these ideas summarized this way: Rational beliefs help us gain pleasure and satisfaction from life and avoid pain and discomfort, while irrational beliefs help us gain pain and discomfort and avoid pleasure and satisfaction.

One major goal of our work is to help you replace irrational beliefs with rational beliefs. We propose to work as a team with you. Our job will be to guide you. Your job will be to work and practice. The result you may expect from guidance, work, and practice is that you gain pleasure and satisfaction from life with reduced pain and discomfort. Results you may be wise not to expect include to become better looking, wealthier, have others do as you want them to do, have the world suit you better, or have perfect bliss in this life. Let us take a look at the idea that you may want someone else to change. I'll take the part of the person you want to change. You think I could treat you better, or behave a little bit more nicely, or could do something about my bad breath or sloppy hair? It's not like you want me to change in a big way. I'd be so much easier to get along with if only I'd make this one, tiny change. Now is that too much to ask for? You bet it is! No matter what I might do differently that you would like, or that might make life better for me, I don't have to do it. I can still do as I please, no matter how absurd, wrong, illegal, or stupid it is. And, more than that, it doesn't make me a rotten person, worthless, lower than a worm. I remain, as always, a fallible human being, as Dr. Maultsby would say, an FHB. Who exactly do you think you are to change me? If I have no power, control or influence left in life, I can still at least do things that you may not like. Oh yes, maybe it would be better all around if I don't do them, but that isn't the way it should, ought, must work, every time. Just as you can do nothing to guarantee control of my behavior, neither can I do anything to guarantee control of your reaction to my behavior. After all, you could always simply accept it. Isn't it nice when I change my behavior to suit you? I like that too, sometimes. What to do, though, when you don't get what you so very much want, and when you realize you aren't particularly likely to get it? Well, you might be wise to lump it! After all, isn't that better than making yourself miserable over something you can't control? Just because I do a provoking act doesn't mean you have to react by ruining your day, but you could choose to end our relationship. That is a solution. You may be giving up some pretty important things in the process, but compromise is life's way of showing you just how important you really are.

Dr. Albert Ellis, in his pamphlet, How to Maintain and Enhance Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Gains, lists three rational insights:

Insight #1. "You largely choose to disturb yourself about the unpleasant events of your life, although you may be encouraged to do so by external happenings or by social learning. You may feel the way you think. When obnoxious and frustrating things happen to you at point "A" (activating experience), you consciously or unconsciously select rational beliefs (rB's) that lead you to feel sad and regretful, and you also select irrational beliefs (iB's) that lead you to feel anxious, depressed and self-hating."

Insight #2. "No matter when or how you acquired your irrational beliefs and your self-sabotaging habits, you now, in the present, choose to maintain them, and that is why you are now disturbed. Your past history and your present life conditions importantly affect you, but they don't disturb you. Your present philosophy is the main contributor to your current disturbance."

Insight #3. "There is no magical way for you to change your personality and your strong tendencies to needlessly upset yourself. Basic personality change requires persistent work and practice—yes, work and practice to enable you to alter your irrational beliefs, your inappropriate feelings, and your self-destructive behaviors."

Now, let us consider the REBT approach to changing one's irrational philosophies so as to change one's emotional and behavioral reactions for the better. It's as simple as A-B-C. Remember that "simple" does not mean "easy." A; is the activating experience (or event) about which I get upset or react. C; is the consequence, or reaction, in emotion and behavior to A;. B; is the belief that I mainly employ in considering A;. Therefore, I can say that it is my thinking about the event that produced my feeling and my behavior. Now, I know that I am so used to this process that I hardly recognize that I am using it. I also know that just because there is provocation does not mean I have to react. Even if I do react, the event does not force me to react in any specific way.

A young woman who has been, for some time, angry at her inattentive husband may react to his showing up at the door with a bouquet of roses by blurting, "What have you done now?" Did the roses make her react this way? It may take some practice for you to find the events in your life about which you strongly upset yourself, or maybe for you it may take some work to discover the emotions that you mainly upset yourself with. It is also likely to require some effort to find your irrational thinking. All this work will surely benefit you. It will not be more than you can stand. In psychotherapy, we will guide you to locating your A-B-C's, to changing your irrational B's and to practicing your gains so that you can maintain them.

Do you really want to get better? Well, you will be wise to work doggedly and persistently. If you choose to pursue therapy at our clinic, we can guide you and provide some support and monitoring of your progress, possibly, but we can't make your life better. The good news, however, is that you can. Homework will help. In your therapy sessions, you will be encouraged to devise homework plans and to report on them at the next session. We can help you make your plan, but you are chiefly responsible for homework that makes sense to you. This article offers to supplement your homework efforts. The following ideas may benefit you, provided you creatively structure them to your purposes. We take no responsibility for the homework you do. Any responsibility is yours alone. If you have any questions or comments about this, please speak to your therapist before beginning any homework. Some, but not all, homework ideas follow:

1. Keep a log of your thoughts. The clinic can provide you a sheet useful for this purpose, or you can make your own. Style isn't important. Whenever you notice that you are upset, or are beginning to get upset, take note of your thoughts, write them down, don't edit them or change them; just write what you actually thought. This will help you make the connection between your thinking and your emotions. Sometimes, you may be able to hear or see clearly the connection, sometimes not. We can help you more efficiently to see the connections if we have your "thoughts log" to review with you. You may find that you think some things that are obviously silly, mistaken, distorted, etc. Don't be concerned that we might ridicule you over them. I assure you that I do it too. An example of an emotion connected to thoughts is the following: "I am so ashamed. I can't believe I went to that party wearing my suit and tennis shoes. I'm just so used to wearing my tennis shoes that I must have unconsciously put them on, and I never noticed. Of course, no one said anything but they must think I'm a real jerk." The emotion is shame, the connected thought is, and "they must think I'm a real jerk." In addition, there seem to be unconscious thoughts like, "I must be stupid to have done something I was unaware of doing. It's awful to wear tennis shoes with a suit to a party. I should not have done it. I can't stand it that others would think poorly of me. Only a jerk would have done what I did, so I must be a jerk." With a log of the thoughts you are aware of, you can more likely find the significant thoughts you are not immediately aware of, and thereby help you connect thoughts to emotions. Another thing this log will facilitate is the connection of the thoughts to the event about which you upset yourself. In the previous example, we can see that the event is my wearing tennis shoes with a suit to a party. Sometimes this connection is not clear. But just like the thoughts-emotion connection, we can help you make this one. Events at A do not cause our emotions or reactions at C; our thoughts, conscious or unconscious, at B do. This is the A-B-C's of REBT.

2. Dispute your irrational thoughts. The clinic can provide a sheet useful for this purpose as well, or you may make one to suit yourself. The basic idea is to differentiate your rational from your irrational beliefs. In this guide, you will find the characteristics of rational and irrational beliefs. We provide reading material of various kinds to assist you, as well as emphasis on this subject in the therapy sessions. Once you have identified a belief you think is irrational, Dr. Albert Ellis suggests you ask and answer six questions about it. I like this particular approach, which he describes in his article, "Techniques for Disputing Irrational Beliefs (DIBS)."

First, "What irrational belief do I want to dispute and surrender?" Simply write it down. Rewrite it until it is clear and simple. Remember: Precise and concise. You don't have to do it perfectly. Here is our example: "I should not have worn tennis shoes with a suit to a party." Looking at this, I realize it hides a more basic irrational belief. "There is invariably a right, precise, and perfect behavior for a situation, and it is catastrophic if this perfect behavior is not found." So this is the statement I might write. There may be other irrational beliefs to consider, but one at a time.

Second, "Can I rationally support this belief?" I can't find any rational justification for it, using the guidelines I have presented in this guide.

Third, "What evidence exists for the falseness of this belief?" I suppose I could establish a list, limited only by the time I have to make it. For example, "When have I ever made a mistake that worked out so badly it resulted in a catastrophe of such magnitude that no good came from it? Where is it written that I have to act perfectly any time, much less every time, or even this time?" Can you see how to answer this question? The result of these kinds of questions is that I have become convinced of the falseness of this belief.

Fourth, "Does any evidence exist for the truth of this belief?" I can't think of one thing indicating that the belief is true, though I certainly can reap inconvenience and displeasure or disappointment from mistakes. How does this mean disaster comes from them? I wouldn't like it, but I could stand the inconvenience, displeasure or disappointment.

Fifth, "What worse things could actually happen to me, if I don't get what I think I must, or do get what I think I mustn't?" Well, if I don't do perfectly every time I act, I might miss out on some pleasure, I might experience some inconvenience or disappointment, but what of it? Does that mean life loses value, or that I'll never get pleasure or satisfaction again? Ridiculous!

Sixth, "What good things could I make happen if I don't get what I think I must, or do get what I think I mustn't?" Even acting imperfectly works out for me most of the time. No one acts perfectly, so I am not alone in devising ways to benefit from imperfect behavior. This means I can rely on others for assistance sometimes in making the best of things. How come I have to get perfect pleasure every time anyway? Won't some measure of reward serve well enough? So, some good things can and usually do come from even imperfect acting on my part."

These guidelines are available on Irrational Beliefs Disputation Form and Irrational Beliefs Guide. Disputing is work and takes time, but many have found it is not only helpful but entertaining as well. I encourage you to begin practicing for your benefit.

3. Do Rational Emotive Imagery (REI). Simply imagine an event or a person about which you get upset. Now, get yourself as upset as you can. Once you are vividly into the image and very upset, deliberately settle yourself down. That's right, change your emotional feelings. How did you do it? By thinking, of course! Practicing this at your convenience will help you to reduce your emotional upset when you eventually encounter the event or the person again. Further, it will help you to achieve a more rational response style to events or persons that affect you negatively, even if it's the first time you have encountered them.

4. Do a shame-attacking exercise. Shame is an emotional reaction that keeps us from achieving mastery, gaining pleasure and satisfaction, acting assertively, sharing intimacy, and, in general, living fully. Shame is important, because it is an emotional upset shared by so many people. Shame implies a self-rating statement, specifically a self-downing condemnation. This is not justified. Most of the behaviors we feel ashamed of, when really considered amount to at worst things we would prefer not to have done. Maybe we had better regret having done this, but to put one's self down for doing a regrettable thing is nonsense!

Often we are ashamed of ourselves for doing things that a reasonable person wouldn't regret. Maybe we bring attention to ourselves by some silly act. So what! What sense does it make to be ashamed? None, of course, but we're just good at it.

To check out how we use shame to limit our lives unnecessarily, and to correct this condition reasonably well, we practice shame-attacking exercises. We might practice by choosing some silly thing that will bring attention to us. We might be well advised to choose behaviors which don't bring harm to anyone or to ourselves; however, if we do slightly inconvenience someone, big deal! It's slightly regrettable, but not shameful. If attention were focused on us for some silly thing, would it be awful? Could we stand it? Would we be jerks? No, none of that would be a fact. Even if we assured ourselves it is all a fact, it wouldn't make it so. Anyway, I have decided those are not facts for me, so I don't condemn myself when I behave regrettably. Well, I'm improving.

Some shame-attacking ideas that I have found helpful for me follow:

  1. Check prices in the supermarket then shout them out loud. "Nice, fresh tomatoes, four for a dollar."
  2. I might tell the waiter I like the dress he's wearing.
  3. I might wear some uncoordinated piece of clothing conspicuously.
  4. Maybe I'll name my next child "Spot." Well, maybe I could think this one over first.

I think you get the idea that practice will help you. You will come face to face with the real fact that hardly anyone will notice or care. When someone does, you will survive. More than that, you will learn to take these chains off your life. Won't that be nice?

5. Take a risk. Do something that makes sense in your life, that you would really like to do but that you avoid because of your anxiety. Are you afraid to ask that beautiful woman for a date because you just know she will laugh in your face, and you would be devastated? Then ask her husband, he probably wants the night off. Just kidding. Act assertively on some issue important to you. What have you to lose, really? What do you lose by not acting assertively? Which is the greater loss? I thought so.

6. Reject your excuses. It's okay to make excuses, in fact, write them down. Keep a list. Find your favorite ones, your most commonly used ones, your best ones. Yes, admit that like nearly everyone else, you make excuses for not doing what is better for you to do. Sure, one of my favorites is, "I have so much to do and so little time that I just won't do any of them." Top that! Now, practice rejecting these excuses. Take the little ones first; do it the easy way, that's fine. You know you don't believe them, so you don't have to bother practicing disputing them. Practice instead rejecting them.

Do something that you excused yourself from doing; it feels good, doesn't it? What are you telling yourself? That it makes more sense to do what's in your interest than to excuse not doing it? At our clinic, we propose that you build homework into your daily schedule, ten minutes is likely to be sufficient. Write, imagine, talk, and act. This stuff is likely to be fun. But what if it's not? What if it's only work, and hard work at that? Is it too hard? Is it worth it to you? How long does it take to change my life doing this? The answer varies, naturally, and most of the time we can't predict, but I assure you that if you are diligent you will notice significant benefits worth the effort in a short time. From there, it just gets better and more rewarding as you work. How much of that can you stand?

7. Read REBT materials. These are popular and can be found at the Albert Ellis Institute:

  • How to Stubbornly Refuse To Make Yourself Miserable About Anything—Yes, Anything! REVISED 2nd Edition. By Albert Ellis, Ph. D.

  • Helping Yourself with REBT: First Steps for Clients. By Windy Dryden, Ph.D.

  • Feeling Better, Getting Better, Staying Better. By Albert Ellis, Ph.D.

  • A Guide to Rational Living. By Albert Ellis, Ph.D. & Robert Harper, Ph.D.

  • Review and use 24-7 Help.

Good luck but mainly good work.

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