Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy
Each day our lives are filled with change. Some are dramatic: diagnosis of a life-threatening disease, the sudden loss of an important relationship, a sprained ankle that forces adjustment to a well-designed fitness walking program. Others are more subtle: shorter days, a nagging pain, awareness that you recover from an injury more slowly than you used to, or noticing that your clothes are tighter than you’d like them to be. Last, but not least, are the changes we choose: moving to a different home, changing jobs, or starting a new relationship.
These events are “stressors.” They precipitate conscious or unconscious thoughts, emotions or feelings, and a subsequent behavior in reaction to that stressor. Your response, which is based on an inner belief you may be unaware of, can be healthy–taking a walk, meditating, lounging in a hot tub–or unhealthy–overeating, obsessing, or isolating. The process of becoming aware of these usually progressive steps–Stress, Inner Belief, Thought-Emotion and/or Feeling, Behavior–and changing your mind about one more of them is the basis of the work known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Consider Jennifer whose pants began to pucker across her thighs. She thought, “this isn’t good,” and felt disgusted with herself for not exercising as often as she did before her children were born. Instead of finding a way to reverse her dilemma she turned to eating to feel better. Jennifer was a candidate for REBT.
Dr. Albert Ellis founded REBT in the mid-fifties. Since then, his belief–that people’s psychological difficulties stem from their own erroneous assumptions and faulty concepts of themselves and the world–has become mainstream.
REBT is practical and action-oriented. It stimulates emotional growth by teaching people to replace currently-held attitudes, painful thoughts and feelings, and self-defeating behaviors with new and more effective ones. Statements like, “It won’t hurt my fitness program if I skip my walk,” or, “Eating fast food for lunch won’t affect my health,” may be true for a single day. However, repeating these thoughts for days, weeks, or months is erroneous thinking. They can lead to a belief pattern that supports a lack of exercise and overeating self-defeating behavior.
Ellis describes REBT as short-term therapy for long-term results. The current most visible practitioner of this type of self-management therapy is Dr. Phil who calls his work cognitive therapy.
Last year, I combined a vacation that included a historical walking tour through New York City with a visit to the Albert Ellis Institute where the now ninety-year-old still actively participates in training professionals who want to use his work. Ellis says, “There is virtually nothing in which I delight more than throwing myself into a good and difficult problem.” During his weekly “open to the public” demonstration of his methods, he used a series of intuitive questions to uncover the expectations and personal rules that were leading to emotional distress in a volunteer from his audience. In this case, it was unresolved anger over losing a job the volunteer held for many years. Ellis used a technique he calls “disputing” to help this individual reformulate her limiting beliefs into more sensible, realistic, and helpful ones. Ellis didn’t dispute the anger itself-it was righteous under the circumstances. What he led his volunteer to dispute through his questioning was her underlying belief that she couldn’t be happy unless the person who fired her suffered as much as she had. Soon the woman acknowledged on her own that her anger was self-defeating. I could perceive the relaxation she experienced as the stress-induced thought and feeling was tempered, setting the stage for her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the incident. At the end of the hour exercise she reported, “it brings new meaning to the phrase, “when a door closes, a window opens.”
When Dr. Phil asks, “How’s that workin’ for you?” he sets the stage, as Ellis did, for overcoming a self-defeating behavior. You can do this yourself by attempting to understand (writing helps) your own Stress-Belief-Thought-Emotion/Feeling-Behavior process. This includes listing the payoffs you get and prices you pay for engaging in the behavior. After that, it’s also important to list the opportunities you miss because you chose the familiar, often unconscious, behavior pattern. Once you understand yourself, you set the stage for paying more attention to your options for healthy choices to manage the inevitable stresses of life. Then you can take that road less traveled and, within minutes, experience a soaring self-esteem.
I enjoyed seeing Ellis in action. I was surprised, however, when he ended his presentation with a saying I first heard my mother repeat when I was young. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Easier said than done? Of course. But changing your mind is a choice. It’s yours and it IS possible.