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Most people want to be happy. They would like to feel good, avoid pain, and achieve their goals. For many, though, happiness seems to be an elusive dream. In fact, it appears that we humans are much better at disturbing and defeating ourselves! Instead of feeling good, we are more likely to worry, feel guilty and get depressed. We put ourselves down and feel shy, hurt or self-pitying. We get jealous, angry, hostile and bitter or suffer anxiety, tension and panic.
On top of feeling bad, we often act in self-destructive ways. Some strive to be perfect in everything they do. Many mess up relationships. Others worry about disapproval and let people use them as doormats. Still others compulsively gamble, smoke and overspend - or abuse alcohol, drugs and food. Some even try to end it all.
The strange thing is, most of this pain is avoidable! We don’t have to do it to ourselves. Humans can, believe it or not, learn how to choose how they feel and behave.
As you think, so you feel
People feel disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of them.’ Ancient words, from a first-century philosopher named Epictetus - but they are just as true now.
Events and circumstances do not cause your reactions. They result from what you tell yourself about the things that happen. Put simply, thoughts cause feelings and behaviours. Or, more precisely, events and circumstances serve to trigger thoughts, which then create reactions. These three processes are intertwined.
The past is significant. But only in so far as it leaves you with your current attitudes and beliefs. External events - whether in the past, present, or future - cannot influence the way you feel or behave until you become aware of and begin to think about them.
To fear something (or react in any other way), you have to be thinking about it. The cause is not the event - it’s what you tell yourself about the event.
The ABC’s of feelings & behaviours
American psychologist Albert Ellis, the originator of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), was one of the first to systematically show how beliefs determine the way human beings feel and behave. Dr. Ellis developed the 'ABC’ model to demonstrate this.
'A’ refers to whatever started things off: a circumstance, event or experience - or just thinking about something which has happened. This triggers off thoughts ('B’), which in turn create a reaction - feelings and behaviours - ('C’).
To see this in operation, let’s meet Alan. A young man who had always tended to doubt himself, Alan imagined that other people did not like him, and that they were only friendly because they pitied him. One day, a friend passed him in the street without returning his greeting - to which Alan reacted negatively. Here is the event, Alans beliefs, and his reaction, put into the ABC format:
Now, someone who thought differently about the same event would react in another way:
These examples show how different ways of viewing the same event can lead to different reactions. The same principle operates in reverse: when people react alike, it is because they are thinking in similar ways.
The rules we live by
What we tell ourselves in specific situations depends on the rules we hold. Everyone has a set of general 'rules’. Some will be rational, others will be self-defeating or irrational. Each person’s set is different.
Mostly subconscious, these rules determine how we react to life. When an event triggers off a train of thought, what we consciously think depends on the general rules we subconsciously apply to the event.
Let us say that you hold the general rule: 'To be worthwhile, I must succeed at everything I do.’ You happen to fail an examination; an event which, coupled with the underlying rule, leads you to the conclusion: 'I’m not worthwhile.’
Underlying rules are generalisations: one rule can apply to many situations. If you believe, for example: 'I can’t stand discomfort and pain and must avoid them at all costs,’ you might apply this to the dentist, to work, to relationships, and to life in general.
Why be concerned about your rules? While most will be valid and helpful, some will be self-defeating. Faulty rules will lead to faulty conclusions. Take the rule: 'If I am to feel OK about myself, others must like and approve of me.’ Let us say that your boss tells you off. You may (rightly) think: 'He is angry with me’ - but you may wrongly conclude: 'This proves I’m a failure.’ And changing the situation (for instance, getting your boss to like you) would still leave the underlying rule untouched. It would then be there to bother you whenever some future event triggered it off.
Most self-defeating rules are a variation of one or other of the '12 Self-defeating Beliefs’ listed at the end of this article. Take a look at this list now. Which ones do you identify with? Which are the ones that guide your reactions?
What are self-defeating beliefs?
To describe a belief as self-defeating, or irrational, is to say that:
Four ways to screw yourself up
There are four typical ways of thinking that will make you feel bad or behave in dysfunctional ways:
Rational thinking presents a vivid contrast to its illogical opposite:
We are not talking about so-called 'positive thinking’. Rational thinking is realistic thinking. It is concerned with facts - the real world - rather than subjective opinion or wishful thinking.
Realistic thinking leads to realistic emotions. Negative feelings aren’t always bad for you. Neither are all positive feelings beneficial. Feeling happy when someone you love has died, for example, may hinder you from grieving properly. Or to be unconcerned in the face of real danger could put your survival at risk. Realistic thinking avoids exaggeration of both kinds - negative and positive.
The techniques of change
How does one actually set about achieving self-control and choice? The best place to start is by learning how to identify the thoughts and beliefs which cause your problems.
Next, learn how to apply this knowledge by analysing specific episodes where you feel and behave in the ways you would like to change. It is most effective to do this in writing at first, and later it will become easier to do it in your head. You connect whatever started things off, your reaction, and the thoughts which came in between. You then check out those thoughts and change the self-defeating ones. This method, called Rational Self-Analysis, uses the ABC approach described earlier, extended to include sections for setting a goal or new desired effect ('E’), disputing and changing beliefs ('D’), and, finally, further action to put those changes into practice ('F’).
That final step is important. You will get there faster when you put into action what you have changed in your mind. Let us say you decide to stop feeling guilty when you do something for yourself. The next step is to do it. Spend an hour a day reading a novel. Purchase some new clothes. Have coffee with a friend or a weekend away without the family. Do the things you would previously have regarded as 'undeserved’.
While change is possible, it is not easy - mainly because of a very human tendency known as 'low-discomfort tolerance’.
Most of us want to be physically and emotionally comfortable. But personal change means giving up some old habits of thinking and behaving and 'safe’ ways of approaching life.
Whereas before you may have blamed others for your problems, now you start to take responsibility for yourself and what you want. You risk new ways of thinking and acting. You step out into the unknown. This could increase your stress and emotional pain - temporarily. In other words, you may well feel worse before you feel better.
Telling yourself that you 'can’t stand it’ could lead you to avoid change. You might decide to stick with the way things are, unpleasant though it is. You know you would be better off in the long run, but you choose to avoid the extra pain now.
Or you might look for a quick solution. Do you hope that somewhere there’s a fancy therapy which will cure you straight away - without you having to do anything? I meet many people who try therapist after therapist, but never stay with one approach long enough to learn anything that will help. They still live in hope, though, and often get a brief boost from meeting new therapists or therapy groups.
As well as fearing discomfort, you may also worry that you 'won’t be a real person’. You think that you will end up 'pretending’ to feel and behave in new ways, and imagine yourself as false or phoney. Somehow, it seems, to choose how you feel seems 'less than human’.
You are, though, already choosing your reactions - even though you may not be fully aware of doing so. And using conscious choice is what sets humans apart from instinct-bound animals. It is also what makes you a unique person - different to every other. So give up the notion that it is false and machine-like to use your brain to avoid bad feelings. Getting depressed, worried, and desperate does not make you more human.
You might worry that learning self-control will make you cold and unemotional, with no feelings at all. This common fear is quite misguided. The opposite is true: if you learn how to handle strong feelings you will be less afraid of them. This will free you to experience a fuller range of emotions than before.
While self-improvement may be hard, it is achievable. The blocks I have described are all self-created. They’re nothing more than beliefs - ideas you can change using practical techniques you can learn.
Rational thinking is not just academic theory. People from a wide range of social and educational backgrounds have already used it successfully. You will be able to as well.
It is true that human beings start life with a biological predisposition to irrational thinking, which they then add to by learning new and harmful ways of behaving and viewing life. But there is a positive side to human nature - we also have the ability to think about our beliefs and change the dysfunctional ones.
What about problems you can’t sort out on your own? Some outside help may be a useful supplement to your self-help efforts. Whether or not you have such help, though, taking responsibility for your feelings and actions will be the key to success. You will also need some hard work and perseverance. But, happily, by learning how to identify and change self-defeating beliefs and attitudes, these things can be within your control - and happiness within your reach.
From Self-defeat to Rational Living
This article has adapted and summarised from the book Choose to be Happy: Your step-by-step guide By Wayne Froggatt, Published by HarperCollins New Zealand, Auckland, 1993.