Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Therapy and an early pioneer in the field of the cognitive behavioral approach to dealing with emotional issues, discussed several “irrational” ideas. These ideas are “irrational” because they are extreme, can’t be supported in our interactions with others, and elicit emotions which can prove problematic.
This is where emotional mastery comes in.
Remember that the foundation of emotional mastery is the emotional process which involves the unconscious scanning of our surroundings for any possible “threat”, the unconscious reacting to the threat facilitated by the Amygdala and designed to insure our survival, initially validating the emotion, “managing” the emotional reaction by lowering our arousal level before we act out, and mastering the emotion by assessing both the nature of the “threat” and the thoughts we have about the threat and choosing how we want to respond to it. If the threat is genuine, we accept and validate the emotion, plan our response to it and take action. If the threat is not genuine, we “invalidate” the emotion, change our thought about the situation, and choose what we want to do next which might involve walking away, apologizing, ignoring the situation and so forth.
While not given as much attention as it deserves, it is important to note, and Ellis emphasizes this point, that the thoughts we have about our surroundings are often the underlying basis for the Amygdala’s analysis that a psychological threat exists. Psychological threats underly the emotions of anger, anxiety, guilt and shame. I say “often” because, as with the emotion of fear, the threat that is perceived is a survival threat and is not based on our thoughts. Ellis’s irrational ideas are, of course, thoughts.
Ellis listed at least 11 irrational ideas or beliefs. I will discuss 3 of them.
- It is essential that one be loved or approved by virtually everyone in his community.
This is irrational because it is unattainable. It is certainly desirable to be loved and accepted by others and we might need to examine our own behaviour if we are not getting along with others, but the rational person realizes that people’s reactions to us are often based on their perceptions and we have no control over what others do.
If you act as if others must accept you and they don’t, you most likely experience anxiety if you focus on a future threat that might occur because of this lack of love or acceptance or anger, if you believe you deserve or must be accepted, are not getting what you deserve, and will go to “war” to get what is yours.
In mastering your emotions, if you are feeling unloved or unaccepted, look for this irrational idea, examine what the other person is telling you about you, decide if their comments are more about them than you, and choose what you want to do next.
2. Unhappiness (and, I would add, all feelings) is caused by outside circumstances and the individual has no control over them.
Ellis notes that most outside events are psychological in nature and can’t be harmful unless one allows oneself to be affected. If you disturb yourself by noting how horrible it is that someone is unkind, annoying, etc, you create the maladaptive feelings you experience. The rational person realizes that he can change both his internal verbalizations about the event and his reactions to that event.
The idea that others (or events) cause our feelings is wide spread and is the reason I developed the Emotions as Tools Model.
The corollary of this idea which is not emphasized by Ellis but is often talked about in the literature, is that our emotions are negative and must be overpowered by us. The emotions as tools model specifically notes that there is not such thing as a negative emotions and that all emotions are adaptive.
The idea that our emotions can overpower us is the basis of the Anger Management Approach which emphasizes lowering arousal and controlling behavior. While lowering arousal and controlling behavior are important, mastering the emotion by looking at the nature of the threat and choosing a response goes beyond managing the emotion and is consistent with Ellis’ approach.
3. It is a terrible catastrophe when things are not as one wants them to be.
This is an erroneous exaggeration. According to Ellis, while frustration is normal, getting severely upset is illogical since there is no reason why events should be different from what they are, it is not rational to think that our happiness or satisfaction can only happen if a certain event goes our way, and if we can’t do anything about what is happening, we should just accept it,getting upset rarely
My discussion above about the emotions of anxiety and anger also apply here.
The message of the emotion of frustration is that a goal toward which we are striving, has been blocked. Mastering this emotion involves lowering one’s arousal by taking a breath and stepping back from the goal (establishing both physical and psychological distance), validating that we are frustrated, avoiding blame, analying both the nature of the goal and the nature of the blocks, and choosing an effective response.
If you have ever tried to assemble a piece of furniture or a present such a bike on Christmas Eve, you will be able to identify with this irrational idea. I certainly have told myself “These instructions should be more accurate!” or “These pictures are terrible and piece A does not fit into hole B!”
The emotion I feel is anger because things are not as I want them to be.
I think you get the idea.
The same phenomenon occurs when we tell ourselves, “I should have gotten that raise/promotion!” or “My boss should not treat me that way!”
Albert Ellis calls this process “shoulding” on oneself.
As you practice mastering your emotions, take a look to see if one of these irrational ideas is at the heart of and is eliciting the emotion that you are experiencing.
I welcome your comments.