“He practiced rational emotive imagery at least once a day by imagining that people were really acting stupidly, letting himself feel very angry about this, and then working on feeling only disappointment and frustrated, but not angry, about their stupid behavior.”
Albert Ellis, How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes Anything
I care deeply about the destruction of the ocean. Since my earliest childhood, playing in the waves has been one of the ways I most treasure participating in the powerful natural forces of our earth. I have taught my wife to bodysurf. I have taught my children. I deeply want my children to be able to teach their children the same joy of splashing in and swimming with, instead of against, the great currents of our planet. I tell you this so that you can understand when I say it is important to me that the oceans do not die on my watch. When I consider that what my society is doing today is likely creating the ocean die-off time-bomb that will haunt my children’s children’s children, and on, and on, for longer than my heart can bare to think about, anger lives inside me. Then I remember that even an ocean die-off is unlikely to remove the act of bodysurfing from the planet. That sweet kiss of flesh and salt water in which an organic return encapsulates billions of years of hard earned evolution by choosing to come back and play, to laugh in the tides, that will remain. The anger is gone. I am deeply disappointed in the people around me. I am frustrated they do not see and value as I see and value. But somehow in correcting my view of the ocean die-off it also alters my view of my fellow human creatures. No one is deliberately setting out to do evil; that’s one for the comic books. Tough, but there it is.
I have transformed the anger into frustration. Anger is susceptible to rage and rage to violence. Shutting the door on anger I now deal instead with issues around how well I am able to tolerate this frustration and disappointment. Working on my frustration tolerance is no walk in the park, but I can do so with a peace denied my angry mind. The key to shutting the door on anger instead of repressing it was using my reason to reframe my understanding.
Flights of fancy, day dreams, artistic inspirations and many other states of mind use the non-rational and irrational productively. The bounds of reason are far too limited to capture all that the heart needs to communicate. Symbolism and metaphor fill our art and poetry, drama and literature to compliment our understanding. Comedy and humor, so often the balm of life, very often depends on cognitive errors like exaggeration for their effect. We are called, at times, to be our own poets, artists and comedians, so it is important in mind training that we do not try and control our ever changing thoughts too much. If we grasp at all this too tightly we just kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Still, the art of cognitive training consists of catching the mind as it engages in irrational thoughts being passed off as rational – and firmly disputing those irrationalities. In our mind training, as in science, we are after more truth. We do not expect perfect or absolute truth. We do expect we can whittle away a bit at our own ignorance with work and practice. The key is to look for those thoughts that will not stand up to a rational analysis yet claim to be rational. These are the ones that are worth keeping an eye on. Their deceptive cloaks can make us feel as though we are being rational in the moments we are entertaining them. It is only when we step back and take a look at things more objectively that we recognize that what they are asserting is highly improbable, if not down-right hokey. Happiness, even sanity, depends on firmly disputing these cognitive errors.
The model of REBT teaches that when we are deeply disturbed we are telling ourselves something in a semi-divine imperative voice. We are lording over ourselves with a MUST. Which is giving you your greatest difficulty?
I must do well.
You must treat me well.
The world must treat me well.
We greatly prefer to do well and be treated well but we only hurt ourselves if we think we must be. That is nothing more than childishly magical thinking born of taking ego as divinity. Adults should recognize that human beings are fallible creatures and the world is an imperfect place. The sort of absolutism this kind of must-thinking represents is not at home in these conditions. It is not well adapted to reality so it can cause all sorts of trouble both for individuals and nations.
One of these variations of what Ellis calls MUSTerbation will likely be at the root of whatever it is that is disturbing you. These beliefs destroy peace of mind by judging your self-worth against unrealistic criteria. If you believe these types of things you have been set up to fail because these are really double binds. If these are your criteria for self-worth you just cannot win because even when you do well today, or someone treats you well today, or the world bestows its finest gifts upon you today, you know that tomorrow will most likely be a different matter. Win and you fail; fail and you fail; the Catch 22 of the double bind.
So of course, once we clearly see this, we simply must not use must. Right? And around and around we go. Here is where skill comes in. It teaches us to bring to the work a gentle touch, knowing we are most effective when guided by patience. The psyche is complex. As we have previously discussed there are many times that the shadow is working important work in maintaining our actual adaptation to the actual environments we find ourselves in. All that seems weak, sinful, sniveling, all those parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of and make outcasts, they need to have a place at the table of the Self too. No self improvement program started by the ego should dare to try and shed that shadow too quickly or too completely. Perfection is not for us. We can not even perfectly accept our imperfections – but we can imperfectly accept our imperfections and that is good enough.
REBT is a good tool to have on the cognitive tool belt. We all are prone to some crazy-making and we have it in our power to diminish or even, sometimes, remove it entirely. I have found myself using REBT periodically for decades. There are times it’s powerfully helpful to lay out the semi-conscious irrational beliefs that I have gathered from the on-going confrontations between my character and the world. Things shift around with the passing of the years and this technique has let me periodically tighten up the Ship of State, as it were. Writing out the irrational beliefs and writing out their disputations as taught is a bit silly but it has had surprisingly powerfully positive effects for me and thousands of others. Your mileage may vary but I am convinced that some form of disputing the mind’s irrational beliefs is required for mental health.
It is also required for social health. A society that cannot hold its own irrational beliefs up for examination loses one of its most effective means of navigating events and finding appropriately proportionate responses. The idea dominate in the over-developed world that the earth simply must give us the resources we need to continue feeding Homo Colossus is one of those irrational beliefs. Seen through the lens of mindful ecology our accelerating use of dirty oil, dirty coal, and dirty nuclear energy in the face of climate change facts is just a way of saying to the earth, like a somewhat ungrateful bully, “you owe me.” “Look at all I have done in my building and dreaming, creating technologies that mimic the magic of the gods, it cannot all have been for naught!” This is just more MUSTerbation and now it is doing a deadly dance with All-or-Nothing thinking. It implies, no, it insists that the only way forward is more of the same or “by god we will blow the whole thing up.” Isn’t that how the rest of the semi-conscious threat-thought runs in the haunted basement of the public square?
Working on our minds is the most direct route to working on the issues of ecology.
The REBT exercises train the mind to be on the lookout for temptations towards exaggerated conceit on the one hand, or self-damning on the other. These are the mistakes that accompany irrational beliefs. If we allow ourselves to have too high and mighty evaluation of our place then the slightest ego threat is perceived as an attack on our fundamental worth and can lead quickly to violent rage. In the other direction self damning leads to depression by confusing the guilt that might rightly belong to an action taken in the past which we have come to regret, with guilt about our very existence. We are confused by thinking not that I did a terrible thing but that I am a terrible person. This cripples the solution to past terrible actions, namely, future non-terrible actions.
These cognitive errors represent the human mind claiming god-like powers. This is rather obvious in the commands behinds the MUST but its not hard to see in the All-or-Nothing’s black and white perfectionism either, and so on for the rest of the cognitive errors we are prone to. This western mind training becomes a way of keeping in touch with the genuinely human. This is where, as the pages of our life history and our community’s history unfold, we will do many things well but not all things, others will often treat us well but not always, and the world will take the most exquisite care of us, furnishing us with everything we need to survive, even thrive, but not always.