There was a time in my life not too long ago when I was really depressed. I was 20, I had just dropped out of college, and soon after that my boyfriend had broken up with me. I had moved back home with my parents, I didn’t have any friends, and I had no idea what I wanted to do next- I just knew that I didn’t want to be in school anymore. My OCD flared up big time, I completely lost my appetite, and I lost 9 pounds as well. I was totally miserable, and I have no doubt that it was a miserable experience to be around me. (Some married friends of mine refer to one particularly difficult time in their lives as “The Big Suck”- this was my Big Suck.)
Finally, my mother got worried enough about me that she dragged me to a therapist. The therapist taught me a few things. First she taught me EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) an exercise backed up by exactly zero scientific evidence in which you poke yourself at various “meridians” (or whatever) on your body and repeat “affirmations” like “Even though I ate cheese today, I still wholly and completely love and accept myself.”
Then she had me make a collage representing myself which was dorky but really fun, too, and she analyzed it, and it was awesome but didn’t really make me less depressed.
Then she tried to get me to drink flower essences, which are basically different flowers and plants distilled in brandy or other alcohol, and different ones are supposed to make you feel different ways, like rose is supposed to focus you and daffodil is supposed to relax you or whatever. And I was like “well, yes, it’s relaxing me, it’s distilled in brandy.” And it’s supposed to be like homeopathy or something but it’s not because they don’t succuss or dilute the solution at all, and even homeopathy is a little too woo woo for me most of the time, so I wasn’t having it. Also the guy who invented flower essences did it by holding his hands over various plants and sensing their “essences” and then making “medicine” out of it. So if he held his hand over a daffodil and felt calm he would decide that daffodil had a calm essence and so anyone who drank daffodil distilled in brandy would be calm. It was basically the stupidest thing I’d ever heard and not even a little bit real science.
Finally she taught me about a specific type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy called Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy. It had been developed in the fifties by a guy named Albert Ellis, and studies have repeatedly demonstrated its efficacy. I started using the technique without much success, but she encouraged me to stick with it and soon it started to click. I realized that while interpreting situations, my brain was often telling me that things were worse than they actually were. By using Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, I was able to change my thinking patterns and begin interpreting life events in a more positive way. My outlook became more positive (and more in line with reality) and I quickly became happier as a result.
Today I’m going to teach you how to do this technique yourself. It’s useful for people with depression, but it’s also been shown to help people who are suffering from anxiety disorders, OCD, PTSD, and bipolar disorder.
REBT is founded in the philosophy of Stoicism and the belief that people are unhappy because of their thoughts or beliefs about external circumstances or events- not the circumstances or events themselves.
REBT posits that we often hold irrational beliefs about external circumstances or events, and the method teaches practitioners to replace their irrational beliefs with more rational beliefs that also serve to make them happier or less anxious. Here’s a list of Albert Ellis’ version of the 12 irrational beliefs of REBT.
A few of the common irrational beliefs addressed by REBT include:
-Catastrophizing: Believing that something is awful or terrible, when in fact it might be only slightly unfortunate
-Over-generalizing: Since my last relationship ended terribly, I am not good at being in relationships, or all my relationships will end terribly.
-The belief that you simply “can’t stand” something any longer, when in fact you certainly can.
-The idea that things “must” be a certain way, and that any variation from that is completely intolerable.
The process of REBT is very straightforward, and it even has an easy acronym to help you remember: ABC.
Before you begin, set a goal for yourself. If your boyfriend just broke up with you, it’s probably not reasonable to have the goal “Be happy that my boyfriend broke up with me.” However, it might be appropriate to set a goal such as “Feel calm about my recent breakup and be confident that I will eventually find someone with whom I can be happy and have a healthy relationship.”
Now that you’ve set your goal, it’s time to begin. The letter “A” stands for “Awareness” or “Activating Event.” What occurred that caused you to have negative thoughts or feel negative emotions? Describe it in detail without any interpretation, as though you’re observing it through a camera. As I mentioned above, let’s assume that your boyfriend broke up with you. You would say something like this: “tonight I went over to John’s apartment, and when I walked inside he asked me to sit down and told me that he thought we should see other people. I started crying and left immediately, slamming the door behind me.”
“B” stands for “Beliefs.” What are your beliefs about the event that occurred? Consider them carefully, and list them in detail. If John just broke up with you, your beliefs might sound something like this:
“John doesn’t want to be with me anymore, so I am inherently unlovable.”
“All of my relationships end badly. I’m just not good at relating to people.”
“I’m never going to find anyone else that I love as much as I love him.”
“He must have thought that I was getting fat. No wonder- I just don’t have a nice body.”
“C” stands for “Consequences.” What are the consequences of your beliefs? How do your beliefs make you feel? Describe your emotional reaction to your beliefs in detail.
For example, the beliefs I listed above would probably make the person in question feel fat, ugly, worthless, unloved, unlovable, lonely and hopeless. Fun, right?
The next step is to go back to section “B” and reexamine your beliefs. Take them one at a time, and ask yourself the following three questions:
1. Is this belief rational?
2. Does this belief help me achieve my goal?
3. Does this belief help me feel the way I want to feel?
If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” then it’s time to chuck that belief out the window and replace it with a new one. Let’s take the first belief I listed above, “I am inherently unlovable,” and pose our three questions to see if it passes the test.
Is the belief that you are inherently unlovable rational? Of course not. Everyone deals with breakups at one time or another. Being dumped is an almost universal human experience, and in the vast majority of cases, people who get dumped go on to have meaningful relationships with new romantic partners.
Does the belief help you achieve your goal? Certainly not, right? Feeling unlovable doesn’t increase your confidence of finding a new mate in the future.
Does it help you feel the way you want to feel? I doubt it, unless you’re a masochist who wants to feel bad about yourself.
When stacked up against our three questions, this belief fails all three times. It’s time to get rid of it and replace it with a healthier and more rational belief. A good example of a replacement belief might be “John decided that we were not compatible romantic partners, and while that makes me sad right now, I know that I am an inherently good and worthy person.”
Do this with each belief, replacing with new beliefs when necessary. Finally, go back and read your new beliefs, and observe how those beliefs make you feel. Hopefully, your examined, healthy, and rational beliefs make you feel happier, more grounded, and more at peace than your previous beliefs.
It’s possible that you will list a belief that is rational but doesn’t help you achieve your goal or help you feel the way you want to feel. In this case, you should still replace the belief! You just need to make sure that your new belief is rational as well- otherwise you’re simply fooling yourself in a positive direction instead of a negative direction.
I encourage you to try out this method the next time you’re feeling anxious, angry, depressed or upset. And if it doesn’t work the first time, keep at it. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to get the hang of it, but I’m confident that this technique can help you be happier for logical, rational reasons.