What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.
—EPICTETUS (ca. A.D. 50-130)
Nearly everything in my book, Three Minute Therapy, flows from a single, simple fact: the way you feel, emotionally, arises from the way you think. Your feelings come from your thinking. For most people, this truth is usually overlooked or denied. Here are some typical statements from my clients:
“I’m furious ’cause my eight-year-old didn’t get to bed last night until 1 A.M.”
“I’m awfully afraid Jim won’t show up for this appointment” (spoken by Jim’s wife while waiting for her husband in my office).
“One impossible deadline after another. No wonder I’m so stressed out when I get home from work.”
“I’ve just discovered that my husband and my best friend have been carrying on for three weeks while lying to my face” (spoken by a wife, to explain her feelings of terrible injury and jealousy).
“My husband never talks to me: I’m so depressed.”
“I was raised by two alcoholic parents. No wonder I’m an alcoholic.”
All these statements suggest that when something happens to you, when some event occurs in your life, that happening or event is sufficient to explain how you feel about it.
What these people are really saying is that exposure to a keenly obnoxious, disagreeable Activating event (we’ll call this event “A”) directly causes the emotional Consequence (call this “C”). These clients-along with most people-are expressing their view that there is a direct link between A and C, the unpleasant situation and their upset feeling.
Your Thoughts and Your Feelings
This is a very popular theory, but it’s a false theory. Events do not directly affect our psyches the way a needle in the arm causes pain (even then the pain has to go through our brain before we can feel it).
To get a glimpse of the correct theory, imagine that you are about to enter a room where someone awaits you. Your emotions will be related to your preconceptions, your thoughts or Beliefs (which we’ll refer to as “B”).
If you expect a violent criminal, you may very well feel afraid. If instead you anticipate that it’s your young child who has been missing for days, you’re likely to feel greatly relieved and overjoyed.
However, your beliefs, expectations, and anticipations-your B’s-are things that you generate and control. And it’s B that creates C: beliefs create emotions. A or the Activating event alone does not create emotions.
Suppose a hundred airplane passengers are unexpectedly given parachutes and instructed to jump from the plane (A). If a physical situation alone could cause emotions-if A could directly cause C-then all the hundred people would feel the same way. But obviously those who regard skydiving positively (B) are going to have a (C) very different from the others.
The fact that feelings come from thinking was known to the ancient Greek Stoics and to many Buddhist teachers. It has more recently been rediscovered by Dr. Albert Ellis and other psychologists and has been tested in practice by thousands of therapists.
Your Childhood is Irrelevant to Your Present Problems
Everyone knows that individuals respond very differently to similar events. Jane dreads her upcoming examination so intensely that she can’t sleep the night before, and walks into the examination hall shaking with terror. Her friend Barbara, who’s taking the same test, remains quite unruffled.
Clearly, a person’s response to events is not entirely explained by the events themselves, but owes something to the person. However, instead of looking at that person’s conscious beliefs, for example Jane’s beliefs about the test, therapists often try to explain the person’s feelings and actions through their “unconscious” minds.
Sigmund Freud developed this way of explaining human behavior early in the twentieth century, a method popularized by many Hollywood movies from the 1930s on.
Freud believed that our feelings and actions are caused by “unconscious” impulses-things that are in our minds but that we don’t know about…our minds are filled with dark, disguised forces of which we’re normally quite unaware. How did these mysterious forces get there? They allegedly originated in our childhood experiences.
Jane’s fear of the test might be explained by incidents in her early childhood. Freud believed that the way to cure Jane is to uncover the buried memories of those incidents, have Jane relive those incidents, and show how they cause Jane’s present anxiety about tests.
This excavation of Jane’s “unconscious mind” can be a long and expensive process. The therapist encourages the patient to reconstruct some childhood incident, and to accept the therapist’s theory about how this is related to the patient’s current problems.
This approach to solving people’s problems has become very well-known, and many people expect therapists to be interested in the details of their childhood.
But there’s actually NOT a scrap of solid evidence that memories of childhood agonies have much to do with a person’s continuing emotional difficulties, nor that uncovering those agonies will do anything to help the person now.
Even where a person’s current problems really are related to a past unpleasant experience, it’s the person’s present thinking about that experience that does the damage, NOT the experience itself.
The theory that our feelings and behavior are governed by “unconscious” forces is not only unsubstantiated–it could be harmful.
If people with problems believe this theory, they could become demoralized. The theory suggests to people with emotional problems that they are the puppets of dark forces they cannot control or even recognize.
Instead of encouraging clients to feel that they are responsible for their problems and that they can do something about them right away, the theory suggests that the individual is helpless, even possessed. The individual is, in effect, encouraged to give up the struggle to be rational and effective.
“Shoulds” and “Musts”
Your feelings come from your thinking. This doesn’t mean that if you tell yourself everything is fine and you have no problems, then you will feel fine and your problems will disappear.
The Three Minute Therapy method does NOT recommend “thinking positively,” telling yourself to cheer up, or fondly dwelling on comfortable images that everything is wonderful.
The advice glibly offered to emotional sufferers-“Worrying doesn’t do any good, so why worry?”-is usually of little help because the anxious person doesn’t know how to stop worrying.
Such a person has a definite system of beliefs, which has become a fixed dogma, and which automatically generates distress. Without attacking and changing that system of beliefs, there will probably be little progress in reducing anxiety.
But the sufferer doesn’t think much about the system of beliefs, doesn’t consider that the beliefs might be questionable, and doesn’t notice how the beliefs lead to counterproductive and self-destructive behavior.
To start on the path to healthy thought patterns, it’s first necessary to identify the sufferer’s system of beliefs. This isn’t a lengthy process of excavating “unconscious” memories. Usually a few minutes of asking simple questions will elicit a person’s faulty thinking.
If someone asks you whether you have a belief about the persistence of physical objects, you will probably be puzzled and hesitate to give a definite reply, or you may even reply in the negative.
However, you don’t pay much attention to the possibility that the chair you are sitting on will suddenly vanish, causing you to painfully bruise your buttocks on the floor. In this sense, you do indeed subscribe to a belief in the persistence of physical objects, and this belief determines your behavior. In this case, of course, the belief is broadly true.
In the same way, the beliefs responsible for emotional problems are deeply-rooted, unconsidered assumptions. And these beliefs are FALSE!
Fortunately, when we wish to identify these beliefs, we start with an advantage. We already have a good idea, on the basis of the theories of Albert Ellis, and the experience of thousands of therapists employing his method, of the mistaken beliefs many people hold.
Such beliefs show a common pattern. They take the form of demands-“musts” or “shoulds.” For instance, a person faced with a public speaking assignment may believe that he MUST not look foolish in public, and that to do so would be TERRIBLE.
While it’s reasonable not to want to look foolish in public, it’s harmful to demand that this be guaranteed not to occur. Thus, the first step in curing public speaking anxiety is to accept, fully and without reservation, that nothing can possibly give you an iron-clad guarantee that you will not look foolish in public. You may possibly look foolish in public-to do so would be unfortunate, but not terrible.
The beliefs that give people emotional problems are evaluative beliefs. Virtually all emotion comes from evaluative thinking. Thus, if you just make a simple observation you will not feel emotion.
Let’s consider a statement such as “Jake admires me.”
That’s an assertion of fact only.
By itself it does not spawn feelings.
But if you add an evaluation, then you produce an emotion.
For example: “I like Jake admiring me.” “I love Jake admiring me.” “I dislike Jake admiring me.” “I loathe Jake admiring me.”
The strength of any “like” exists on a scale from 0 percent to 99.9 percent. (You can never prefer something at the 100 percent level because no matter how strongly you desire it, theoretically you could always yearn for it even more.)
If you prefer to be admired by Jake only slightly (at the 10 percent level, say) you will feel mildly pleased that he’s admiring you and mildly displeased should he despise you.
If, on the other hand, you prefer it at the 90 percent level, you will feel rather great when Jake admires you and greatly disappointed if he doesn’t. Thus preferences create emotions. Since the preferences are based on a scale from 0 percent to 99.9 percent, appropriate or reasonable emotions come from preferences.
On the other hand inappropriate or unreasonable emotions come from demands rather than preferences. What we call “demands” consist of magical, absolutistic, moralistic notions, and take the form of “musts” and “shoulds.”
For example: “Jake absolutely MUST admire me and it would be awful if he doesn’t!”
“Musts” and “shoulds” lead to dysfunctional emotions-emotions that eat away at you, such as anger, anxiety, depression, guilt, and self-pity. Demandingness also leads to self-defeating behaviors such as procrastination, violence, and addictions, including alcoholism, substance abuse, overeating, gambling, and compulsive shopping.
The key to the Three Minute Therapy method is that it’s perfectly rational and generally helpful to have preferences, especially quite strong preferences, but it’s irrational and harmful to turn these preferences into demands or “musts.”
The majority of emotional problems arise because individuals believe that something or other MUST be, or not be.
For example: “I MUST do well at school” (instead of “I PREFER to do well at school”); “I MUST not feel anxious” (instead of “It’s UNFORTUNATE that I sometimes feel anxious”); or “My spouse MUST not behave coldly toward me” (instead of “I find it UNPLEASANT when my spouse behaves coldly toward me”).
Allied with the judgment that something must (or must not) happen is the judgment that when it doesn’t (or does) happen, this is awful, terrible, horrible, shameful, or unbearable.
In many different ways, we will show how these judgments lead to personal difficulties. Thinking in terms of “musts” is the essence of unrealistic, irrational thinking, as well as self-defeating behavior. (Continued)