One of the founders of CBT, Albert Ellis had a way with words. His way of explaining things, as a rather brash and forthright New York psychotherapist, was that we would all lead calmer, more contented lives if we were able to stop 'shoulding' on ourselves, and, humorously, he added, not indulge in 'musterbation'. What could he mean?
Ellis' specific branch of CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), known as REBT (rational emotive behaviour therapy), proposes that much of human suffering is made worse by the demands (the shoulds, musts, shouldn't and must nots) we make on ourselves, others or the world in general. These demands become the window through which we look at our world - past problems and difficulties in life can start to add a level of murkiness to our window. It can help to clean up the glass from time to time... which is where CBT comes in.
Beliefs impact on feelings
In CBT we look at the way inflexible and irrational thinking contributes to our distress. This is not a new way of thinking, in fact it's rooted in wisdom that goes back to the Stoic philosphers almost 2,000 years ago. Epictetus summed it up well when he wrote, "People are not disturbed by events, but by the view they hold of them."
Before we start out, this is not to say that there are not situations which are very bad and in an ideal world would not have happened, but we live in an imperfect world. Pain, suffering and bad things happening are the price we pay for being alive. Life isn't always easy, life isn't by nature fair, and people don't always meet our expectations or our needs. The real power in CBT is that if we can learn to address the way we think, we can reduce unnecessary emotional distress which we may be layering on top of what may well be appropriate sadness, concern, healthy anger or regret relating to difficult situations. Negative emotions can be healthy responses to adverse events. These are necessary and human emotions which help to motivate us to take action. CBT is certainly not about putting a sticking plaster on your emotions, but it is about reducing emotional disturbance and experiencing a healthy emotional response.
Danger of demands
One of the main roots of vulnerability to unhealthy negative emotions (eg. anxiety, depression, unhealthy anger, guilt) lies in the irrational beliefs which we may bring to our experience. Let's call these beliefs the window through which we view the world. While we may not be able to change the past, other people, or many situations and things which are outside of our control, we can clean up the window, by addressing irrational and unhelpful beliefs and replacing these with helpful, supportive alternatives. A clearer view will result in a calmer life with more measured responses. And who doesn't want a clearer view? With clarity, we can appreciate where we are with less negative judgement, and we have time to choose our response more wisely.
As human beings we all have wishes, desires, and ideas about how we want things to be... Unfortunately when things are not going our way, we might notice a tendency to absolutely demand that things are different. Often we may not even be aware that we are doing this. These demands might come in the form of unreasonable expectations, inflexible and unrelenting standards or striving to make the impossible possible. Ellis described these demands as being inflexible, unrealistic, and unhelpful. Demands can be easy to spot when you are on the lookout. Listen out for shoulds, musts, ought tos, need to's, have to's or their negative counterparts, mustn't, shouldn't and so on. These demands form an inflexible rulebook which contributes majorly to emotional distress.
Some of our unhelpful demands we may have developed over the course of our lifetime; at some point these may even have served as a way to adapt to difficulties we have experienced. This may have worked at some level in the past, but when we don't address these patterns of thinking, we can be left reacting in the same way we always have to our personal trigger situations. And in this way, we can easily become trapped by our past.
What are your demands?
How often have you considered the demands you place on yourself or others? What arises when your demand isn't met? Have a ponder for a moment. How often do these demands contribute to living your life in a calmer way? How often to they feed helpful behaviour or ways of thinking? How might they even exacerbate symptoms of anxiety or stress?
And it doesn't end there... When a demand about how things ought to be isn't met, we can disturb ourselves in three additional ways.
Catastrophising: inflating the badness of the demand not being met. Self talk: It's awful, it's a disaster when my demand isn't met.
Low frustration tolerance: an underestimation of our ability to cope with the demand not being met. Self talk: I can't bear it, I can't stand it.
Self / other / world criticism: global negative and damning beliefs about yourself or others. Self talk: I'm a loser, failure, worthess. Or, he's an idiot, a total pain.
To remedy this, in CBT we work towards challenging irrational and unhelpful beliefs in order to improve psychological flexibility. This flexibility leads to adaptable supportive behaviour, greater resilience in the face of adversity, emotional wellbeing and improved self worth.
When you can reframe your beliefs with rational, flexible, realistic and helpful beliefs, you can experience a calmer outlook. Adapt your philosophy on life and choose to reframe the way you think with flexible preferences.
To illustrate, here's an example on a sporty theme.
Runner A: I absolutely have to win the race. It would be a disaster if I didn't. I couldn't cope with not being top of my game. I'd be a failure if I didn't win.
Runner B: I really want to win the race but accept that I might not. It would be bad, but not a disaster if I didn't. It would be hard facing up to it, but not impossible. I feel secure that I will have done my best and not winning doesn't mean I am a failure, just that on this occasion there was tough competition.
Which runner experiences the greatest emotional distress? How is runner A likely to feel? What about runner B? Which runner is likely to put in the best performance? Which runner will find it harder to compete next time?
Flexible preferences express what you would like to happen but acknowledge the reality that you may not get it. Even though this situation might be bad, and it might be hard, you can begin to learn to tolerate the difficulty of not getting what you would like.
So for now, I'd like to leave you just to consider your own demandingness. Keep a track and notice the tendency. Once you notice you can begin to relax some of the demands you feel able to let go of.
In summary, beware of the must, shy away from the should.
The other unhelpful beliefs I will deal with in another blog soon and link up to it here.
Ali Binns is a CBT therapist based in Bath. If you're looking for support, please feel free to get in touch using the contact link at the top of the page.