Is your thinking creating an inner disturbance?
One of the sayings frequently found in the self-help literature is attributed to Epictetus, "men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them". In other words, he suggests that our misery and emotional pain are not inevitable, and that our thinking process plays the central role in creating them.
Is Epictetus right about this?
Certainly, recent research has suggested that 40% of our happiness is due to how we interpret what happens in our lives and so attitude and world view play a key role in our joy and in our misery. For our purposes here, though, it is not important to debate how right he was, but rather consider how our thinking might disturb us, and how we might change it in order to feel better.
How might our thinking disturb us?
One vital distinction that can be made is between an event upsetting us and allowing an event to disturb us. With the former, there is a recognition of the commonsensical view that certain things happen in the world that sadden us, or make us angry or unnerve us; indeed, unless we believed in some kind of mythical serenity, it is not difficult to admit that the world does affect us. With the latter, however, there is a distinct sense of catastrophe, as your way of understanding the world has been disturbed by what was dreaded or deeply disliked having happened. So one way of understanding emotional disturbance is that it is caused by the person believing that what happened should not have happened.
The therapist that has most thoroughly explored this issue is Albert Ellis, founder of rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT). What he proposed is that when we disturb ourselves, our world view, and therefore our thinking patterns, reflect an irrational tendency of demanding that the world, ourselves and others obey our own expectations. In short, it is our explicit or implicit demands that transform an upsetting event into a disturbing one.
A quick example will illustrate this: While being on the receiving end of a nasty put down from a colleague would make most people feel hurt and angry, if your belief is that ‘others shouldn’t/mustn’t put me down’ then there is a good chance that you might fly into a rage. This is because you will feel that what was wrong was especially wrong as it violated what you believe things should be like.
Working with our unhelpful thinking
If this depiction of how you get distressed makes sense to you, then the first thing to note is that there is an important difference between having preferences and making demands. The reason why this is important is that our demands are based on the idea that we have an inner rulebook that determines how things should/must be, and there is no room for reality to contradict what you expect. Preferences are quite different; in this case, we have our likes and dislikes, but we appreciate the fundamental existential fact that the world and other people need not behave in ways that we want them to (even we do not always live up to our demands!). Another way of putting this is that the world is not some Aladdin-like genie who says, "your wish is my command!".
So the most basic way of changing the thinking that is disturbing you is this:
- When you feel unduly distressed, sit down and examine the event and try to uncover what your unhelpful beliefs are about what has happened (your ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’). Ellis’ ABC model is particularly helpful here, where ‘A’ stands for adverse event, ‘B’ for beliefs and ‘C’ for consequences (how you felt and what you did). You can therefore write down a description of what happened (the ‘A’), then what you felt and did (‘C’) before uncovering what you believed (‘B’).
- Once you have your unhelpful beliefs written down, you can start to change them. There are two basic ways of doing this: Firstly, you can swap a demand for a preference ‘I am (very) upset about what has happened, and would have preferred a different outcome, but I do not need things to have gone that way’; what is key here is that you keep on practising the rational belief again and again, while making it clear to yourself that it is not written down anywhere that what you want must happen. Secondly, another important way of changing your beliefs is to argue against them by finding out for yourself why they are untrue and why they are self-defeating.
If you find the following suggestions helpful, then you can practice them as part of your self-care and/or you can try them out with a counsellor sympathetic to the REBT/CBT approach.