How we become angry, and how to choose a different response

Dr. Albert Ellis
Dr. Albert Ellis

I write this post for the holidays, a time when families and loved ones come together but don’t always get along.

This post is dedicated to Dr. Albert Ellis, who developed Rational Emotive Therapy (REBT), a powerful form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as an alternative to standard psychoanalysis when he realized many patients weren’t getting better after years of therapy.  REBT was inspired by Dr. Ellis’s exposure to Stoicism and Buddhism.  In fact, to explain REBT, Dr. Ellis often quotes Epictetus, an ancient Greek Stoic philosopher: “Men are disturbed not by events, but by the views which they take of them.”

Dr. Ellis explains:

1.When we become upset, it often a sign that we hold inflexible, unrealistic beliefs that color how we perceive events.
2.No matter when and how we start upsetting ourselves, we continue to feel upset because we cling to our irrational beliefs.
3.The way to feel better is to work hard at changing our beliefs. It takes practice, practice, practice.

Thus, he created the ABC model that Dr. Martin Seligman cited in his books Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness.

A= Adversity: an event that we perceive as negative

B= Belief: the thoughts or self-talk that arise in our mind in response to this event

C= Consequence: the emotions and feelings we experience arise as a result of our thoughts

Recognizing that B causes C, not A, he created a technique called Disputation, which involves identifying B and responding to and altering the habitual mental patterns that lead to C.  Often, we experience anger as a result of someone (including ourselves) violating our implicit expectations of shoulds, musts, oughts, demands and needs. We blame the perpetrator rather than acknowledge it is those expectations that are the culprit.

In his book, “The Myth of Self-Esteem: How Rational Emotive Therapy Can Change Your Life Forever,” Dr. Ellis provides a list of suggestions for disputing anger-generating beliefs (p. 232-233):

  • Don’t blame others for making you angry. You greatly add to their contributions
  • You’re not annoying me– . I’m choosing to take you too seriously.
  • You’re depriving me is not awful–only inconvenient.
  • You can easily frustrate me–but only I can whine about your doing so.
  • Like but don’t expect others to return your favors.
  • Accept other’s enormous fallibility.
  • People who frustrate me act badly but [that doesn’t make them bad people]
  • No one can guarantee to love you [the way you demand to be loved.]
  • You can stand rejection and refusal.
  • I never need you to fulfill myself–though that would be nice!
  • My demand that you treat me nicely is not exactly a preference!
  • I really wish you would act better but my wish is hardly your command.
  • Where did I get the idea that people must absolutely be on time?
  • Is this really going to matter that much tomorrow, next week, or years from now?
  • Anger towards others will frequently stop me from getting what I want.
  • Anger makes me obsess about the behavior of other people I find distasteful. Thoroughly wasteful!
  • What are the advantages of holding on to my anger? What are the advantages of letting go?

According to Dr. Ellis, the key to achieving a life of well-being and social harmony is to adopt the belief system that all people have intrinsic self-worth, and that life is intrinsically worthwhile, and even if events happen that could be considered negative, for the most part, we can stand it, learn from it and move on.

He explains we can save ourselves a lot of self-created stress, anger, anxiety, and frustration if we shift our life paradigm from seeking self-esteem through achievement, comparative status, and external validation to a life paradigm of unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional other acceptance, and unconditional life acceptance. If we don’t tie our self-worth to our thoughts, behaviors, successes, performances, social status, and wealth, we would be less compelled by ego-aggrandizing habits and patterns.  That would free us to understand what really inspires us and to pursue true self-fulfillment and self-realization.

The key is to acknowledge that a person is not their thoughts, feelings and emotions, responses, speech, actions, habits, behaviors, and performances. So no person, including yourself, can ever be rated or evaluated as a self, totality, essence, or being. A person can only be described by points in time, and is constantly evolving and changing.  We are only capable of rating and evaluating a person’s thoughts, feelings and emotions, responses, speech, actions, habits, behaviors, and performances at certain points in time.  They are not necessarily tied to or predictive of the future, nor can they be used as measures of a person’s intrinsic worth.  As stated in the Bible, we can judge and condemn the sin, but not the sinner. All people have the potential for change.

I hope the holidays for all are blessed with harmony, love and peace.  But if there is a bit of exasperation thrown in, I hope the REBT tools will help.

Written by duecalmclarity

Due Quach (pronounced “Zway Kwok”) is the founder of Calm Clarity, a social enterprise that uses science to help people across the socioeconomic spectrum master their minds and be their best self. Calm Clarity creates social impact by using revenues from corporate training services to deliver the same high quality training to disadvantaged groups such as low-income first-generation college students and inner city teenagers. A refugee from Vietnam and graduate of Harvard College and the Wharton MBA Program, Due overcame the long-term effects of poverty and trauma by turning to neuroscience and meditation. After building a successful career in management consulting and private equity investments, she created Calm Clarity to help more people overcome adversity and unlock their potential.

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