Changing Your Belief System

In this earlier post we discovered how we learn, retain information, and form habits both good and bad. We learned that the brain forms neural networks, based upon our experiences, that these produce thoughts, beliefs, and actions, both healthy and unhealthy, and at times we seem to have little control over them.

Some of our habits and beliefs become really well ingrained from long and frequent usage, and it sometimes seems as though we are powerless to change them. When we combine an intrinsically addictive substance with an unhealthy belief system we have a combination that seems nearly impossible to overcome. People just like us do exactly that, though, as we learned in this post. Perhaps they used the tool I’m about to teach you, but most, like myself, weren’t even aware that it existed.

We are going to be using this tool throughout the rest of the book, so it makes sense to introduce the main points all in one place, so you can refer back to it, if necessary, as you move along. It sounds complicated at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s really very simple.

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) is a system of therapy, and a school of thought established by Dr. Albert Ellis in the mid 1950’s. REBT was one of the first cognitive behavior therapies, and one that lends itself well to both professional use and self-help. The basic premise of REBT is that we are not effected emotionally by events themselves, but by how we interpret them based upon our perceptions, attitudes, and the language we use to describe them.

If we’re watching a football game and a team scores a touchdown, that’s an event. How we feel about that event depends upon which team we happen to be rooting for.

It’s not a new philosophy. These ideas were first expressed by the “Stoic” school in ancient Greece, most notably by Epictetus, who wrote in the first century CE: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.” In other words, it’s not the events of daily life that upset us, but our perceptions and interpretations, which form our beliefs about them.

Most of us want to be happy, not miserable, anxious, or depressed. We want to get along with others, be well informed, well educated, have a good job that stimulates us and we want to enjoy our leisure time. Unfortunately, things don’t always work-out the way we plan them. Sometimes, our goals are blocked by events we have little or no control over.

Albert Ellis and REBT advance the theory that our reaction to having our goals blocked is determined by our beliefs. Dr. Ellis developed an ABC format to illustrate the process of changing our belief system. The premise of this book is that we can overcome our addictive behaviors by reprogramming our responses to events either inside or outside of ourselves, and this is the nuts-and-bolts of how we do this.

A. The Activating event — can be an actual event, or it can be a thought or idea

B. Your Belief about the activating event — your perception, or belief about the “A”

C. The Consequences of your belief — an emotional or behavioral reaction

An example might be:

A. Your employer calls you into her office and criticizes you for messing-up an assignment.

B. You believe that you are a failure who will never be able to do your job, and/or will soon be fired, and to lose your job would be unbearable.

C. You feel depressed, sorry for yourself and extremely anxious. When you leave work, you stop at the bar on the way home….

In the REBT model, it is not the “A” that causes the “C”, it is the “B”, or our belief about the “A”. In the example above, it’s not the reprimand that caused you to feel depressed, and eventually drink, it was your belief that falling short of your employer’s expectations on this particular assignment meant that you were a failure, would probably soon be fired, and that to be fired would be unbearable.

Looking at this example rationally, we can see that not doing well on a single assignment certainly does not make you, or anyone else, a failure. You are not a failure, and using this language to describe yourself is anything but helpful. Of course you can learn to do your job, and use of the word “never” is irrational. You have no evidence that you are going to be fired over this incident, and even if you did, people get fired all the time. The experience, although not pleasant, is certainly bearable. You can see in this example that the beliefs were unhealthy, irrational, and led directly to the consequences.

We express ourselves differently, but the beliefs that upset us are all variations of three common irrational beliefs. Each of these three beliefs contains a demand, either about ourselves, other people, or the world at large. Collectively, they are known in REBT as “The Three basic Musts.”

  1. must do well and win the approval of others for my performances or else I am no good.
  2. Other people must treat me considerately, fairly, kindly, and in exactly the way I wish to be treated. If they don’t, they are no good and deserve to be condemned and punished.
  3. must get what I want, when I want it; and I must not get what I don’t want. It’s terrible if I don’t get what I want, and I can’t stand it.

Number one above often leads to anxiety, depression, shame, and guilt. The second often leads to rage and acts of violence. The third can lead to self-pity and procrastination. It is the demanding nature of these irrational beliefs that causes emotional upset. Less demanding, more flexible beliefs lead to healthy emotions and helpful behaviors.

The goal of REBT is to help you change your irrational beliefs, such as those in the example above, to rational beliefs. The process we use to accomplish this is called Disputing, and it becomes the “D” in the REBT “ABC” model. We have learned our current belief system and the behaviors that usually follow. Disputing the beliefs is the best method to learn new behaviors. If we do nothing about the beliefs, and work only on the behaviors, relying upon will power alone, we will increase our risk of relapse.

Disputing beliefs is a two-part process. First, we can question the belief to determine if it’s rational, and secondly, we proceed to replace the irrational belief with a rational one. These three questions that we can use to test our beliefs are an adaptation of Dr. Maxie C. Maultsby’s “Five Criteria for Rational Thinking.”

  1. Is my thinking based upon fact? If we had a camera recording the scene, would the camera show the scene the same way my thoughts reflect it, or would the image be different? A camera can only record whatever is in front of it, neither adding nor detracting from the scene. The human brain, on the other hand, does not have that limitation. Our brains can add to, subtract from, or otherwise distort the image based upon what we already think or believe about what we’re seeing. It’s important that we look at the situation as though we were a camera recording it, perceiving only what’s actually happening.
  2. Does my thinking help me achieve my short and long term goals? Any thought that does not help you achieve your goals, or is contrary to them would not pass this test. Beliefs such as “I’ll just have one drink,” when you have plenty of evidence that this is impossible, and your goal is abstinence, would fail this test (and the first test as well).
  3. Does my thinking help me feel the way I want to feel? If you are feeling an emotion you do not want to feel, the thinking or belief that’s causing the feelings does not pass the third rational question. Consider how the belief makes you feel. Is it a positive emotion, or are you feeling an emotion you don’t want to feel?

Let’s look at our little example above in terms of these three questions. We’ll begin by looking at the beliefs:

You believe that you are a failure who will never be able to do your job. Is this based upon objective fact? How could it be? If you were indeed a failure, you probably would have been fired a long time ago. You don’t fail at every task, do you? Does this kind of thinking help you achieve your short or long-term goals? If your goal includes advancing at your job, this type of thinking surely seems like it would be a hindrance. After all, “failed” employees seldom achieve success at any job. Does this belief help you feel the way you want to feel? Not unless you like to exist in the depths of depression, it doesn’t.

You will soon be fired, and to lose your job would be unbearable. Is the first part of this really true? Did your supervisor give you a warning that you were close to the axe? Perhaps she did, and perhaps she didn’t. If she didn’t, what makes you think that the belief is valid and true? Would it really be unbearable to lose your job? Lots of people lose jobs, every single day, and they go on to search for another one. Perhaps you have even been let-go before. You “bore it,” didn’t you? You found this job, you will find another one. Looking at this belief in terms of your goals, if you need to improve your skills to advance, how much motivation to do that will you have if you “believe” that you will shortly be let go? These kinds of beliefs are counter-productive, and will only increase your anxiety levels.

Hopefully, by disputing these irrational beliefs, the “D” of the REBT model, we arrive at “E,” which represents the new set of consequences, or outcomes based upon the rational beliefs we put in place of the irrational beliefs. Now, our “ABCDE” model looks like this:

A. Your employer calls you into her office and criticizes you for messing-up an assignment.

B. You believe that you are a failure who will never be able to do your job, and/or you will soon be fired, and to lose your job would be unbearable.

C. You feel depressed, sorry for yourself and extremely anxious. When you leave work, you stop at the bar on the way home….

D. You are NOT a failure, if you were, she would have simply let you go. Of course you can properly complete the assignment, you just need to work a little harder or smarter. If you believe you will soon lose your job, you will not have the motivation to improve your performance, and being fired might become a self-fulling prophecy. Even if you were to lose this job, you could find another.

E. You feel a little down, but you understand what you did wrong, and tell yourself that you will try harder on the next assignment. You are grateful that your supervisor knows that you are capable of doing your job.

We all think irrationally at times, and eliminating this kind of thinking is always a work in progress. We will most likely never eliminate the tendency to think irrationally, but we can reduce the frequency, the duration, and the intensity of our irrational beliefs. We first have to realize that we don’t just get upset. We upset ourselves by holding and nurturing inflexible, irrational beliefs. We cling to them, because they represent the familiar, but the only way to eliminate the unhealthy feelings is to work hard at changing our beliefs.

Each time we successfully notice an irrational belief, dispute it, and change the associated feelings and behaviors, we create a new neural network, or strengthen an existing one. With continued practice, this new network will eventually supersede the old, so that the same activating event will evoke healthy beliefs and positive outcomes.

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5 Responses to Changing Your Belief System

  1. Bill Frayer says:

    Excellent post. good to connect to Ellis’ work, Pete.

  2. Pingback: Day 29: I am not my emotions. | Nothing is original

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  4. Jim says:

    Awesome subject and explanation. Recently I have noticed that my perception is a direct result of my day. Oh how I love a pity party but to refinish those beliefs and basically calling BS is so logical it’s astonishing. I’ve also been concerned with my belief system. I understood it was in place but wasn’t sure how to change it, with the practiced outlined above I can see how a new, stronger system can over take it

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