Saturday, 24 July 2010

Sofia's Story

Sofia was new to the country and was vivacious and good humoured. She was an enthusiastic student, who worked hard at her studies and had a wide circle of friends. She had a ready smile and a caring nature, sensitive to the needs of others, a delight to teach.

On many occasions she would accompany me on yard duty and we would talk about things and inevitably the topic of discussion would turn to friendships and her concern about a particular student who did not seem to like her. This student would generally ignore her and chose not to associate with her in the classroom or in the yard. Sofia would become tearful and I would ask why she felt so sad. She said that she didn’t understand why this student didn’t seem to want to be her friend as ‘everyone else liked me, why doesn’t she?’ On another occasion Sofia said she wasn’t happy because this student wasn’t her friend and she would say ‘she makes me sad.’ As an REBTer (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy counsellor) I used some of the strategies I learned from Dr. Albert Ellis (creator of REBT). According to Ellis Sofia was ‘musturbating,’ that is believing that her fellow student ‘must’ like her and that it was so awful (awfulising) that she couldn’t stand it. To add to her sadness Sofia believed that there must be something wrong with her! There must be something about her that the other student didn’t like and that this was all Sofia’s fault!

And so our discussions began to take on a philosophical note. I asked Sofia how this other person ‘made’ her sad. Sofia said that she ‘should’ be my friend and if she was then she could be happy. So I said, ‘you feel sad because she won’t be your friend and that you can only be happy if she becomes your friend.’ Sofia agreed that this was so and this became the basis of our further talks. We talked about a ‘perfect world’ and what that meant. We agreed that it would be nice if everyone we liked liked us in return and that everything we wanted to achieve we achieved. We talked about perfectionism and how it was unrealistic to expect that everything should go our way all the time. We can work hard to get an A+ and fall short, we can try to make friends with others we like but we may not always meet their approval. This is the way the world works. Sofia agreed and could see the wisdom of what we were talking about. So we returned to what Sofia believed, what her philosophy about herself, others and the world was. Sofia understood that her unrealistic oughting, shoulding and musting were making her sadness (‘she should like me’, ‘I must get her approval’, ‘she is bad because she won’t be my friend’, ‘I am unlikeable, I can’t stand this and it’s awful’). This insight was the turning point for Sofia, as she understood that her desire for a perfect world was an unrealistic expectation. I asked her, ‘must other people you like always like you in return?’ ‘Is it awful when you don’t get an A+ for your assignments even when you tried your best?’ ‘Are others bad if they don’t approve of you or like you?’ ‘Are you an unlikeable no good person because she doesn’t approve of you?’ Sofia answered with a resounding ‘NO!’

So we talked about helpful, rational thinking that would be healthier. I asked Sofia to challenge and change some of the errant beliefs she held to be true.

I said, ‘must you always do well and achieve your goals.’ Sofia said, ‘No. It is better to believe that, ‘I will work hard to achieve my goals. I would like to achieve my goals but I don’t always have to.’ Why is this better?’ I asked. ‘It is not realistic to always get what you want. That is not how the world works!’ she said. She added that she would keep trying anyway.

What about the belief that, ‘people you like must like you in return and always approve of you?’ Sofia said, ‘this is not realistic either. People don’t have to like me. They can make their own choices.’

What about the belief, ‘you are unlikeable; you have nothing to like. You are a nerd.’ Sofia said, ‘this is not true. I have other friends. I have many positive qualities so I can’t be worthless or unlikeable!’

So it transpired that Sofia became more comfortable with herself and the world and she could now accommodate and accept that her fellow student did not want to be her friend, that it was OK, that it was disappointing but not awful and she was still OK. She didn’t need her approval at all!

Dr Ellis would say that Sofia’s errant, irrational ‘musturbatory’ philosophical beliefs have been challenged and modified to become more rational (self and other helpful). Thus Sofia is not unhealthily anxious, angry or depressed (unhealthy negative emotions) because she hasn’t got what she wants (to have her fellow class member as a friend). She now tends to be healthily concerned and disappointed (healthy negative emotions) as she would have preferred (and not demanded) to have the friendship and approval of her classmate.

Sofia continued to make progress but she would need the support of her teachers and mentors to reinforce the insights she has made so that she would move beyond intellectual insight onto emotional insight. We will discuss these ideas and more in my next blog entry about Sofia’s progress.

useful links:

Thursday, 15 July 2010

REBT and Constructivism

Constructivist theory says we learn to behave according to what we observe going on around us. Our models of behaviour show us how to get what we want, how to respond to situations and how we can interact with others. If these models are helpful they will teach us that we can wait for things if we have to, that we can respect others (even when we don’t wish to associate with them) and we can remain confident even when we fail at something or suffer the rejection of others. If we live amongst such role models we will internalize (construct) some very useful ‘rules for living.’

Conversely if those around us show low frustration tolerance, who may get what they want through aggression and who take failure and rejection to heart then we are likely to internalise a different set of ‘rules for living.’

Such habits of thinking and behaving (helpful or unhelpful) will determine how successful or not we may be in achieving our goals in life. According to Dr Albert Ellis we can deconstruct those unhelpful ‘habits of thinking’ with a lot of hard work.

For example a person who has learned (believes) that his or her worth is measured according to how well he/she does or how others regard him/her will often experience unhelpful, self destructive feelings such as anger and depression or feel highly anxious a lot of the time. What philosophical ideas lay behind these feelings? What would motivate a person to harm self or others in a pique of anger? Why would a person tend to defer to others in the hope of obtaining, sustaining a ‘must have’ relationship (I need to be liked)?

At my school I observe those who go along with others, who don’t seem to offer any opinion or ideas. Some will give things away to ‘buy’ friendship and others are easily ‘bought’ under the threat of exclusion or dismissal. Others would handle things differently, they don’t seem to be easily intimidated by others and accept that it’s OK when others may not regard them as friends. For these people rejection can be hurtful and disappointing but rarely is it a catastrophe or so awful that it will ‘ruin their lives!’

Dr. Albert Ellis created the ABC Theory of Emotional (and behavioural) Disturbance used by counsellors and therapists the world over. This therapy embraces the ‘wisdom of the ages’ like that of Epictetus in 100AD who observed that ‘events and people don’t make us feel and act as we do but it is the view we take of them.’ Or Buddha who said, ‘what we think we become.’ Many other learned people have made similar assertions over the millennia.

Ellis’ ABC Theory allows us to work with people who have constructed unhealthy and destructive philosophies that cause anger, anxiety and depression in their lives. In doing so he has helped millions of people learn how to better manage themselves behaviourally and emotionally, people who may believe that feelings and behaviour are ‘made’ by other people and other things. Take the case of Sofia, a 12-year-old primary school student from Africa (see the next blog).

For more information about Dr Albert Ellis and REBT visit

NEWSFLASH! Workshop titled REBT Theory and Practice to be held in Adelaide, September 24th. Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis will be co presenting. Don't miss this PD opportunity. Please visit: for more details.