Saturday, 7 August 2010

Sofia's Progress

Thanks to Dr. Albert Ellis’ ABC Theory of Emotional Disturbance we have helped Sofia understand the relationship between thinking, feeling and behaving. She understands that beliefs like, ‘someone I like should like me,’ ‘I need her approval to be worthwhile,’ ‘I am worthless,’ are self defeating because they cause undue sadness, anger and depression, which get in the way of her achieving her goals. These beliefs can be challenged and disproved with evidence.

Dr. Ellis invites us to ‘cherchez le should, cherchez le must’ as we did with Sofia. We determined that Sofia’s sadness and anxiety was caused by her ‘shoulding’ i.e. ‘she should like me. I should get what I want.’ We challenged these self-defeating shoulds and replaced them with self – helpful ‘preferences’ i.e. ‘I would prefer to get what I want but I accept this will not always be so.’

Let’s look at the components of Sofia’s journey so far according to Ellis’ ABC Theory of Emotional Disturbance.

A= Activating event (the issue, what happened). In Sofia’s case the issue is ‘She ignores me.’

B= Beliefs. Sofia believed that she could only be happy if she won her classmates approval. Irrationally she believed that she needed her classmates’ approval to be worthwhile and she should like her. She believed she was worthless because she could not win her approval and this was so awful that she couldn’t stand it.

C= Emotional and behavioural Consequences of A. Sofia felt depressed and anxious (She needed someone’s approval which she believed she must get to feel worthwhile). These feelings were strong (7 – 9 on the Emotional Thermometer)

In Sofia’s story she believed that someone else (her classmate) caused her sadness. She was preoccupied with thoughts like, ‘she should like me, I need her to like me’ etc. According to Ellis’ model Sofia was apportioning blame to someone or something i.e. C is made by A and I can only feel better if A is changed. According to this logic Sofia would like the world to be modified or changed according to her wishes. Can we make Sofia’s classmate like her? Of course we can’t! So it then becomes a matter for Sofia to consider the situation realistically i.e. ‘my classmate ignores me. I am disappointed she doesn’t seem to want my friendship and I accept that. It is not a catastrophe. My worth does not depend on her approval of me. I accept myself.’ In so doing Sofia begins to understand that A does not make C but rather A+B makes C (my beliefs/thinking play a key role in how I feel and behave).

In ‘The Practice of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy’ by Dr Albert Ellis and Windy Dryden intellectual insight in REBT is defined as:

‘an acknowledgement that an irrational belief frequently leads to emotional disturbance and dysfunctional behaviour and that a rational belief always abets emotional health.’

It can be said that Sofia has attained Intellectual Insight, that is she understands and accepts the premise that A + B makes C and not solely A, the activating event. For Sofia her journey towards sustained emotional and behavioural well-being has just begun and will be work in progress for the rest of her life. Dr. Ellis says that Sofia will continue to develop herself to the point of achieving Emotional Insight, which in REBT is defined as:

‘a strong and frequently held belief that a rational idea is helpful (Ellis, 1963). When a person has achieved Emotional Insight he or she will tend to THINK, FEEL and BEHAVE according to the rational belief.’

We have looked at A, B and C of Dr Ellis’ Theory of Emotional Disturbance but now it is timely to consider D and E in relation to Sofia’s personal development.

D = Disputation of irrational beliefs, the rigorous challenging of ingrained and well practiced unhelpful habits of thinking that undermine our confidence and ability to function in a healthy way. Dr. Ellis would encourage his students to, ‘work, work, work’ at challenging and changing those beliefs that were harmful and self-defeating. So how is D used to help Sofia on her onward journey to Emotional Insight? Sofia believed she needed the approval of her classmate to feel worthwhile. Thinking she must have the approval of someone she liked, was causing her anxiety and deep sadness because her sense of wellbeing depended so much on how a significant other viewed her. What others thought about Sofia mattered more than what Sofia thought about herself and this placed her in a very vulnerable position. She would continue to be at the mercy of significant others for her sense of well-being and happiness unless she learned how to unconditionally accept herself. Dr. Ellis’ Unconditional Self Acceptance (USA) would rid Sofia of the need to be approved of by others and hence become more confident and self reliant.

I spoke to Sofia about the damage that can be caused by believing that it is ‘absolutely necessary to have the approval of people we like and if not we cannot be happy and that we must be liked by them or it is awful and we cannot stand it!’ Sofia could relate to this unrealistic demand she made of herself and she asked where it came from, ‘why do I think like this?’ REBT theory says that we are born with the tendency to think rationally and irrationally. The environment in which we are raised is a strong determinant of our patterns of thinking and behaving. I explained to Sofia that she had learned some unhelpful rules from the environment in which she was/is raised. I explained that the idea that we can ‘be’ good or ‘be’ bad is a faulty way of thinking (Dr Ellis cautioned us about retaining the self defeating belief in ‘being’ good and bad). I had talked to Sofia before about USA (Unconditional Self Acceptance), the belief that we are made up of many different traits and capabilities and this being the case it is impossible to ‘be’ good or bad. In other words being good would mean a person has no bad traits or negative characteristics at all, a proposition that can be challenged. Conversely being bad would mean a person could have no positive traits or positive characteristics, which again can be challenged. I suggested that she would possibly have been told what a good girl she was whenever she did something ‘good’ like completing a task or using her manners etc. Logically Sofia may have determined that if she ‘is good’ when she ‘does good’ then it follows that she must ‘be bad’ when she ‘does bad!’ So Dr Ellis invites us to view ourselves as being neither good nor bad but worthwhile (I accept myself warts and all).

Sofia and I talked about how it would be to believe that our worth did not depend on how others viewed us. How more confident would we be knowing that another’s rejection of us could never take away our worth? I asked Sofia how much a $50 note was worth. She said it could buy certain things and this was proof of its $50 value. I agreed and then asked Sofia to scrunch the note as tightly as she could. She thought this was an odd request but she humored me and proceeded anyway. I then asked her to stand on the note and she did. I asked her to unfurl the note as it was very wrinkled and twisted. It was intact but was not as smooth as it had been and I asked Sofia what it was worth. She said it retained its worth of $50 and that it had not changed. I suggested that our worth could be viewed similarly in that even when we are ‘wrinkled and twisted and battered and bruised’ our worth is never diminished i.e. we can be criticized, rejected and even fail at some things but we retain the worth we already had, we are worthwhile no matter what. Sofia understood this and found it a useful illustration of what we had been talking about. She said she would remind herself often and with conviction that she was always worthwhile no matter what and she would unconditionally accept herself. Dr. Ellis would have been most pleased to know that Sofia had made so much progress in her journey towards Unconditional Self Acceptance which would allow her to achieve her goals to live with less (unhealthy) anxiety and extreme sadness and with more healthy concern and regret. Dr Ellis says:

"To help people gain unconditional self-acceptance and to believe that they are okay or are good just because they exist had better be taught to all children in the course of their schooling, from early childhood onward."

For Sofia to achieve Emotional Insight it is essential that her school has the capacity to further Sofia’s development throughout her education. How can this be done? What can schools do?