Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Rules That Guide Us

We have rules that guide our behaviour many (if not all) of which we are unaware! Psychologists tell us that we behave as we do because of certain rules we have constructed over time. These rules are so deeply ingrained in our subconscious that we would find it hard to articulate the rationale for doing what we do or feeling how we feel. The great Albert Ellis said:

“Too many people are unaware that it is not outer events or circumstances that will create happiness; rather, it is our perception of events and of ourselves that will create, or uncreate, positive emotions.” Albert Ellis Quotes

Where do these rules come from? Do we learn them from others and if they are unconscious ‘belief rules’ how can we get to know them? I think it’s true to say that our ‘rules of engagement’ with the world around us are indeed learned but what’s the likelihood of ever learning what they are? This would be insightful, new knowledge which would have benefits for the learner. What if some or most of these ‘thinking rules’ were unhelpful or self-defeating? Knowing this we could then, if we so chose, find better ways of seeing the world; perceiving it in a different way.

Our reality is forged within the contexts in which we are socialised. Every interaction we have with others and with our environment, our ‘habitus,’ will determine how we view ourselves, others and the world in general.

‘Habitus is one of Pierre Bourdieu’s most influential yet ambiguous concepts. It refers to the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences.’ Habitus

Our learning within our ‘habitus’ is connected to events and happenings but do they themselves constitute our experience of them or is there other things to factor into the equation? When we are subject to an event or happening we are called upon to assess that happening. What does it mean? If a young person (let’s call her Sally) consistently sees positive examples of interaction between others and herself where each player shows respect and kindness to each other she will draw certain conclusions about what she experiences, she will attach meaning or meanings to those events. These meanings are constructed by the individual in relation to what is happening around her.

‘People construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.’ Constructivism

What kind of ‘thinking rules’ might the young person have constructed which will inform and direct the choices she will make in various situations? According to Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) theory created by Dr. Albert Ellis in the 1950’s we construct ‘habits of thinking’ that can be either helpful (rational) or unhelpful (irrational) in pursuing the goals we set ourselves. Those that are helpful to us are characterised by attitudes that accommodate the unfairness and unpredictability of life. For example when confronted with a problem, the resilient person may feel disappointed/inconvenienced. Another person who is less resilient may experience extreme anger and embitterment. These contrasting dispositions are linked a particular mindset of each individual which each has constructed and which guide how each feels and behaves.
Sally would believe that:

She doesn’t expect things to always go her way and when problems arise she can handle the inconvenience. The situation is not catastrophic, there are many more issues that cold be worse than this. Life can be unfair but she expects that his can be so!

Another might believe:

Things must be the way she wants them to be. This should not happen and she can’t stand this big imposition. Life is unfair and bad things always happen to her! This is the worst thing that can happen!
Each perspective or estimation of the event will result in different behavioural and emotional consequences for each. The event is not entirely to blame for the behavioural and emotional outcomes experienced by the person. According to Marcus Aurelius:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” Marcus Aurelius 180AD

Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius

These ideas have been around for millennia and Albert Ellis incorporated this philosophy in his Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy counselling/psychotherapy model. Can these principles be conveyed to students in the school setting?

They can and have been introduced to students in many schools (preschool – year 12) around Australia very successfully. Giulio oversees the implementation of Rational Emotive Behaviour Education in his school in South Australia. This is the fourth year this whole school mental health education/promotion/prevention program has been in place and outcomes have been very positive to date for students. He has set up the Centre 4 Rational Emotive Behaviour Education which provides free professional learning to educators, counsellors and allied agency workers. This is the third year of its operation and feedback is always very positive in terms of its usefulness to participants who attend the ten workshop program.

The workshops cover the understanding and application of REBT in the school setting. The application of REBT in daily teaching practice is called Rational Emotive Behaviour Education. For more information about workshops and other questions regarding REBE please contact Giulio on lozzog@gmail.com.

You can also visit his blog REBTOZ for more information and blogs about REBT/REBE. You might find this article about how to teach REBT using Shakespeare’s Hamlet useful CBT Today, Volume 43 Number 1 or using nursery rhymes to illustrate REBT principles here Psychology Today.  


  1. Thanks for the useful information. Your article is beneficial for us and those who are searching for self esteem counselling.

  2. Thank you for your feedback Alok. I feel happy that you found this useful. All the best. Namaste!