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What is REBT? It's as Simple as ABC!

Andrew McNaughton, LCSW, CADC, Symmetry Counseling Chicago

Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) is a therapeutic discipline developed by Dr. Albert Ellis in 1956 that focuses on identifying and disputing irrational beliefs. Its basis can be summed up by the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus, who said, “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.”

The main tools of REBT are the ABC’s:

A is the Activating Event, or more specifically, my perception or inference of the event.
B is my Belief.
C is the Consequence, whether it be emotional or behavioral.

The Activating Event does not make me feel or act the Consequence; rather it is through my Belief about the Activating Event that I make myself feel or act the Consequence. I am telling myself the Belief about the Activating Event to make myself feel the Consequence, and if the Consequence results in anger, resentment, shame, anxiety, or depression, then my Belief is almost certainly irrational.

Here’s an example: While driving, I am cut off by a careless and imprudent driver (my Activating Event), to which I respond with seething anger (my Consequence). What am I telling myself (my Belief) about being cut off to make myself feel angry? That I can’t stand to be cut off! That the driver is a stupid jerk! That nobody must ever cut me off ever! And that it is terrible!

Notice I identified multiple Beliefs. These Irrational Beliefs tend to fall under four categories: 1.) low frustration tolerance a.k.a. whining, 2.) labeling/damnation, 3.) demanding, and 4.) catastrophizing. If one can be identified, often all four are present.

D is the Disputation.

Disputing Irrational Beliefs consists of asking: 1.) Is there any evidence my Belief is true? And 2.) Is there any benefit to telling myself Belief, even if Belief is proven to be true? The answers to both of these questions is almost always a resounding “NO!”

Continuing with my example, I can ask myself, is it truly intolerable to be cut off? Of course not. Do I truly know this driver is a stupid jerk? Not necessarily; because perhaps the driver is rushing their injured child to a hospital. And even if the driver is intentionally being a stupid jerk towards me, how do I benefit from making myself angry over their actions? I don’t. Can I control what other drivers do on the road to the extent that it is rational for me to make demands on them? Again, of course not.

Lastly, is being cut off truly terrible? In the classic movie Jurassic Park, one of my favorite scenes is when the paleontologist played by Sam Neill describes in detail to a petulant child what it is like to be eaten alive by a pack of velociraptors, something I would consider to be truly terrible. Being cut off in traffic seems relatively manageable by comparison.

E is my Effective Coping Statement, a new way of thinking about the Activating Event.

The goal of REBT is to put negative emotions into a rational context. Having disputed my Irrational Beliefs about being cut off in traffic, I can now rationally tell myself that, while I don’t like being cut off, I can’t control how others drive, whether they are having an emergency or deliberately messing with me. I can tolerate it because it is not as bad as, for example, being eaten alive by velociraptors. Since I don’t benefit from making myself angry about something out of my control, I can instead respond proportionally with annoyance, frustration, and concern.

These are the ABC’s of REBT. It is a simple concept but requires a lot of practice. If you would like to learn more about REBT, I suggest looking up the Albert Ellis Institute, SMART Recovery Online, or contact me to set an appointment for individual psychotherapy at Symmetry Counseling.

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