Consider this scenario: You’re at work and discover that a coworker has spread a nasty rumor about you. How would you react?
Understandably, many of us would be quite upset. Furthermore, we would blame the coworker for putting us in a bad mood. Is this assumption correct? Maybe not.
I propose another explanation: negative emotions are caused by the way we think about our misfortune—not by the misfortune itself. You feel the way you think.
In a previous "Cloud Nine" article, I discussed how mindfulness enables us to know that we are separate from our unwanted thoughts. However, there is another technique, based on Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy1 (REBT), which allows us to address upsetting thoughts in a much different way.
Rather than adjusting the way that we perceive distressing thoughts, this approach helps us directly challenge and change them. Although REBT is traditionally done with the help of a therapist, you can reap many of the benefits of this technique by practicing on your own. As always, if you are experiencing severe emotional pain, seek the help of a local trained professional who can give you individualized treatment.
The purpose of REBT is to stop our self-defeating, habitual beliefs that inevitably lead to psychological pain. It makes no sense to continue thinking in a way that causes you to be unhappy. Of course, this is more difficult than it sounds; it takes a lot of hard work to change habitual thoughts. However, scientific evidence shows that the effort is worth it; this technique has shown to be effective in boosting wellbeing.2
Learning to change your thoughts is as easy as learning the first four letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, and D.3 To try this “alphabet” technique, I recommend that you write down your answers to the following questions, review them often, and revise them as you find necessary. Let’s go through this exercise together, continuing with the example of a coworker spreading a rumor.
Adversity: What happened in your life that is causing you to feel negative emotions (anxiety, depression, anger, etc.)? Be specific.
A coworker spread a false rumor about me.
Beliefs about the adversity: What are your thoughts about this problem? Is it unfair? Upsetting? How does this adversity clash with the way you want things to be? This is your chance to honestly identify what you think about this particular problem.
I don’t like it. It’s not right to spread rumors about people. It’s unfair! I wish this never happened. Everyone at work will think less of me. I want people to judge me for whom I am, not what other people say about me. I don’t want to see this coworker ever again. I can’t stand her!
Consequences of these beliefs: What kinds of emotions are you experiencing as a result of these beliefs? What kinds of actions are you taking? How do these beliefs and actions make you feel? Are they pleasant or unpleasant?
I’m anxious about going to work. I’m also angry and frustrated that this happened to me. I feel nervous imagining what everyone thinks about me. I also feel depressed that I might have to quit my job. I barely slept last night and ate almost nothing for dinner. And I’m furious with my coworker! I don’t like the way this feels.
At this point, we’ve established that some adversity occurred, and, more importantly, the beliefs we have about this problem are causing unpleasant and painful consequences. Even if these thoughts are totally justified and technically true, we must acknowledge that they are not making us happy. They need to be challenged and changed. Here’s how:
Dispute upsetting beliefs: Are these beliefs true? Why? How do you know? Are they logical? Where is the proof or the evidence? Do these beliefs make you feel happy and healthy? Does it make sense to keep thinking them? If not, what new beliefs about this problem would make you feel better?
Well, I’m not 100% sure that everyone will believe this rumor. Maybe they’ll just forget about it or won’t take it seriously. This rumor is upsetting me, but I don’t even know how people are going to react. I might be worrying about all of this for nothing! Even if some people do believe this rumor, I know who I am and anybody who really knows me won’t believe it. It’s too bad that this coworker said this nasty thing about me, but it’s already done. I’m only in control of how I respond to this situation and how I feel now.
The efficacy of the alphabet technique depends on whether or not you really believe that your happiness is affected by the way you think. Research in this area overwhelmingly indicates that negative thinking is related to lower wellbeing. One experiment found that participants who thought privately about a negative event reported less life satisfaction (an important component of happiness), compared to a control group.4 Indeed, negative thinking doesn’t just stop you from feeling good; it causes you to be unhappy.
After trying this technique, you may discover that you’ve been thinking in a self-defeating manner for years. If your beliefs are interfering with your happiness, it will take time and determination to change them. As you practice the alphabet technique, your thinking will have less and less of a harmful impact on your wellbeing. Instead, your thoughts will be transformed into reminders of your self-worth, confidence, and beauty. Rather than obstacles thwarting our attainment of wellbeing, thoughts can be essential allies as we persevere on our happiness journey.
1 Ellis, A. (1999). Why rational emotive therapy to rational emotive behavior therapy? Psychotherapy, 36, 154-159. 2 Engels, G. I., Garnefski, N., & Diekstra, R. (1993). Efficacy of rational-emotive therapy: A quantitative analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61, 1083-1090. 3 Powers. M. (2003). The Dragon Slayer with a Heavy Heart. North Hollywood, CA: Wilshire Book Company. 4 Lyubomirsky, S., Sousa, L., Dickerhoof, R. (2006). The costs and benefits of writing, talking, and thinking about life's triumphs and defeats. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 692-708.
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