“With a series of incisive insights, Michael Edelstein cuts through the psychological jargon and makes clear how all of us can effect powerful changes in our psyches, in our lives, and in the lives of our loved ones.”
Of course, it takes significantly longer than three minutes to dislodge the many dysfunctional aspects of a troubled personality. But the clear and simple exercises advocted by Dr. Edelstein, exercises that are totally consistent with my principles of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, can be practiced in three-minute segments, to be repeated several times a day for maximum benefit.
Most people do not know how to change their neurotic thoughts and actions in order to reduce their disturbed feelings. I witnessed this in my patients after I had practiced as a psychoanalyst for six years in the early 1950s. I created Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy in order to solve this important problem in my practice and began using the system in January of 1955. It became quickly apparent that this system was a highly efficient form of psychotherapy that, over time, quickly identified problems in thousands of my patients. As Drs. Edelstein and Steele so ably point out, the three-minute exercises must be practiced regularly and conscientiously, and in serious cases, perhaps for years, since it probably took many years for those seriously disturbed to develop the dysfunctional or neurotic thought patterns that have created the problems.
As humans, we seem to have a talent for disturbing ourselves about innumerable unpleasant events that occur in our lives. We then may react to these "adversities" by making ourselves feel sorry, displeased, or disappointed--all normal reactions. But then we may also feel panicked, depressed, enraged, self-downing, and self-pitying about these unfortunate life experiences, reactions likely to make us miserable and to send us to a therapist for help.
REBT shows you, clearly and precisely, how you needlessly and unhealthily upset yourself, and it gives you many thinking, feeling, and action methods of reducing your disturbances while still retaining your main goals, values, and preferences. If you keep using these methods, you are more likely to be less disturbed and less "disturbable." There are no magic solutions, however, only serious effort.
But as Drs. Edelstein and Steele emphasize, starting to "undisturb" yourself whenever you are really upset can usually be done in three minutes. Continuing to do so takes longer. With the good headstart offered in Three Minute Therapy you can be well on your way.
Of all the books that explain REBT in simple, clear, and highly usable form, Three Minute Therapy is one of the very best. The authors include the main theories and practices of REBT and specifically tell you how to apply them to your own problems. No, this is not a self-help encyclopedia, but it tells you almost everything you will want to know about using REBT in your own life. Read it carefully, several times. Try its methods, many times. Practice is essential.
Every time you heed its three-minute approach you may start to add months and years of healthier and happier existence to your living. Try it and see!
Albert Ellis, Ph.D.
Past President, Albert Ellis Institute
for Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy
Previous article: Preface: What This Book Can Do For You
If you read Three Minute Therapy and consider what it says, you will find yourself looking at the world in a different way. Emotional troubles-your own and other people’s-will seem less mysterious and less powerful. You will understand that a great deal of advice offered by many therapists and counselors often only makes matters worse.
If you take the trouble to learn the techniques explained in this book, think about them, and apply them to your own problems, you’ll be able to tackle difficulties that may have so far seemed unmanageable. Some of your worst fears and anxieties will diminish or dissolve away, and you will become more effective at pursuing your chosen goals in life.
We call this book Three Minute Therapy because, once you have learned these techniques, you can then cope with most emotional problems by employing a Three Minute Exercise. Actually, to learn the techniques and the theory behind them will take a little longer-say, three hours to read this book, and three weeks to think it over.
The theory underlying this book is that of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), originated by Albert Ellis who deserves the credit for undertaking a revolution in psychotherapy. We have developed our own fresh way of explaining the exciting principles of REBT so that they become as vivid and simple as possible.
The case histories cited are all drawn from Dr. Edelstein’s clinical experience. Names and other personal details have been changed, and in some instances details of two or more different clients have been combined in one composite personality. Both authors had some input on every page of this book; in most cases, the fundamental ideas came from Dr. Edelstein and the precise wording was a joint effort. "We" refers to both authors, while "I" always refers to Dr. Edelstein.
My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.
— MICHEL EYQUEM DE MONTAIGNE (1533-1592)
Chris was an ambitious computer consultant haunted by a peculiar anxiety—his fear that nuts and bolts, or other components of airplanes, would fall on his head, possibly killing him. If he heard the sound of an aircraft while walking outside, he would consider taking shelter. He felt anxious even if the plane were not directly overhead—for he speculated that falling objects might travel some lateral distance if they were thrown to the side by the airplane turning or by a powerful wind.This is one of a long list of some of my clients’ far-fetched fears. Here are a few other examples:
- An elevator inspector was obsessed with the thought that he might suddenly decide to become a woman and have a sex-change operation—though he never had felt such a desire, and in his sexual preferences and behavior he was an entirely typical heterosexual male.
- A lawyer was afraid that she might inadvertently impregnate herself by touching microscopic deposits of semen on objects, such as a doorknob, and then accidentally touching herself while in the bathroom.
- A middle-aged, married accountant who had sent an angry but nonthreatening memo to a former boss, began to worry that the boss might sue her, causing her to lose her house and all her savings and become a bag lady.
- A timid lady, who would never hurt a fly, always avoided listening to news broadcasts and became panicky if she overheard part of such a broadcast, because she was afraid that she might hear of some atrocity such as a mass killing and be uncontrollably impelled to copy it.
- A young music teacher was afraid to go into a public swimming pool in a Midwestern city because there might be sharks there, which might eat him, or at the very least bite off one of his feet. An intelligent person, he readily admitted that sharks did not regularly inhabit swimming pools. He knew that it would be difficult to smuggle a live shark into such a pool; that if there were a shark there, he ought to be able to see it; and that any self-respecting shark would no doubt be so bothered by the chlorine it would not lie quietly in wait at the bottom of the pool. Nonetheless, he described himself as petrified by the thought that such a thing might happen, so that he had given up his twice-weekly swim. For my part, I conceded that I could not conclusively prove that he would never meet a shark in a swimming pool!
Such absurd fears are more common than many of us realize. There is, for instance, a cult magazine titled Shark Fear, and legends about sharks, piranhas, or alligators in the plumbing are rife from Florida to New York City. And although these fears may sound ridiculous to most people, that is no consolation to the individuals who suffer from them.
Here are some other fears which are widely held—I have encountered them all many times—and which cause real pain to millions of people. Consider whether they are any more reasonable than the preposterous fears mentioned above:
- The fear of being on a high floor of a tall building because one side of the building might abruptly crumble, or you might suddenly feel an irresistible urge to jump through the window.
- The fear that one will be possessed by an unconquerable urge to do something outrageous and embarrassing in public. For instance, someone sitting in the audience of a theater may suddenly be struck by the thought that he might get up from his seat, rush to the front, and jump onto the stage with the actors. He may then sit there in a cold sweat, not enjoying the play, because of his worry that he may at any moment uncontrollably do this outrageous thing that he does not in the least want to do.
- The fear that one will die while asleep. Someone may notice that his heartbeat slows down as he becomes drowsy, and he may then start worrying that it will stop altogether if he falls asleep.
- The fear of killing or mutilating someone close to you. Mothers sometimes experience a panicky fear that they will plunge a knife into their child, and husbands sometimes torment themselves with the fear that they will strangle their wives.
These commonplace anxieties are just as unreasonable as the more unusual ones mentioned earlier. We can easily see that they are all fears of something extremely unlikely. This gives a clue to the root of much unnecessary anxiety: a demand that one get an iron-clad, sure-fire, one-hundred-percent guarantee that something unpleasant absolutely will not occur.
With unlikely events, people are more influenced by a possibility that catches their imagination in some dramatic, spectacular way, rather than by the objective likelihood that it will occur. For instance, you often hear people argue against moving to California because they might die in an earthquake, whereas the death toll from cold weather—not to mention tornados and thunderstorms—east of the Rockies hugely exceeds fatalities from earthquakes in the West. Or some people will be nervous about flying because of the possibility of a fatal plane crash, but driving to the airport is objectively more dangerous.
Is This Blood That I See Before Me?
It was a blustery, overcast autumn day. At 11:55 A.M., Jerzy rushed out of his office and dashed to his regular restaurant. When he arrived, he was relieved to see that he had indeed got there ahead of the long line that formed every day around noon. He settled into his usual seat at a corner table, began to read his newspaper, and absentmindedly ordered his lunch. When the meal arrived, he picked up his fork—and froze.
Jerzy had spotted something amid the green of the broccoli and the orange of the yams—a tiny spot of crimson. “What if it’s blood?” he thought. “And what if it’s HIV-positive?” Jerzy was seized by the thought that he might get AIDS. He fled the restaurant, leaving his plate untouched, and wouldn’t go back.
In the weeks that followed, Jerzy spent much time worrying about the possibility that he might catch AIDS and began to lose sleep. He stopped eating out alone, and when eating out with close friends, he would ask them to inspect his food and reassure him that there was no blood on it.
It is, of course, millions of times more likely that you will die from food poisoning following a restaurant meal than that you will pick up AIDS that way. But Jerzy never gave a thought to that less sensational, more prosaic possibility.
A Dread of Uncertainty
To some extent, Jerzy’s anxiety resulted from his telling himself, “I MUST not get AIDS.” However, the main anxiety trigger consisted of his demand for certainty: “Since there is a one-in-a-billion chance that I could contract AIDS when dining out, the fates MUST guarantee me a zero-in-a-billion chance.”
Demanding certainty in an uncertain universe leads, paradoxically, to concluding that unlikely dangers are virtually guaranteed to happen. And if you insist on absolute, one-hundred-percent security, you create emotional insecurity for yourself.
For example, the fear of flying often stems from the idea: “I MUST have a guarantee, signed and sealed by the fates, that the plane won’t crash.” Consequently, once someone who fears flying agonizingly drags himself aboard the plane, whenever there’s the slightest turbulence, or the flight attendant frowns, the individual is convinced: “This is it! The plane’s going down!”
“Cowards die many times before their deaths,” says Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. More generally, it’s true that habitual worriers suffer a thousand times more agonies than they would if they stopped worrying about remote possibilities.
Jerzy’s Three Minute Exercise
So it was with Jerzy and his worry about AIDS. He demanded guaranteed immunity, and thus saw AIDS everywhere. We targeted his “need” for certainty in Three Minute Exercises such as this one:
- (Activating event): I’m dining out and I see something red in my food. What if it’s AIDS-infected?
- (irrational Belief): Life MUST give me an ironclad guarantee that I will not get AIDS by eating this food.
- (emotional Consequences): Anxiety.
- (Disputing): What is the evidence that life MUST give me an ironclad guarantee that I will not contract AIDS while eating out?
- (Effective new thinking): It would be lovely if I could get guarantees in life, but none exists. Certainty is a figment of my imagination, and besides, I don’t HAVE TO be absolutely certain of anything. The probability is high that I will never contract AIDS. There are (probably) only probabilities, and I can live happily with them as long as I refuse to demand more. Oh yes, if there were any certainty (which there isn’t), it would be the certainty that as long as I insist on guarantees, I’m doomed to keep making myself anxious.It’s a nuisance not knowing for sure that I won’t contract AIDS, but no evidence demonstrates that life MUST not give me such inconvenience. Life has much uncertainty. Too bad! It’s never the doubt itself, but rather my “awfulizing” about it, that worries me.
- (new Feeling): Concern, rather than anxiety, about eating out.
Tony, 25, was tall and thin with curly dark hair and an olive complexion. His problem was escalating, yet he joked wryly about it, giving me a variant of a standard witticism I have heard from dozens of clients: “After years of false starts and immature attempts,” he announced, with mock seriousness, “I’ve now completely mastered the art of worrying!”
Tony had spent six months in traditional therapy. “It helped me understand myself better, or so I naively supposed at the time. I tried to ignore the fact that the whole time I was getting worse.” He terminated therapy when it came to him one day that he could end up single-handedly putting his psychoanalyst’s kid through college. When Tony’s girlfriend landed a job with a prestigious law firm in San Francisco, they left New York. Now Tony felt it was again time to face his problem, so he returned to therapy.
Tony gave me a brief history of his worries:
“I can remember worrying about making errors when I was on the Little League baseball team. And then worrying when I was in high school, before a test and during a test—and, come to think of it, until I got my grade.
“I always thought that I worried more than almost everyone, worried about sillier things, and dealt with worrying worse than most people. I even worried about the fact that I was such a worrier.”
Tony was employed as a bank loan officer, a job he considered stressful. Every morning, the day ahead loomed like an ordeal about to unfold.
“When I start a new project at work, tackle a difficult problem, or when I have a ton of work to do, I worry. And I worry about learning new skills and about doing so poorly that I would lose my job. Overall, it gets more stressful as I move up the corporate ladder.
“There are times work isn’t so bad, like when I have something that’s not too challenging, or don’t have time pressure. But generally, my worrying leads me to dislike my job. Sometimes I’m up all night worrying, and then I’m tired the next day and waste time daydreaming at work. I have concentration difficulties. When I do sleep, I sleep poorly. I do badly at work because of my worrying.”
Job Security Worries
“The root of your problem, Tony,” I suggested, “doesn’t lie in your Little League experiences, nor in your promotions at work, nor in your shaky financial situation should you lose your job. Rather, it lies in your demandingness—your ‘musts,’ your ‘have tos,’ your ‘got tos’ about your goals.”
I explained to Tony how “musty” thinking generates anxiety. I described the three types of demands: demands on oneself, demands on others, and demands on the universe.
“It’s clear to me what your major ‘musts’ are. Would you care to hazard a guess?”
“Let’s see, probably must number three: a demand on my situation—a demand on the universe. ‘Concentrating MUST not be so difficult,’ ‘Sleep SHOULD come easily,’ ‘My job MUST last forever’?”
“Exactly! And why MUST your job last forever?”
“Because if I lose my job, I’m royally screwed. I’ll never get such a good job. I’ve worked my way up. I’ll have to start all over again, at square one!”
Notice that Tony’s fear that he would lose his job was not a “silly fear” like the ones that started this chapter. Employees at all levels, even dependable, hardworking employees, do sometimes lose their jobs. But when asked why this was terrible, Tony responded in exaggerated, melodramatic terms about the consequences of losing his job.
“Let’s suppose that this is the case—although it’s unlikely—that you’d be starting at square one, even with your experience. We could certainly list fifteen or twenty disadvantages of your getting fired. But since everyone faces setbacks in life, why MUST you not?”
“When you put it that way, I admit that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I lost my job. It would be unwelcome, but not a calamity. I suppose I’d better join the human race and face the sad fact that I could experience setbacks in my life, just like everyone else.”
To reinforce this, Tony and I made a list of the reasons why his belief that his job MUST last forever is false. Here’s what he wrote:
Reasons why “My job MUST last forever” is false:
- If I lose my job, I lose it! Reality is reality, not the way I think it has “got to” be.
- Although I keenly prefer not to lose my job, a preference does not equal a “got to.”
- Although I would have extra financial and employment hassles if I lost my job, that’s all I would have—hassles, not horrors.
- It could be nice to have a respite from work, which would provide a longed-for break to visit my brother in Italy.
- I have savings I could live on for a while. I would be able to take my time and do a really excellent job of finding the best job available.
- Losing my job could give me just the push that I have been lacking to take a chance on my dream—starting my own business as a computer consultant.
- Losing my job would give me a golden opportunity to practice accepting misfortunes, rather than needlessly worrying about them.
- I would see, concretely, that even the worst-case scenario is not as bad as I had anticipated.
- If I lose my job, this would be a bad situation, but it would not make me a bad or worthless person.
- I could be more money-conscious, for example, move into a smaller apartment, eat at home more, and buy a new car in five years rather than immediately. This would mean some deprivation, but I’ve survived deprivation before, and I will survive it in the future.
- The simple fact of losing my job, by itself, can never disturb me. Only my bellyaching about it can do that.
- Even if I never get a job as well-paying as my current one, I could accept that and still considerably enjoy life, although I could enjoy it even more with a better salary.
- Losing my job would provide an opportunity to eventually get a position that may have certain advantages over this one: a more supportive boss, more friendly co-workers, less pressure, more interesting work, shorter commute times, less crowded work space, or better pay.
- Pressuring myself not to get fired will not help me keep my job. Moreover, it could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more I demand this, the more stressed and distracted I get, and the worse I perform.
- In the larger sense, all jobs are temporary. Career changes, unemployment, and lost jobs are part of life.
- If I start at “square one” at a new job, I could work my way up the ladder as I’ve done before.
- Everyone has significant discomforts, inconveniences, and hassles in life. This is part of the human condition. No reason exists why I have “got to” be exempt.
- It could actually be a relief not to be so focused on getting promotions and moving up the corporate ladder.
Tony read this list into a tape recorder. He listened to the tape at home and in his car. He found this daily reinforcement surprisingly effective in eroding his “got tos” and thereby drastically reducing his anxiety.
Anxiety, Fear, and Worry
Fear and anxiety are basically the same emotion. We use these two words in subtly different ways. We are more likely to call the emotion “anxiety” if the thing feared seems vague or uncertain, but it’s the same animal.
Worry is the practice of anxiously pondering something, usually repeatedly and at length. So, if you feel a twinge of panic when called upon to make a speech, that’s anxiety, but not worry. If, on the other hand, you keep anxiously thinking about the speech you are scheduled to make next week, that’s both anxiety and worry.
Worry is anxious pondering; worry is a package made up of both pondering and anxiety. Or, in the form of an equation:
Worry = Pondering + Anxiety
Popular fallacies about worry mostly arise because people do not distinguish between pure pondering without anxiety, and pondering with added anxiety. People may say, “Don’t worry about that,” when what they really mean is, “Don’t concern yourself with that; don’t give it another thought.” This way of speaking is in itself harmless, of course, but mistakes arise when people believe that thinking hard about a problem has to be an anxious experience.
A chess grandmaster may spend hours pondering a position, trying to find the best move, but there is no reason why he need feel anxious about it, and he is more likely to analyze the position better if he is free of anxiety. The same applies to Proust writing a great novel or Beethoven writing one of his symphonies.
People will often say that worry is useless, and that it’s best to stop worrying, by which they usually mean, stop thinking about the problem. However, pondering some problem may not be useless—one may come up with an idea that would solve or alleviate it.
If you have an important interview tomorrow, you may worry about it, that is think anxiously about it. And this may do you some good in the interview—research shows that people do better on such occasions if they rehearse them in their minds beforehand. Yet the good that comes from such worrying comes despite the anxiety, not because of it. Merely thinking about the interview, without feeling anxious about it, will do just as much good and probably more. People who think anxiously about such things usually think far less efficiently than those who think non-anxiously.
Contrary to the usual view, it’s possible to feel keenly concerned about something without feeling in the least anxious about it. Ted and Timothy are great buddies and have a vigorous, friendly rivalry at table tennis, which gives them much enjoyment. They are each keenly determined to win, and excited and exhilarated whether they win or lose, though also distinctly disappointed if they lose. There is no anxiety in their concern to win. They don’t fear losing, though they decidedly prefer not to lose.
This kind of example refutes the popular but mistaken view that some anxiety is helpful because we need adrenaline to give us extra speed or concentration in moments of crisis. Extra adrenaline can be helpful in some situations, but we can have the extra adrenaline without any fear or anxiety, as Ted and Timothy do during table tennis, or as people often do during sex.
True, worriers do often spend a lot of time thinking uselessly about their problems, their thoughts going round and round in a repeating groove to no effect. But if they would learn to think about their problems without anxiety, they would then spontaneously stop thinking excessively about those problems where further thought was obviously pointless.
How can we learn to think about problems without anxiety? The anxiety—the fear—always comes from our demands, our “musts.” The way you can stop worrying and yet continue to think hard about a problem is to challenge and uproot your “musts.” When you find yourself worrying about some situation, it’s not the situation, by itself, that is generating your anxiety. It’s your “musts” that make you anxious, and tackling your “musts” is the best way to reduce your anxiety.
A man is a kind of inverted thermometer, the bulb uppermost, and the column of self-valuation is all the time going up and down.
--OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, SR. (1809-1894)
At age 25, Jerry was tall and good-looking, with a broad-shouldered, athletic build. He was an expert surfer and water-skier. His Valentino suit hadn’t left him much change out of $3,000. He drove a BMW to work and a Porsche to the beach. Unlike some upwardly mobile achievers, Jerry had a polite and unassuming manner, and with his warm, contagious smile, he communicated instant likeability. He had recently become engaged to an intelligent and beautiful law student.
Jerry felt good about himself. He awoke each morning eager to face the challenges of the day, and took pleasure in the exercise of his own abilities. He successfully managed his own, rapidly-expanding real estate business, and was proud of his accomplishments. He undoubtedly possessed what is often called “high self-esteem.”
No one who knew Jerry suspected that he was an emotional time bomb, ticking away.
The Winner Becomes a Loser
Six months later, when Jerry came to see me, he was miserable and preoccupied with suicide. For the past month, he had been waking up at 4:00 A.M., with a knot in his stomach. He then felt anxious for the rest of the day and was often depressed. In his relations with his fiancée, he was experiencing erection problems and had begun to brood about becoming permanently impotent, a prospect he perceived as horribly shameful.
“I’m terrified that I’m going to lose everything, including my mind. I can’t sleep. Nothing is fun anymore. I cry every morning before leaving for work. I’m beside myself and I don’t know what to do. I’m at the end of my rope.”
The Problem Separation Technique
Whenever someone is suffering emotionally, as Jerry was, I have found that a simple procedure usually clarifies the situation:
- First, identify the Practical Problem
- Second, identify the Emotional Problem
- Third, get the sufferer to look at the connection between his Emotional Problem and his Practical Problem
I explained to Jerry the difference between a Practical and an Emotional Problem: “It seems to me,” I told him, “that your Practical Problem involves the success of your business. How can you start making money in real estate again? Or would you do better to change your line of work?“The Emotional Problem is that you’re upsetting yourself about your current setbacks. Why not do your best with the real estate, without ripping yourself up inside about it?”
“I wish I could. But I’d feel I wasn’t good enough, like a failure, if my business went down the drain. Todd just made a two million dollar sale—he picked up an unbelievable commission with that one. I’m just nowhere in comparison.”
I nearly always find that a person comes to me convinced that his Practical Problem automatically generates his Emotional Problem. My first job is to undermine this conviction, showing him that he causes his Emotional Problem by the way he thinks. His Practical Problem is defined by his preferences, but his Emotional Problem springs from his “musts.” Then, the Practical and Emotional Problems can be tackled separately.
This may not sound like great progress, but it really is. Once the person begins to seriously tackle the Emotional Problem separately from the Practical Problem, there is often a prompt improvement in the Practical Problem.
The Self-Rating Roller-Coaster
Without realizing it, Jerry had become caught in the “feel good about yourself” trap. When he was making lots of sales, he rated himself as a pretty fine person, and this gave him high self-esteem.
His mistake was not that he liked being successful. His mistake was that he rated himself highly—as a total person—because of his success. As a result, when he became less successful, he automatically gave himself a lower rating and began to feel miserable.
As I probed, Jerry admitted more and more clearly that he believed himself to be totally unworthy. Like many people in this frame of mind, Jerry believed that his own strong feeling that he was unworthy was somehow evidence that he was unworthy. This kind of reasoning reinforces itself in an endless circle: the more worthless he felt, the more “evidence” he had to prove he was indeed worthless!
I asked Jerry: “Assuming that your performance in real estate is inferior right now, how does this make you totally inferior? After all, you are an imperfect human, like everyone else, so it’s to be expected that you will sometimes act imperfectly. How does this prove that you’re worthless?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I can’t prove it. All I know is that I feel worthless, so I must be worthless.”
Now, of course, it’s easy for an outsider, someone not involved in Jerry’s life, to see that Jerry is being unreasonable. It’s obvious that there’s something irrational in this dogmatic insistence that he is an inferior worm. But it’s just as irrational for someone to maintain that he is a great person because things are going well for him.
Psychotherapists who preach “high self-esteem” overlook this logical connection. They encounter miserable people and observe that these people frequently have a very low opinion of themselves. These “Dr. Feelgood” therapists then conclude that the appropriate treatment is to encourage their clients to give themselves a higher self-rating. But self-rating—any self-rating, high or low—is often the root of the problem.
Deluded Dunces and Self-Satisfied Psychopaths
Trying to improve people’s rating of themselves runs into numerous problems. One of the more pathetic of these arises when people who, objectively considered, perform poorly at some specific task, are encouraged to view themselves as outstandingly good, and information about their poor performance is downplayed.
In a recent study, 13-year-olds in six countries (the U.S., Britain, Canada, Ireland, Korea, and Spain) were given a standardized math test. In addition, they were asked to rate the statement: “I am good at mathematics.”
The Americans judged their abilities the most highly (68 percent agreed with the statement!). But on the actual math test the Americans came last.
Some educators think that these two results were related. These poor to average students, who felt buoyed by the fantasy that they were superbly competent, were victims of the “self-esteem curriculum,” designed to make the kids feel good about themselves no matter what.
High self-esteem can involve self-delusion. It’s not true that people who feel good about themselves always perform better. It’s a cruel deception to convey the impression that success comes easily if you have a “positive” attitude. Performing well is in fact closely related to High Frustration Tolerance—the ability to cope serenely with difficulties and setbacks. Outstanding accomplishments usually require immense dedication, continuous, painful investment of arduous effort over a long period of time. They also require some inborn talent, which is not equally distributed.
It may be comparatively harmless for some people to go through life under the delusion that they’re good at something when in fact they are not. However, if they derive self-esteem from this fantasy, they may be set up for a shattering disappointment if ever they decide to face reality.
This isn’t the only problem arising from high self-esteem. Many theorists have supposed that violent criminals suffer from low self-esteem and can be rehabilitated by having their self-esteem raised. But a careful review of the evidence by three psychologists (Roy Baumeister, Joseph Boden, and Laura Smart) found that most violent people think very highly of themselves; their unrealistically high self-evaluations predispose them to be violent. As these authors point out, treating rapists, spouse batterers, or murderers by trying to convince them that they are superior beings is pointless, since this is what such people already believe.
Your Successes Aren’t You—Your Failures Aren’t You
Jerry had difficulty seeing my point. “What was wrong with feeling so good about being successful? Wouldn’t I be better off if I could get back to the way I felt six months ago?”
“Well, that option isn’t available,” I pointed out. “If you could snap your fingers and start making money again, you would do so. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about being successful. What creates problems is to rate yourself highly when you are successful, and to feel good only because you have given yourself a high rating. It would be better never to rate your self, merely rate your specific behavior.”
“That seems to make sense,” he conceded. “But it’s not the way I think.”
“But what does your thinking accomplish?”
“Well, when I was successful, feeling pretty great.”
“Feeling great about your self. But you can still feel happy and content by feeling great about your accomplishments, without dragging your total self into it. And then you wouldn’t set yourself up for feeling like a worm when the real estate market crashes.”
“Hmm. Very interesting. So it’s unwise to put myself up on a pedestal or, on the other hand, look down on myself. You know, I feel a little less depressed already, just viewing it from that perspective. It’s very different from how I’m used to thinking.”
Jerry’s Three Minute Exercise
Jerry was beginning to get the message. I explained the method of written Three Minute Exercises, which he began to practice every day. Here is a typical one:
- (Activating event): My business is losing money.
- (irrational Belief): I MUST be making money or else I’m no good.
- (emotional Consequences): Depression.
- (Disputing): Why MUST I make a lot of money? How does it make me no good if I don’t have a high income?
- (Effective new thinking): No law of the universe states that I MUST make a lot of money. Reality is reality, independent of my views about it, so I may as well fully accept the vicissitudes of the real estate market, along with my own imperfections. I don’t magically turn into a worm even if I lose all my money. It’s not my disappointing income, but my own self-downing about it, that makes me feel depressed. Likewise, it’s not the success itself, but rather my view of it, that makes me feel like a wonderful person. Success does not change my essence and make me “good,” just as failure doesn’t change me into a wretched no-good. My goal in life is to enjoy myself, not to prove myself.
- (new Feeling): Concern and steady determination rather than intense anxiety or depression.
A Self-Defeating Syllogism
Jerry’s case is a striking one in that he had changed, inside a few months, from high self-esteem to low self-esteem. But Jerry’s thinking is commonplace:
I WANT TO FEEL GOOD. (Nothing wrong with this!)
To feel good, I have to feel good about myself. (But this is a blunder.)
Feeling good about myself means thinking that I am a worthy person.
I can prove to myself that I’m a worthy person by doing well at x (making money, passing my exams, keeping fit, attracting members of the opposite sex, being good in bed, keeping my family happy).
Oops! I’ve done badly at x. So now I’m worthless. I FEEL BAD.
Your Income Isn’t You
Jerry’s problem also illustrates a highly popular but erroneous belief—the belief that our money income measures our worth or our success in life. This false belief is a source of anxiety and depression to millions.
Our money income represents only what other people choose to pay for the services we choose to supply them. It’s not a judgment on our “souls” or on our dignity as human beings. There’s nothing demeaning or insulting in having a low income. It’s not even a final judgment on our abilities—Mozart died poor.
If we can increase our money income, then we can afford more goods and services, enabling us to accomplish our aims more completely and perhaps to lead a fuller life. That’s wonderful, but we may value our free time or our avoidance of pressures too highly to do what’s required to raise our income beyond a certain point. In that case, it would be a foolish mistake to suppose that we have to pursue a higher money income as an end in itself.
Running Into Trouble
Ned was a 46-year-old successful veterinarian with his own animal hospital. He consulted me for help with his marital discord, but toward the end of our first session, the discussion took a different tack.
“I may have discovered a way to feel better—to escape my usual depression—when my wife berates me or nags me,” he volunteered, unexpectedly.
“How’s that?” I queried.
“By running,” Ned responded. “I used to jog once in a while, but lately I’ve taken up running more seriously. I consistently jog at least five miles a day, and I’ve started running competitively. So now, when Kristan bugs me, I can ignore her. Running makes me feel better about myself, instead of down in the dumps from being nagged by Kristan. I feel proud that I can discipline myself, and after a long, hard run or a good race, I feel really elated.”
“So you consider yourself a better person for becoming self-disciplined and getting yourself in such terrific shape. And you think that if Kristan can’t appreciate you, that’s her tough luck!”
“But this is adding to your problem!”
“Problem?” Ned was taken aback. “At least I haven’t felt so rotten lately. Isn’t that improving upon my problem?”
“No. A problem drinker may feel better after a drink, but the drink doesn’t necessarily improve his problem. You may in fact be making the problem worse.” Since Ned was still somewhat baffled, I explained that he started out delighted at his newfound self-discipline and running ability. That delight was altogether appropriate. But then he mistakenly rated his total self as good because of his running. He was manufacturing and nurturing his elation by judging his whole self in terms of a few of his behaviors.
“All right,” he said. “So I’ve been rating my total self in terms of my running. So I’ve been elated and I’ve been pleased by my elation. I still don’t see how that hurts me.”
“It hurts you because it sets you up to feel hurt or depressed. You don’t realize that it works as a double-edged sword.”
“No, I guess I don’t.”
“Well, when you run well you feel elated. But when you run or race badly, or Kristan criticizes you, you get depressed.”
“That’s right. I do get depressed then!”
“But as long as you insist on rating yourself, you’re turning yourself into an emotional yo-yo, at the mercy of your latest performance.”
“I think I see. I put myself ‘up’ when I run well and consistently. But then I’m all the more inclined to put myself ‘down’ when things go badly.”
Self-Raters Are Born But Can Be Unmade
We’re all like Ned: we are born and raised to rate ourselves. Understandably, we have difficulty thinking in any other way. But there’s an alternative. You can analyze how well you do without rating your total self. You can accept yourself no matter what—whether you do well, poorly, or don’t do anything at all. You are never forced to judge yourself as great or as unworthy—to put yourself up or down.
Self-rating is unnecessary, and it causes serious emotional and practical problems:
- If you insist on rating yourself, your thinking becomes self-centered instead of problem-centered. If you don’t rate yourself but acknowledge there is a problem, it becomes easier to analyze that problem, and an agreeable solution may be found. Considering yourself a “hopeless loser” or a “disgusting worm” is not a problem that can be analyzed and tackled. It is a conviction that points in only one direction: endless preoccupation with what a hopeless loser or disgusting worm you are! This is simply not helpful. It doesn’t prompt any constructive action.
- If you rate yourself as good or bad, you tend to suppose that this is your unchanging essence, that if you did badly yesterday, you’re likely to do badly today or tomorrow. You tend to become frozen in your own self-rating. Everyone has a great many good and bad traits; we’re all imperfect yet capable of improvement. But self-rating causes us to fasten on a few traits and then make an over-simple judgment about ourselves.
- A low self-rating makes you feel miserable, and a high self-rating sets you up for a poor self-rating whenever things go wrong. High and low self-ratings are not symmetrical—there’s an inherent tendency for self-raters to move toward a low self-rating. Most human intentions don’t work out quite as planned, and there’s a natural tendency to focus on disappointments and shortcomings.
- Self-rating leads you to compare yourself pointlessly to other people. Feelings of superiority and inferiority then get in the way of pursuing your aims.
If You Rate Yourself, You’ll Berate Yourself
We all know people who continually criticize themselves—the attractive woman who continually apologizes for her imperfect appearance, or the man who comments about his own unreliability or lack of achievement. Part of the intention of making such remarks is to admit your faults to other people so that they won’t criticize you or will award you points for humility. But, in practice, issuing these public confessions:
- Is often found irritating by other people
- Usually doesn’t persuade other people that you’re a better person
- Needlessly draws their attention to faults of yours, which they might overlook; and most importantly of all
- Tends to reinforce your own picture of yourself as unworthy
This verbal “self-downing” is an obvious manifestation of low self-esteem. It’s natural to suppose that it can be fought by techniques for “raising self-esteem.” But the best solution does not lie in learning how to squelch self-criticism or in practicing self-praise. While this may occasionally be useful, generally, raising self-esteem is counter-productive. It’s better to uproot any amount of self-esteem—low or high. In other words, to stop self-rating.
Frequently a person’s craving for self-esteem is linked to the approval of another person, often a spouse or parent. Tara, a strikingly attractive 41-year-old, was an executive secretary for a Madison Avenue advertising firm. She had a daughter in high school and a son in elementary school. She was tall, thin, and might have been taken for a model. Although she mentioned that she enjoyed going out with her husband and another couple on Saturday nights, she mostly just read me a litany of problems and gloomy feelings.
“I get nervous about everything and then I get depressed. I worry about illness and also I worry about work situations. I’m eaten up with envy for other people who have certain things better than I do. I hate meeting new people. I cry easily at movies and weddings, and always hate myself for crying. I constantly wish I were someone else. I feel like a weakling. I just despise the way I look. I can’t relax, and I feel intimidated by my boss.”
The tone of Tara’s voice suggested that she was giving herself a good scolding, which she seemed ready to continue at some length.
“Sounds like a lot to deal with,” I interrupted. “Out of all that, what seems to bother you the most these days?”
“Hard to say. I guess it’s putting up with my mother when she comes to stay with us. She’s very critical, and it’s usually directed at me. Like last night, she was complaining that the house was a mess. I know I could do a better job at keeping the house clean, but I just can’t find the time. My mother never went out to work, so she had all the time she needed to keep a spotless home. But somehow I feel that she’s right: I really should keep the house neat and clean. I’m always uncomfortable in a messy house.”
“Let’s assume, as you claim, that your house is a holy mess.”
“And you’re depressed about it.”
“Yes, I am.”
“This means you have a MUST in there somewhere.”
“You mean like ‘I MUST have a clean house’?”
“I do put myself down when I see dust or papers around the house,” Tara confessed. “I do feel crummy about myself.”
“But assuming the worst, that you really are a slovenly housekeeper, that’s only one of many things in your life. So it doesn’t follow that you, as a total person, are no good.”
“But I’m not good at anything. I’m a lousy mother, my kids are not as personable as Marita’s kids, and I’m always making faux pas at work and putting my foot in my mouth.”
“But even if that’s all true—and I suspect you’re being perfectionistic in your self-judgments—you still have the potential to change. And your potential is an aspect of you. If you actualize your potential and improve in some of these areas, then we’ll have additional things you’re good at. Furthermore, in the future you might discover endeavors you never tried before that you find you have some talent for.”
I pointed out to Tara another reason that making mistakes does not prove she is completely rotten. Just that she has succeeded at keeping herself alive, not gotten killed in a car accident, poisoned herself, or walked in front of a truck, proves that she doesn’t always and only make mistakes or perform badly.
Some of Tara’s “musts” were:
- I MUST have my mother approve of my housekeeping or else I’m worthless
- I HAVE TO get all my cleaning done or else I turn into a worm
- I SHOULD keep my house looking better than it does, otherwise I’m a lesser person
- I have GOT TO do it immediately, or it proves I’m a total failure
After disputing her “musts,” Tara replaced them with these conclusions:
- Although my mother’s approval is PREFERABLE, I can fully accept myself with her criticism
- I WOULD LIKE to get all my cleaning done, but if I don’t it mainly shows that I’m just an imperfect person acting imperfectly
- I WISH my house looked better, but a less neat house doesn’t mean I’m less of a total person
- I PREFER to shape up my house right now and at worst I’ve failed in the housecleaning, but that failure does not measure my total essence
Tara’s Three Minute Exercise
Tara quickly saw the point, and we soon began working on Three Minute Exercises. Here’s one that she found particularly helpful.
- (Activating event): My mother criticizes me and says the house looks as if I hadn’t cleaned for a month when, in fact, I cleaned yesterday.
- (irrational Belief): I MUST keep a spotlessly clean house and avoid my mother’s criticism, or else I’m no good!
- (emotional Consequences): Hurt and depression.
- (Disputing): What’s the evidence I MUST keep a spotlessly clean house and avoid my mother’s criticism or become no good?
- (Effective new thinking): Although I strongly prefer to keep a spotless house, I can find no reason why I MUST. Being an imperfect human, I will act imperfectly in many ways, so it’s understandable that I may not have a perfectly clean house.
And if my mother thinks I’m no good, that’s sad, but that’s her opinion and doesn’t magically turn me into a worm. I’m still me, not what she thinks is me. My mother isn’t perfect either—nobody is. I’m never less of a person no matter how badly I do and no matter who disapproves of me.
I can fully accept myself and get a lot out of life, even with a flawed house. Here’s a golden opportunity to practice working on accepting myself unconditionally, in spite of my flawed behavior and in spite of criticism from others. It’s unfortunate that my house is deficient, but it’s not awful, terrible, or horrible.
- (new Feeling): Concern and mild disappointment rather than hurt or depression.
From Self-Rating to Self-Acceptance
The goal of feeling good about your self is a trap: if people criticize you or if you don’t live up to your standards, you see yourself as worthless and start to feel hopeless. And when you perform well in the eyes of yourself or others, you tend to think you must continue to prove yourself to maintain your self-esteem; so you feel insecure even when you’re doing well.
You can use the techniques described in this chapter to root out your basic problem—self-rating. Instead of rating yourself, accept yourself just as you are—a fallible human who can enjoy life no matter how poorly you perform, and no matter who disapproves.
Whether life is worth living may depend upon the liver.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a highly active multimillion dollar organization, whose name is very familiar to most people. It has fathered numerous other self-help groups run on similar principles, like Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and Smokers Anonymous.
Some readers may be amazed that I would even think of criticizing AA. Isn't it just a mutual support group for people trying to stop drinking? And doesn't it actually enable a lot of people to stop drinking? Who could object to that?
In fact AA is a religious organization with some very specific views, deriving from the religious body known as "The Oxford Group Movement" or "Moral Rearmament," associated with Frank Buchman, who was extremely controversial both because of his political views (he said some friendly things about Hitler) and because of his intrusive, hard-sell methods of proselytizing.
AA is now quite independent, it is far from being a narrow sect, and most AA members have never heard of Buchman. Indeed, Buchmanism as a distinct sect has largely passed away. But AA was founded by two members of Buchman's movement, and most AA members share adherence to the famous "12 Steps." The 12 Steps, or principles, are the philosophy behind the AA approach. As a matter of historical fact, the 12 Steps did derive from Buchman's teaching (see the recommended reading at the end of this book). Many AA members still regard the 12 Steps with reverential awe, as an absolute creed almost equivalent to the Ten Commandments. Incidentally, a court has found that AA is a religious organization, and that therefore requiring alcoholic offenders to go to AA, by favoring one religious sect, is an unconstitutional breach of the separation of church and state.
AA has been so successful at disseminating its distinctive views that many people suppose that these views are not controversial. For example, AA holds that "once you're an alcoholic, you're always an alcoholic." According to AA there can be no such thing as an ex-alcoholic or former alcoholic. Hence the well-known statement ritually made at AA meetings: "I am an alcoholic." It is never, "I was an alcoholic"-even if the individual has not taken a drink for years.
Associated with this belief is the notion that alcoholism is a disease for which there is no cure, and that the only salvation for the alcoholic is to give up drinking alcohol completely and at once. People influenced by AA propaganda are usually quite surprised to discover that many researchers who have studied problem drinking do not agree with any of this. Excessive drinking is not a bodily ailment, something over which the individual has no control, and many people who have had serious problems of over-drinking have been able to reform their habits so that they can then engage in moderate, enjoyable, and harmless drinking. (Some research indicates that moderate intake of alcohol with meals is beneficial and leads to a longer life.) Some problem drinkers find it easier to curtail an addiction by gradual tapering off than by abrupt "cold turkey." More often, the best strategy for overcoming compulsive drinking involves total abstinence for many years or even for a lifetime.
Bradford, a likable, blond 23-year-old, came from a wealthy Texas family but had left home at 18 to hitchhike across the U.S. with the vague notion that he would "seek his fortune." When his money ran out in Portland, he decided to stay there. After two years of bumming around he started to experiment with drugs, including heroin and crack cocaine. His strained relations with his family became worse, and the family's financial and emotional support was reduced to a thin trickle. He felt spurned by them and became a heavy drinker, working only sporadically and living in a rundown apartment in a squalid neighborhood.
Dissatisfied with his life and looking for help, Bradford contacted AA, attended AA meetings regularly, and stopped drinking. After a few months on the wagon, he went on a bender and then began to drink so heavily that gainful employment was out of the question. Brad's family gave him an ultimatum: "Get into therapy, and we'll pay for it, or you will never see another penny from us as long as you live." And that's how Brad came to me.
As I questioned Brad closely about his drinking, it became clear that he had thirstily imbibed the AA message. When he had one drink after months of abstinence, he was totally convinced of the AA dogma that having a second and a third drink was not an option but an automatic response. A voice in the back of his head reminded him of what he had learned in AA meetings: "Remember, Brad, you are powerless over the bottle! You have no choice; it's a symptom of your illness."
Brad still believed this, of course, when he came to see me, and he had been inclined to believe something like it even before he had joined AA. Many movies, novels, and songs tell us that unfortunate or disliked behavior is not under the individual's rational control. AA was a finishing school for Brad who now firmly believed: "I'm an alcoholic for life!" Brad's case was therefore a long, hard, uphill struggle, since he had to be dissuaded of intellectual convictions that he had held most of his life and that were endlessly reinforced by popular culture.
One of Brad's sticking points was his opinion that heavy drinkers never stop of their own accord. I was able to prove him wrong by citing such cases as Robert Redford, Bing Crosby, Mickey Mantle, Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Carson, all of whom ceased their heavy drinking without any help from AA or professional counselors (See The Truth about Addiction and Recovery by Peele, Brodsky, and Arnold).
It took Brad several debates with me and many Three Minute Exercises to completely disabuse himself of the wrong beliefs that were plaguing him. (He also came to understand that other people, including his family members, did not HAVE to like him, respect him, or help him.) He eventually got his drinking completely under control, and the last time I had contact with him he had passed six years as a moderate, social, and occasional drinker. He had worked steadily, with several promotions, in a new career at a health club, had restored cordial relations with his family, and was happily married. Brad knows that a person who drinks heavily, with sadly unfortunate consequences, is currently choosing to behave foolishly, but is not sick or possessed, and does not need a doctor or an exorcist.
Here is one of the best of the Three Minute Exercises Brad employed to disinfect his "musty" thinking:
- (Activating event): I went on a drunken binge after staying sober for five weeks.
- (irrational Belief): I MUST never have a single relapse from sobriety. Since I have had a relapse, this proves I'm powerless over my drinking problem.
- (behavioral Consequence): Continued drinking.
- (Disputing): Why MUST I not have a single relapse? Where's the evidence that having a relapse proves I'm powerless over my drinking?
- (Effective new thinking): No law of the universe (AA notwithstanding) says I MUST never have a relapse or I'm an incurable "alcoholic." Relapses and setbacks are part of any learning process--two steps forward and one step back! But if I'm convinced that I'm a powerless victim of my addiction, then my silly beliefs may cause me to turn normal setbacks into a life of alcoholism.
I control my decisions and actions. If I pick up a glass and pour the contents down my throat, that is my action, and obviously I am in control of it. I can choose to cut down my drinking to a sensible level, and if this is important enough to me, I can plan, scheme, plot, and conspire to achieve that end. This won't be easy-why SHOULD it be? There may be further relapses, but there is simply no evidence that I'm fated to fail.
- (new Feeling): Determination to make sensible decisions about drinking, but no superstitious dread of a single drink.
Twelve Steps To Chronic Dependence
AA's First Step states: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable." This is a fundamental tenet of the AA religion. The individual is powerless over the Demon Drink and must acknowledge it. Only with the help of a "higher power" can any individual control his or her drinking problem. No less than six of the 12 Steps refer directly to the supernatural power AA calls "God."
The AA recruit is told that without the help of a supernatural power, he has no choice but to continue to imbibe recklessly. This claim is false. Many people recover from habitual drunkenness on their own. But someone convinced of this false dogma has a ready excuse for giving up the struggle for self-control: "I didn't attack that bottle of Johnnie Walker: it attacked me!"
The dogma of individual powerlessness leads the individual to seek to serve the "higher power," which in practice means the group of people who represent that higher power. The individual exchanges dependency on the bottle for dependency on a lifetime's supply of AA meetings. While this is easier on the liver, it undermines personal independence and clear thinking.
The dogma of powerlessness is allied with the AA theory that drunkenness is an incurable disease, and that therefore everything hangs upon not taking that first drink. Swallowing a single drink is regarded as a catastrophe. AA converts are taught that if they succumb to temptation just once, they will automatically relapse into all the berserk behavior of the benighted boozer.
This wrong-headed and scientifically questionable theory encourages extremist thinking: "At all costs, I MUST not take a single drink." It means that when the individual has one drink, he may believe that his struggle for sobriety is already lost, so he might as well give up and go on an alcoholic binge.
Paradoxically, the "one drink and you're lost" theory may also be harmful in just the opposite way. The individual has a single drink, discovers he is still in control of his behavior, and begins to feel blithely overconfident about the dangers of drinking. It would be better if a person with a past history of excessive drinking thought: "That drink I have just consumed sounds a warning bell. If I have a few more drinks right away I will be taking a serious risk."
A similar danger lies in the U.S. government's propaganda in its "war on drugs." Much of what the government says about drugs is so exaggerated and melodramatic that those people who are frequently around drug users know that the government's claims are hopelessly overblown and inaccurate. This may lead such people-the very people most at risk to serious drug abuse-to pooh-pooh the real dangers. There is, for example, no substance which automatically leads to dependency after one dose, or even several, and to talk as though there is such a substance encourages many young people with direct experience of drugs to discount all warnings about their harmful effects.
Am I An Alcoholic?
Andy looked a bit like the stereotypical gangster out of a grade B movie: black hair slicked back, pencil-thin mustache, toothpick dangling from his lower lip, dark gray double-breasted pinstripe suit, and glossy black Oxford shoes. In partnership with his father, he owned and managed a successful clothing manufacturing plant. He led an exciting life, traveling to exotic corners of the world, sometimes in his own plane or yacht. Andy had a lavishly well-appointed home and a beautiful wife with expensive tastes, which he could well afford to indulge and thoroughly enjoyed indulging. He also had a serious drinking problem.
"Am I an alcoholic?" was Andy's main concern when he came to see me. He had imbibed enough AA propaganda to be convinced of the view that the world is divided into alcoholics and nonalcoholics, and that the application of this label explains everything.
I informed Andy that I do not regard it as helpful to view people as "alcoholics." I see them rather as individuals in their own right, possessing innumerable traits-good, bad, and neutral. People make mistakes, but it can be misleading to turn the mistakes into nouns and speak as though the mistake is the person.
"All right. So I'm not an alcoholic. But I guess I do drink too much, and I can't seem to keep my drinking under control. I'm not miserable, and I really get a kick out of life. So why do I drink so much?"
Andy couldn't understand why he was turning increasingly to alcohol when life had so much to offer him. He feared that he might be afflicted by a genetic defect that made him prone to alcohol dependence (one of his grandfathers had had the reputation of a notorious drunk).
Questioning Andy, I noticed a pattern: He had begun his drinking socially and moderately, then had gradually become aware that he could deal with the slightest anxiety by drinking, even when alone.
"You may be using alcohol to run away from something," I suggested. "But what could I be running away from?" he queried.
"The one distinctly unpleasant, uncomfortable emotion you experience in your life-anxiety."
"I don't think that's it," he responded. "I'm hardly ever anxious."
"Exactly. But that could be part of the pattern I have in mind. Is there something you nearly always do whenever you anticipate feeling anxious?"
"Well, I dunno, have a drink, I suppose. Oh, I see. Maybe you do have a point there."
"I think so. And what is it that you tell yourself just before you take a drink?"
"That I am about to feel upset or apprehensive-and that I don't need that. So I'll have a couple of drinks and feel better."
"Yes, you're concerned that you might feel anxious."
"And that's why I drink?"
"Not exactly. It's not the anticipation of the anxiety that makes you drink. It's what you're telling yourself about that anxiety."
"What I'm telling myself . . . ?"
"Right. How you view the prospect of feeling anxious. What it means to you."
"Oh, that I don't like it."
"More than that."
"That it's AWFUL. That I CAN'T STAND it?"
"Do I really tell myself that?"
"Yes. Your basic philosophy is that you MUST feel relaxed and comfortable, and it's TERRIBLE if you don't, even for a few minutes. So when the specter of anxiety rears its head, your instant, panicky reaction is that this is not to be tolerated for a moment, especially when there is an easy, comfortable, short-term escape."
Andy was not berating himself for having emotional problems. He was not worried about himself, but he was worried about discomfort. To make progress, Andy trained himself to embrace the fact that anxiety and discomfort, though unpleasant, can be survived and accepted.
Andy's Three Minute Exercise
- (Activating event): In a few hours I have a business meeting with my father in which I will let him know that I was late in placing an order, so that certain fabrics were not delivered when we needed them. I anticipate that when he hears this he will go through the roof. I'm getting anxious about this.
- (irrational Belief): Life MUST be free of anxiety. I CAN'T STAND being anxious. I MUST escape with a gin.
- (behavioral Consequence): Swallow six gins.
- (Disputing): What's the evidence life MUST be anxiety-free? What's the evidence I can't stand being anxious?
- (Effective new thinking): I don't like this temporary anxiety, but I can stand it. I am perfectly capable of tolerating what I intensely dislike, including extreme discomfort. Although a few gins would make me feel better for the moment, it's destructive in the long run, so I will refuse to give in to the temptation for immediate escape. Impulsively escaping anxiety through drink just sets me up for lifelong problems. I'm determined to accept discomfort as an unavoidable aspect of being human.
- (new Feeling): Acceptance of some discomfort as part of life and willingness to tolerate some anxiety rather than drinking to flee from it.
With exercises like these, Andy's interest in drinking waned. In turn, he became a more responsible business partner, so that he and his father began to get along better. These changes in Andy's life did not come quickly or easily, but rather as the result of concentrated, regular, and sometimes tedious practice, repetition, and reinforcement.
"I'm the world's leading expert on quitting drinking," Lonny told me, making a joke I've heard countless times about all forms of addiction. "I've done it so many times."
A close look at Lonny's otherwise handsome, intelligent face revealed the beginnings of the blotchy redness caused by broken capillaries, indicative of heavy drinking. Lonny was 53 years of age, had been not too happily married for 35 years, and told me he had been drinking heavily "off and on" for nearly 30 years.
Lonny had a relapse problem. He had many times decided to stop drinking alcohol, but in every case he had "slipped" and gone back to heavy drinking. I introduced Lonny to Three Minute Refutations, a technique for defeating the tendency to relapse.
Three Minute Refutations are a matter of recognizing the thoughts--the excuses--that encourage drinking and then demolishing these excuses. Here are some of the common excuses:
- This will be the last time I drink
- I've done so well lately, I can have one little drink
- It's been a hard day, I'll just have one to unwind
- Everyone else is drinking at this party, so how can it hurt if I join them?
- I'll just finish the wine in the cupboard before I stop altogether
- If I don't have a drink now, I won't get to sleep, and then I'll be a wreck tomorrow.
Lonny's Search and Destroy Mission
Three Minute Refutations involve the "search and destroy" mission: First recognize the addictive excuses, then get rid of them by answering them with defensive missiles--the refutations. One way to do this is to write out the excuses and then write out the refutations.
Here's one that we came up with in Lonny's case:
"It's OK to drink right now, because it'll be the last time."
- Previous "last times" never were. What makes me think this would be different?
- This "last time" could mean losing my job and ruining my career.
- How many days is this bender going to last?
- When I say to myself, "this is the last time," I know I'm lying.
- If I can make this next time "the last time," why can't I make the last time "the last time"?
- If I refuse to imbibe now, the discomfort will be temporary, not forever.
- This "last time" could destroy my marriage.
- This is just an excuse to drink--pure and simple.
Whenever you feel the urge to drink, identify the thoughts that make drinking seem reasonable. Then you can launch the counterattack.
When practicing Three Minute Refutations, it's often not enough to say the sentences over to yourself. It's usually far better to write them out. And it's even better, having written them out, to read them, preferably out loud, no less than five times a day. The object is to train yourself, so that when an excuse appears, you instantly recognize it, and instantly respond with a barrage of smart missiles: the refutations.
The Sober Truth About Problem Drinking
The root cause of alcoholism is unrealistic thinking. Such thinking can be changed, and in this way addictive behavior can be overcome.
Alcoholics Anonymous has some good points-for instance, emphasizing the present rather than the past. It helps some people terminate their alcohol addiction, but AA teachings make it more difficult for other people with drinking problems to change their ways. AA encourages replacing addiction to alcohol with addiction to a religious movement.
Finally, here are some of the ways in which Three Minute Therapy differs from AA:
- Three Minute Therapy is derived from a scientifically developed, coherent theory of psychotherapy, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, whereas AA is an essentially religious organization, its teachings adapted from the Oxford Group Movement.
- The theory underlying Three Minute Therapy has been supported by hundreds of rigorous studies published in the psychological literature, whereas AA's claims about the nature of alcoholism and its treatment are not supported by research studies.
- Three Minute Therapy encourages self-reliance and individual autonomy, while AA encourages each member to rely on the group, for example, by each member having another member as "sponsor" and guide.
- Three Minute Therapy acknowledges the power of the individual to drink or not to drink. Whether an individual drinks or not is governed by that individual's beliefs, which can be changed. By contrast, AA disseminates the unfounded myth that individual "alcoholics" are "powerless" in the face of their "illness."
- Three Minute Therapy aims to help people avoid addiction to therapy or to recovery meetings. AA offers the "alcoholic" no alternative to meetings and yet more meetings, until death parts the member from the AA church.
- Three Minute Therapy always points out that the root of our drinking problem lies not in a disease, nor in our dysfunctional families, nor in our addicted parents, nor in our "codependent" partners, but in our beliefs. (We invent and maintain these beliefs all by ourselves, though we may receive encouragement from our irrationally-minded families, friends, and partners.) AA does not expose these fallacies, but rather tends to reinforce them.
- Three Minute Therapy attacks "musty" thinking and teaches clear thinking, whereas AA is an active disseminator of muddled and "musty" thinking.
A. Activating event you recently experienced about which you felt upset or disturbed, (e.g., "I was criticized.")
B. Irrational Belief or irrational evaluation you had about this activating event, (e.g., "I MUST not be criticized.")
C. Emotional and behavioral Consequences of your irrational belief, (e.g., "Hurt and compulsive eating.")
D. Disputing or questioning your irrational belief, (e.g., "Why MUST I not be criticized?")
E. Effective new thinking or answer that resulted from disputing your irrational belief, (e.g., "Although I PREFER not to be criticized, nothing etched in stone states that I MUST not be.")
F. New Feeling or behavior that resulted from disputing your irrational belief, (e.g., "Great displeasure and controlled eating.")
A printable version of this form is available here.
The following includes all the books and articles we have mentioned in this book, plus a few others we recommend.
Baumeister, Roy F., Joseph M. Boden, and Laura Smart. “Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem.” Psychological Review, Vol. 103, No. 1 (February, 1996), pp. 5-33.
Bufe, Charles. Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? San Francisco: See Sharp Press, 1991.
Claxton, Guy. The Heart of Buddhism. San Francisco: Aquarian Press, 1992.
Edelstein, Michael R. “The ABC’s of Rational-Emotive Therapy: Pitfalls of Going from D to E.” Rational Living, 11: 1 (1976), pp. 12-13.
––––––. “Educational Audiotape Approaches to Short-term Weight Loss.” See Dissertation Abstracts International, 41:8 (1981), pp. 3158-59.
Ellis, Albert. Anger: How to Live With It and Without It. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1977.
––––––. Better, Deeper, and More Enduring Brief Therapy: The Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Approach. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1995.
––––––. How to Live with a Neurotic. Rev. edn. North Hollywood: Wilshire, 1975.
–––––. How to Master Your Fear of Flying. New York: Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy, 1972.
Ellis, Albert, Michael Abrams, and Lidia Dengelegi, The Art and Science of Rational Eating. New York: Barricade Books, 1992.
Ellis, Albert, and Robert A. Harper, A Guide to Successful Marriage. North Hollywood: Wilshire, 1961.
––––––. A New Guide to Rational Living. North Hollywood: Wilshire, 1975.
Ellis, Albert, and Pat Hunter. Why Am I Always Broke? New York: Carol, 1991.
Ellis, Albert, and William J. Knaus. Overcoming Procrastination. New York: Signet, 1977.
Ellis, Albert, and Art Lange. How to Keep People from Pushing Your Buttons. New York: Carol, 1994.
Ellis, Albert, and Emmett Velten. When AA Doesn’t Work for You: Rational Steps for Quitting Alcohol. New York: Barricade Books, 1992.
Epictetus. The Handbook of Epictetus. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983.
Eysenck, Michael W. Happiness: Facts and Myths. Hove, U.K.: Erlbaum, 1990.
Fox, Vince. Addiction, Change, and Choice: The New View of Alcoholism. Tucson: See Sharp Press, 1994.
Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press, 1966.
Krauthammer, Charles. “Education: Doing Bad and Feeling Good.” Time, 5th February, 1990.
Peele, Stanton, and Archie Brodsky, with M. Arnold. The Truth about Addiction and Recovery: The Life-Process Program for Outgrowing Destructive Habits. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.
Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. Rev. edn. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1974.
Rush, A.J., A. Beck, M. Kovacs, and S. Hollan. “Comparative Efficacy of Cognitive Therapy and Pharmacotherapy in the Treatment of Depressed Outpatients.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, Vol. 1, No. 1 (March, 1977), pp. 17-38.
Steele, David Ramsay. “Partial Recall.” Liberty, March 1994.
Szasz, Thomas. The Untamed Tongue: A Dissenting Dictionary. Chicago: Open Court, 1990.
Trimpey, Jack. Rational Recovery: The New Cure for Substance Addiction. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Three Minute Therapy
- Awarded Author of the Year by the NACBT
- A Glenbridge Publishing Book of the Month Selection
- A Behavioral Sciences Book Service Book Club Selection
- A National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists Book Club Selection
- An Albert Ellis Institute Selection
- A Laissez Faire Books Book Club Selection
- A Quality Paperback Book Club/Book-of-the-Month Club Selection
Other Self-Help Books
Dr. Michael R. Edelstein
If you're tired of spending your hard-earned cash on alcohol, if you're tired of always being hung over, if you're tired of damaging your health and relationships because you drink so much, then Rational Drinking is for you.