My unhappiness is caused by things outside my control – so there’s little I can do to feel any better.

It is not surprising so many people believe that events and circumstances cause their emotions. After all, in everyday life we often find ourselves reacting with pleasure or pain to things that happen. We feel good while enjoying a pleasant cup of coffee or receiving some happy news. Or we feel bad when someone says or does something to us we dislike.

But does everyone react the same way to the same event? Of course not. Different people react differently. The circumstance itself doesn’t cause the variation — so what does?

As you think, so you feel

‘People feel disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of them.’ Ancient words, from a first-century philosopher named Epictetus – but just as true now.

Events and circumstances do not cause your reactions. They result from what you tell yourself about the things that happen. Put simply, thoughts cause feelings and behaviours. Or, more precisely, events and circumstances serve to trigger thoughts, which then create reactions.

Test this out for yourself. Explain to someone that you would like their help to check out a theory. Point a pencil at them, and ask how they would feel if the pencil were a gun. Most people will probably say they would be afraid, or something similar. Then ask how they would feel if they didn’t know what it was you were holding. You will most likely get a different reaction — curiosity, for example. Now ask how they would feel if they didn’t even notice you were pointing something at them. They will probably say that they would not feel anything.

This shows that to fear something (or react in any other way) you have to be thinking about it. The cause is not the event — it is what we tell ourselves about the event.

The ABC’s of feelings & behaviours

American psychologist Albert Ellis, the originator of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), was one of the first to systematically show how beliefs determine the way human beings feel and behave. Dr. Ellis developed the ‘ABC’ model to demonstrate this.

‘A’ refers to whatever started things off: a circumstance, event or experience – or just thinking about something which has happened. This triggers off thoughts (‘B’), which in turn create a reaction – feelings and behaviours – (‘C’).

To see this in operation, let’s meet Alan. A young man who had always tended to doubt himself, Alan imagined that other people did not like him, and that they were only friendly because they pitied him. One day, a friend passed him in the street without returning his greeting – to which Alan reacted negatively. Here is the event, Alan’s beliefs, and his reaction, put into the ABC format:

A. What started things off:

Friend passed me in the street without speaking to me

B. Beliefs about A.:

1. He’s ignoring me. He doesn’t like me.
2. I could end up without friends for ever.
3. That would be terrible.
4. For me to be happy and feel worthwhile, people must like me.
5. I’m unacceptable as a friend – so I must be worthless as a person.

C. Reaction:

Feelings: worthless, depressed.
Behaviours: avoiding people generally.

Now, someone who thought differently about the same event would react in another way:

A. What started things off:

Friend passed me in the street without speaking to me.

B. Beliefs about A.:

1. He didn’t ignore me deliberately. He may not have seen me.
2. He might have something on his mind.
3. I’d like to help if I can.

C. Reaction:

Feelings: Concerned.
Behaviours: Went to visit friend, to see how he is.

These examples show how different ways of viewing the same event can lead to different reactions. The same principle operates in reverse: when people react alike, it is because they are thinking in similar ways.

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