What follows is an adaptation of Dr Ellis’s response to a volunteer who took part in a live public workshop demonstration of the Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy approach.
A volunteer once told me that his 79-year-old mother had advanced Alzheimer’s and was in pain, which made him anxious and depressed. He said that he couldn’t stand to see her in that condition.
“You are facing a sad and difficult situation,” I said. “But the situation is not what is making you anxious and depressed . . . you are making yourself anxious and depressed by thinking about it in unhealthy and unrealistic ways.”
I suggested to him, “The problem starts with the thought that you must be in control. You say that what is happening is awful and terrible—it shouldn’t be the way it is. But the reality is that there are things in life we cannot control. Life does include suffering and difficulties. It is futile to say that a reality should NOT be the way it is—when it IS the way it is! Tell yourself that you can accept what you don’t like. Say something like: ‘It is too bad that it’s like this . . . it is very unfortunate, but I AM standing it, and will continue to do so with grace and persistence. Some suffering is part of life.’”
“You are saying that your mother does not deserve Alzheimer’s? The reality is that life does not necessarily give us what we deserve. Tell yourself, ‘I wish my mother did not have Alzheimer’s but she does have it. It is very sad but I can stand it.’ Keep saying those healthy and realistic thoughts to yourself, day after day. It takes only a few minutes. Convince yourself.”
I invited the volunteer to do an exercise that enabled him to get in touch with, and then change, his unhealthy feelings. “Close your eyes and vividly imagine your mother being in pain. Then, make yourself feel emotions you experience when doing so: you describe that you feel choked-up and furious—feel it now, don’t repress it! And now, with that same image of your mother suffering, make yourself feel sorry and regretful—but NOT horrified or depressed. Think about it in a realistic and rational way. It is important that you do this exercise every day. It just takes a few minutes. Keep doing it till you experience healthy feelings more strongly.”
The volunteer succeeded in changing his feelings.
My point is that we create the depression and anger we feel by demanding that the universe not be as rotten as it is. The reality is that the whole universe is not rotten—nor is all of life rotten. Only certain elements of it are. Accept that along with many good things, bad things exist. Change them if you can, and accept what you can’t change.
Remember: It’s your thoughts that create the way you feel. It’s practically never hopeless. Acceptance is the key.