Using Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I teach people that we disturb ourselves when we encounter adversity. REBT heavily borrows from a 2000-year-old philosophy known as Stoicism. Many people misunderstand Stoicism and wrongly believe it means to be emotionless. Stoicism is a robust philosophy that helps people live well in a challenging world and to engage with that world to better it if they can.
Currently, there is a great deal of interest around the globe in Stoicism. Since REBT derives from Stoicism, many of the Stoic teachings can be implemented using REBT. REBT and Stoicism go together, and in many ways, REBT is a modern version of Stoicism. The Stoics taught that one could flourish in life when they lived according to nature. To do this means to live a life where you pursue the four virtues of Courage, Justice, Moderation, and Proper Reasoning (also called Practical Wisdom).
Stoicism also advocated that we live happily with our fate expressed in the phrase Amor Fati, to learn to love one’s fate. “Amor Fati” does not mean one does not acknowledge their dissatisfaction with a set of circumstances. Loving one’s fate also does not necessarily mean to give up in resignation and avoid making those changes that are possible in the situation one finds themselves confronting. I believe that the Stoics, who were practical philosophers, would encourage us to change what we can and to live happily with what we cannot eliminate from our lives and thereby achieve Amor Fati.
REBT actively and explicitly teaches you how to follow this ancient piece of wisdom. In REBT, we assume that we can have some degree of happiness even when we encounter adversity if we hold flexible and non-extreme attitudes towards our difficulties and obstructions. REBT teaches that humans tend to disturb themselves and thereby render themselves unable to “love their fate” when we hold one or more of the following attitudes towards the adverse events of our life:
- I absolutely must do perfectly well and never deviate from my ideal behavior and must never err.
- You, my fellow human, absolutely must treat me nicely, fairly, and never obstruct me in my pursuits as my well-being is what is supreme
- Life absolutely must unfold as I wish it to and on the time frame I desire. It absolutely must only be as complicated and challenging as I want it to be.
Each of the above attitudes is rigid, illogical, false, and self-defeating. Holding these attitudes will not allow you to have some degree of happiness as you encounter the adversities fate chooses to put in your way.
To help people learn to help themselves and thereby achieve Amor Fati, I teach them to question these attitudes and to revise them. Ellis called this process “disputing” because he wished to emphasize the critical analysis he was teaching and aiming at the self-disturbing attitudes the individual held. This process of critical examination of one’s reactions and underlying attitudes is not unlike what the ancient Stoics prescribed. The Stoics prescribed daily reflection in the morning and the evening, which can be called Stoic meditation. During such meditative and reflective practice periods, both the Stoics and REBT advocate that one becomes aware of the self-defeating nature of their emotional and behavioral reactions.
When we identify an instance of self-disturbance inconsistent with “Amor Fati,” REBT suggests that we search for the rigid “musts” that we hold and which creates our disturbed, self-defeating reactions. The Stoics advocated something similar when they promoted the use of proper reasoning. Once these rigid, self-defeating “musts” are acknowledged, they can be critically analyzed. Next the individual can attempt to rework them and transform them from an idea that is rigid and self-defeating to one that is flexible and self-helping while still possessing the wish or value embedded in the attitude.
The process of disputing your rigid musts involves asking questions like:
- Is this attitude helping me get more of what I want in this world and less of what I do not wish to get? How does it help me function in the face of adversity?
- Is this attitude true or false? Does this attitude have evidence that reveals it is true? What is that evidence?
- Is this attitude internally consistent and logical? Does the conclusion logically follow from any inherent assumptions with it?
When one uses these three questions against the rigid and absolute “musts” placed on one’s self, others, and their world or life conditions, it becomes clear that there are problems with this way of thinking. Absolute “musts” do not help us function in a maximally effective way in the face of adversity. A review of the available evidence will quickly show these attitudes are false, and they tend to be internally inconsistent and not logical.
Let’s take a look at three alternative attitudes that are functional, true, and internally consistent and logical. A period of Stoic meditation or REBT disputing would show that these attitudes are suitable alternatives to the three rigid musts. They are:
- I want to do perfectly well and never deviate from my ideal behavior and to avoid making errors but cannot do this and do not have to do this. As a fallible human, I cannot perfect myself, but I can strive to do better and better. Better is achievable, and perfection is not.
- I certainly would like you, my fellow human, to treat me nicely, fairly, and never obstruct me in my pursuit because my well-being is of great importance to me, but I do acknowledge you do not have to do this. I recognize I am the center of my universe, not the universe. When you treat me poorly, I will note this and assert myself, but I will refuse to demand that you be as I want you to be because you do not have to be so. I will remain responsible for my emotional reaction to your misbehavior and refuse to condemn you, the fallible human who is liable for your misconduct towards me.
- I will keep my wish that my life unfolds as I wish it to and on the time frame I desire. I also will continue to hope that my life is only as complicated and challenging as I want it to be, but I will always keep in mind that these conditions do not have to exist. Life and reality are as they are, and it is in my best interest to accept them as they are until I can influence them to my liking if I can. When I cannot change the conditions of my life I still can have some degree of happiness despite the deviation from my ideal conditions. In so doing, I will come closer to the Stoic goal of “Amor Fati.”
Both the Stoics and REBT acknowledge that disciplining our thinking takes practice. That is why the Stoics advocated one engage in a period of reflective preparation in the morning and a period of evening mediation to review what one did well and poorly earlier in the day. The famous Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, who was a practicing Stoic, reminded himself each morning that he would encounter all sorts of misbehavior as shown in the passage below taken from his diary:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”
An updated version of this morning meditation could be something along these lines:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today do not have to be as I want them to be. They do not have to cooperate with me and treat me nicely. The never have to show me respect even though I will always welcome it. Others today will treat me poorly because they all are fallible humans just like me. They are not evil but may very well be emotionally disturbed.
I will first assume responsibility for my emotional and behavioral reaction to their conduct, and then when it is sufficiently important to me to do so, I will assert myself with them and sometimes even resist them in ways that are fair, humane, and law-abiding.
People and life cannot disturb me. It is I who has the power and choice to disturb myself over what others do and the adversities I encounter each day. I will choose never to disturb myself regardless of what happens later today. I will strive to unconditionally accept myself when I error, unconditionally accept others when they misbehave, and unconditionally accept life when it is rough and unfair. I am responsible for my emotions, my conduct, and my life. I will always look for changing what I can change, which is my attitude towards both my mistakes and the obstructions others and life put in my way.
I will experience healthy negative feelings that motivate me to act in a socially acceptable way that helps me to put my interests first and the interests of others a close, not a distant second. In having this stance today, I will be better able to enjoy my life to the fullest as it is the only life I will likely ever have to experience. Amor fati.”
Dr. Walter J. Matweychuk is a clinical psychologist and practitioner of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). He both practices and trains psychologists in REBT at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and teaches Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) at New York University. He has been an expert consultant on a project with the US Navy aimed at teaching CBT related coping skills in a classroom setting to sailors. He is co-author on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide. He disseminates information on REBT through his website, REBTDoctor.com.