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.

The techniques of change

How does one actually set about achieving self-control and choice? The best place to start is by learning how to identify the thoughts and beliefs which cause your problems.

Next, learn how to apply this knowledge by analysing specific episodes where you feel and behave in the ways you would like to change. It is most effective to do this in writing at first, and later it will become easier to do it in your head. You connect whatever started things off, your reaction, and the thoughts which came in between. You then check out those thoughts and change the self-defeating ones. This method, called Rational Self-Analysis, uses the ABC approach described earlier, extended to include sections for setting a goal or new desired effect ('E'), disputing and changing beliefs ('D'), and, finally, further action to put those changes into practice ('F').

That final step is important. You will get there faster when you put into action what you have changed in your mind. Let us say you decide to stop feeling guilty when you do something for yourself. The next step is to do it. Spend an hour a day reading a novel. Purchase some new clothes. Have coffee with a friend or a weekend away without the family. Do the things you would previously have regarded as 'undeserved'.

Note that we are not talking about so-called 'positive thinking'. Rational thinking is realistic thinking. It is concerned with facts - the real world - rather than subjective opinion or wishful thinking.

Realistic thinking leads to realistic emotions. Negative feelings aren't always bad for you. Neither are all positive feelings beneficial. Feeling happy when someone you love has died, for example, may hinder you from grieving properly. Or to be unconcerned in the face of real danger could put your survival at risk. Realistic thinking avoids exaggeration of both kinds - negative and positive.

Overcoming obstacles

While change is possible, it is not easy - mainly because of a very human tendency known as 'low-discomfort tolerance'.

  • Most of us want to be physically and emotionally comfortable. But personal change means giving up some old habits of thinking and behaving and 'safe' ways of approaching life.
  • Whereas before you may have blamed others for your problems, now you start to take responsibility for yourself and what you want. You risk new ways of thinking and acting. You step out into the unknown. This could increase your stress and emotional pain - temporarily. In other words, you may well feel worse before you feel better.
  • Telling yourself that you 'can't stand it' could lead you to avoid change. You might decide to stick with the way things are, unpleasant though it is. You know you would be better off in the long run, but you choose to avoid the extra pain now.
  • Or you might look for a quick solution. Do you hope that somewhere there's a fancy therapy which will cure you straight away - without you having to do anything? I meet many people who try therapist after therapist, but never stay with one approach long enough to learn anything that will help. They still live in hope, though, and often get a brief boost from meeting new therapists or therapy groups.
  • As well as fearing discomfort, you may also worry that you 'won't be a real person'. You think that you will end up 'pretending' to feel and behave in new ways, and imagine yourself as false or phoney. Somehow, it seems, to choose how you feel seems 'less than human'. You are, though, already choosing your reactions - even though you may not be fully aware of doing so. And using conscious choice is what sets humans apart from instinct-bound animals. It is also what makes you a unique person - different to every other. So give up the notion that it is false and machine-like to use your brain to avoid bad feelings. Getting depressed, worried, and desperate does not make you more human.
  • You might worry that learning self-control will make you cold and unemotional, with no feelings at all. This common fear is quite misguided. The opposite is true: if you learn how to handle strong feelings you will be less afraid of them. This will free you to experience a fuller range of emotions than before.

While self-improvement may be hard, it is achievable. The blocks I have described are all self-created. They are nothing more than beliefs - ideas that can be changed using practical techniques you can learn.

Rational thinking is not just academic theory. People from a wide range of social and educational backgrounds have already used it successfully. You will be able to as well.

It is true that human beings start life with a biological predisposition to irrational thinking, which they then add to by learning new and harmful ways of behaving and viewing life. But there is a positive side to human nature - we also have the ability to think about our beliefs and change the dysfunctional ones.

What about problems you can't sort out on your own? Some outside help may be a useful supplement to your self-help efforts. Whether or not you have such help, though, taking responsibility for your feelings and actions will be the key to success. You will also need some hard work and perseverance. But, happily, by learning how to identify and change self-defeating beliefs and attitudes, these things can be within your control - and happiness within your reach.

Internal or external control?

To take responsibility and gain control over your emotions and behaviours, change what you tell yourself about the cause.

External Control

Internal Control

She makes me sick.

I make myself sick by the way I view her behaviour.

I can't help the way I feel.

I can help myself feel differently by changing my views.

How can I feel good when everyone treats me so unfairly?

I can't change the way others act - but I can change the way I view their actions.

I can't help my behaviour.

I have difficulty controlling my behaviour because I tell myself I am not responsible.

She made me do it.

I chose to do it. I could choose not to, in future.

I'm just the way I am.

True - but I could choose to be different if I made the effort to change.

Other helpful resources

Links within this programme

Further reading

Ellis, Albert & Harper, Robert A., A New Guide to Rational Living, Wilshire Book Company, Hollywood, 1975. 


Taking responsibility

To take responsibility for how you feel and behave, change what you tell yourself about the cause. Here's a new belief to help you:

'Many external factors are outside my control. But it is my thoughts (not the externals) which cause my feelings - and I can learn to control my thoughts.'