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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Circle of Concern

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

When considering what impact I have on my life, on the lives of others, and the world as a whole, I find it useful to identify Stephen Covey’s circles of concern and influence to inform my perspective.

These spheres of control and influence demonstrate how others do not have to oblige my should, must, or ought (SMO) statements. My rules of the universe are my own.

SMO narratives are a crucial component of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Not always are these unhelpful internal statements readily identified.

REBT highlights how others do not upset us, though how we disturb ourselves. That’s correct; I said we tend to disturb ourselves.

While I will discuss REBT herein, the current post represents my views and not those related to the Albert Ellis Institute. REBT uses the ABC Model to elucidate the Epictetiannotion, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

Incorporating REBT, Covey’s circles, and Epictetus’ declaration, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will,” I invite you to consider how these principles may benefit your life.

People frequently maintain that an action (A) leads to a consequence (C). Someone misusing your preferred gender pronoun (A) is said to lead to anger (C). However, REBT maintains that rather than an A-C connection, we disturb ourselves with beliefs (B)—this creates a B-C connection.

In this case, someone misuses your preferred pronoun (A) and you think, “This shouldn’t happen, and because it has, I’ve been wronged [B]!” As a result of this unhelpful belief, you disturb yourself to an angry disposition (C).

This is an A-B-C connection that could use disputation (D), leading to an (E)ffective new belief, and resulting in less self-disturbance. I’ll break this down a bit further.

First, understanding the formula of REBT is necessary to approach this matter.

(A)ction – The (A)ction that occurred

(B)elief – What you told yourself about the (A)ction that resulted in a (C)onsequence

(C)onsequence – What you felt (emotion or bodily sensation) about what happened and what you did (resulting behavior)

(D)isputation – How you challenge what you told yourself (Belief) about the (A)ction

(E)ffective new belief – What (E)ffective new belief you can tell yourself about the unhelpful or unhealthy (B)elief

Second, I find it useful to explore a modified version of Covey’s circles.

The orange circle represents the sphere of concern (macro-level), over which one has no control or influence. Think of natural disasters, traffic patterns in a foreign country, past events, or the person on the other side of town who’s chewing with his mouth open right now.

The green circle depicts the sphere of influence (mezzo-level), in which one has no control, though may retain some influence. Think of how you can’t control—though may influence—how your children are raised, who you vote for, where a family reunion takes place, or where you and your partner will eat…unless your partner is indecisive and it’s like working with the Drake equation to figure out which eating establishment is preferable when given only two options.

The blue circle demonstrates the sphere of control (micro-level), representing the individual. Even here, when focusing solely on yourself, your control isn’t absolute. This circle encapsulates your words, reactions, decisions, and so on and so forth.

The personal circle of control is a Stoic concept. Per one source, “Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.”

Whether using the terminology of destructive, unhealthy, unhelpful, or otherwise, the consequence of our beliefs is often what impacts these emotions. My approach to REBT incorporates elements of personal responsibility and accountability—collectively: Ownership.

Not quite the same as the concept of extreme ownership, because not all events that occur in our lifetimes are the fault of our own actions, ownership does entail looking at what role we play in actions and what alternative effect we would prefer—and which we may effect.

When considering the personal sphere of control, I demonstrate to others how little control people actually have over their own lives. This may be done by inviting people not to think of a zebra.

The instruction is clear. Don’t think of a black and white striped, horse-like animal. Don’t do it. Now, what are you thinking about?

Even when given direct commands, the mind may operate on its own accord. Simply telling a person not to think of a zebra doesn’t mean the information is processed and adhered to.

When understanding how the mind functions, it isn’t as though one inputs data to an instrument of artificial learning and the command is obeyed. There are far too many variables that impact one’s mental process than to pretend as though people are naturally formulaic.

Still, we can learn to become more methodical in our behavioral processes. This may lead to improved cognitive, mental, emotional, and behavioral functioning.

For now, let’s further explore how little control one has over oneself. This may better demonstrate how pointless it is to behave as though we have control over others.

Suppose I encouraged you to stop your digestive processing, heart rate, blinking for a full day, breathing for a full hour, or growing hair through sheer will. It is unlikely most people would be able to control these processes.

The autonomic nervous system, our thoughts, and even the concept of free will aren’t as easily controllable as one may think.

Further considering how “[g]ut microbes are part of the unconscious system regulating behavior,” or how “gut microbiome can affect emotional behavior,” the circle of control begins to shirk a bit.

Add to that how a “strong argument in support of the behavioral manipulation,” concerning toxoplasmosis and its impact on behavior, one may conclude that “there’s a whole lot less free will than we would like to believe.”

Nonetheless, the sphere of control is the only area of life over which we maintain some command. Still, we may deceive ourselves by pretending we can control or absolutely influence other people.

Some individuals even delude themselves into thinking they control matters of galactic proportions. I see no evidence to support such a notion.

As such, when working with individuals, I collaborate with them to address what a person can do to bring about change in one’s own life—not society as a whole. Taking ownership of one’s own actions, to lead to a more helpful outcome, is the goal.

Third, I combine REBT and modified Covey spheres to demonstrate the process of self-change.

(A) – Someone refers to you as she rather than by your preferred gender pronoun, he.

(B) – You tell yourself, “Others must respect my preferred pronouns, and if they don’t, it’s as though they’re erasing my existence. They’re literally trying to kill me!”

(C) – As a result of the unhelpful Belief, you become angry, your head becomes noticeably warmer, your heartrate seems to accelerate, you scream at the person, and you punch the individual in the face.

(D) – Disputation is the portion of my sessions during which unhelpful Beliefs are challenged. Clients are encouraged not to Dispute the Action or the Consequence of the Action, because those are elements that actually occurred. Rather, Disputing Beliefs that do not serve a person well—as a means of changing oneself, using the circle of control—is what takes place.

While Disputing unhelpful Beliefs may occupy more time in my sessions than any other element of the ABC Model, I won’t go too far into detail about the finer points of Disputation herein. Suppose after an active period of challenging the unhelpful Belief, the following Effective new belief results.

(E) – “While I would like for others to use my preferred pronouns, no one is obligated to do so. If or when they don’t, I’ll be fine. I won’t be erased when others misgender me, and I know I have control of only myself.”

Last, the Effective new belief is used in place of the unhelpful Belief, which may result in a healthier outcome (Consequence). For the following example, a modified (E) will suffice.

(A) – Someone refers to you as she rather than by your preferred gender pronoun, he.

(B) – You tell yourself, “While I would like for others to use my preferred pronouns, no one is obligated to do so.”

(C) – As a result of the Effective new belief, you are able to shrug off the occurrence and continue on your way.

What are some other examples you can think of that may serve as helpful ABC Model practice?

When working with clients, using this approach to REBT, my ultimate role is to:

1. Identify maladaptive cognitions (e.g., rigid demands).

2. Actively and persuasively challenge these maladaptive cognitions.

3. Provide practice to clients for challenging maladaptive cognitions.

4. Negotiate homework which affords clients an ability to identify, evaluate, and challenge maladaptive cognitions, and to rehearse rational alternatives.

If my approach to REBT sounds like something in which you may be interested, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW


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