Dipping into Layers
When I underwent official training for Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), trainees were cautioned about layers of self-disturbing beliefs clients often bring to session. These layers can derail progress when attempting to address one issue, only to find multiple other irrational beliefs are present.
To better understand this challenge, consider the ABC Model:
(A)ction – What occurred
(B)elief – What you told yourself about (A) that resulted in (C)
(C)onsequence – What you felt (emotion or bodily sensation) about what happened and what you did (behavior)
(D)isputation – How you might challenge (D) what you told yourself (B), which led to (C)
(E)ffective new belief – What (E)ffective new beliefs you can tell yourself rather than using unhelpful or unhealthy narratives (B)
Moving forward, I will use this model when addressing the fictitious case of a client named Jane Doe. Let’s see how challenging a session can become when layers of unhealthy belief are stacked upon one another.
Keep in mind that the (A)ction doesn’t change, as Jane’s ever-modifying (B)elief about it is what will alter the (C)onsequence of her self-disturbing narrative. For the sake of this example, I won’t challenge Jane’s layers of (B)elief. Is the dip Jane creates appealing to you?
Dipping into Jane’s layered beliefs
Suppose Jane Doe says she’s experiencing anger every time she hears the neighbors’ dog barking. Jane mistakenly thinks that the barking (A) causes her anger (C), forming an A-C connection.
However, using REBT, I’m able to demonstrate that what Jane tells herself (B) about the barking (A) is what leads to anger (C), forming a B-C connection for Jane’s self-disturbance. Together, Jane and I could (D)ispute her unhelpful (B)elief with an aim of serving her goal.
Suppose that during disputation of Jane’s self-disturbing belief, “My neighbors should keep their dog quiet,” another unhelpful narrative arises. I invite Jane to consider that while she may prefer her neighbors’ dog not to make noise; this has been a recurring issue for the past five years.
There’s established precedence of the dog’s behavior. Therefore, I encourage Jane to consider that because talks with the neighbors haven’t been productive, law enforcement personnel have declined to take action, and other measures have proved unfruitful, Jane could practice unconditional life-acceptance.
Understanding that she has no control or influence over the barking dog, Jane could address her low frustration tolerance by changing her belief about the barking. Jane then responds, “I shouldn’t have to change myself when it’s the dog that’s barking!”
Now we’re a layer deeper into Jane’s unhelp belief. I liken this to a seven layer dip. The top layer is usually the content a person is readily able to identify. Using the image for this post, Jane’s green onions are at the surface of her belief network.
When undergoing REBT training, I was advised to deal fully with the initial belief. Sticking with the dip metaphor, Jane’s onion layer would first need to be resolved before going to a second layer of olives.
By resolving Jane’s top layer, subsequent overlapping beliefs may resolve themselves. Not always is this the case. It isn’t uncommon for a client to go five layers deep within a matter of minutes.
For the sake of this illustration, I’ll demonstrate why it’s important not to simply move at the pace of our mind’s erratic layering speed. Slowing down the process may be more beneficial in order to process beliefs which cause emotions.
Let’s say I didn’t take a directive approach to my session, interrupting Jane when necessary and refocusing on the initial self-disturbing belief, and Jane’s mental and emotional process kept stacking layer upon layer. Jane transitions from blaming the dog for her emotion to blaming the place in which she resides.
Jane says, “It’s the city’s fault, really. They really ought to do something about noisy animals!” Before I can redirect her, Jane continues past the shredded cheese and into sour cream.
“I tell you what; people who don’t give a shit about others within the community are the worst! Somebody must do something about this, because it’s getting out of hand,” Jane remarks. Maybe it’s an off day for me, because for some unknown reason I don’t interject.
Jane continues to pico de gallo by stating, “Deric, I know what you’re probably going to tell me; something like, ‘Jane, you’re using demanding statements.’ But you know what? I don’t care! I’m sick and tired of that damned dog! It’s unfair that I have to hear it whining, because I shouldn’t have to!”
Some psychotherapists use the concept of validation—mirroring of the client’s judgment or experience—giving positive responses which are intended to instill self-respect. Saying something like, “Your feelings are valid,” may be misinterpreted to suggest that one’s beliefs are accurate.
As I try to dig up towards the surface through layered self-disturbance, Jane descends further downward in her dip and into guacamole. All the while, I note that Jane is becoming more animated with her body movement, her vocal tone increases, she appears to be out of breath, and her face is contorting as she speaks.
Jane interrupts me by yelling, “I have half the mind to go over there and let that dog out so it can run away! If no one’s willing to help me with the incessant barking, I think I just might take a more drastic measure! I shouldn’t be tortured like this!”
While Jane’s emotions certainly are authentic, her belief that causes the consequence isn’t worth reinforcing. It’s clear that Jane is on a plunge into messy layers of belief that cause an uncomfortable situation.
If a client is visibly angry and difficult to redirect, I may suggest any number of grounding techniques in the moment. It’s unlikely that Jane will be able to use rational thinking when her mind and body are sending distress signals, as though she’s in literal danger.
Still, because I’m a fallible human being who doesn’t always perform at my best, I’m unable to prevent Jane’s belief descent into the metaphorical dip. Not only is she experiencing irrational beliefs, Jane is bombarded with discomforting emotions and more pronounced behavior before my eyes.
The lowest level of Jane’s dip, mashed beans, looks like excrement. If this notion seems disgusting to you, imagine how disgusted Jane is when believing the shit she tells herself.
Jane begins crying and says, “All of this reminds me of when no one listened to me as a child. I often voiced my concerns and apparently I wasn’t good enough to listen to. Now, no one is listening to my concerns about how the barking is affecting me, because who’s going to listen to a person who isn’t worth shit?”
There is no direct should, must, or ought-type statement expressed by Jane in this layer. For those who have followed along with my blogposts, you likely can spot the unhealthy belief and how a must-like inference is intertwined with it.
Jane believes she isn’t good enough, having no worth as a human being. The implication is that she must do well, must be treated well, the world must acknowledge her worth, or some derivative thereof.
Within a matter of minutes, Jane went from onions to beans. In so doing, Jane’s initial self-disturbing belief couldn’t be disputed when layer upon layer of further unhelpful beliefs are piled on.
Addressing Jane’s top layer would likely have resolved a number of other layers. Still, I imagine we would eventually have gotten to that bottom layer at some point within the treatment process.
You may think, “Well, isn’t it good that Jane got to the beans then? After all, thinking so little of herself is more important than some dog barking in the neighborhood.”
I like where your head’s at. Still, if the presenting complaint isn’t dealt with and I were to delve into Jane’s childhood issues during the session, what happens when she returns home and the immediacy of her initial issue is once again present?
While it’s true that having dealt with a barking dog for five years could offer some elasticity of her belief system, the acuity of repeated barking events—especially in her present life when at home—probably presents a more pressing issue. Is what happened 20 or 30 years ago worth addressing now, as a dark barks loudly?
Of course, I would leave it up to Jane regarding which matter required immediate attention. As Jane thrusts us into a seven layer dip—largely because I didn’t intercede between additional beliefs and resulting consequences—I can’t be inflexible with requiring Jane to speak of onions when she’s covered beans.
Nonetheless, to keep a session focused on helping Jane get better, and to prevent a messy beliefs-based layer of awfulizing dip, it may be a more appropriate use of Jane’s time to actively dispute the presenting belief. It very well may be that dipping into Jane’s layered beliefs doesn’t require seven levels of agony.
REBT can be a useful tool when addressing unhelpful beliefs which cause suffering. Still, if we allow these unhealthy beliefs to layer upon one another without disrupting the compounding process, we’re likely to disturb ourselves more than if we first dealt with the initial belief.
When working with clients, I encourage them to focus on disputing the underlying belief that causes a consequence in association with an action. Rather than an A-C connection, my clients learn about the B-C connection.
Though it is popular practice for people to “vent” about their issues, I encourage you to ask yourself whether or not complaining, whining, or moaning about an action actually changes anything for the betterment of your life. You may feel better, though do you get better?
This is where REBT remedies the traditional approach to talk therapy. While catharsis may be soothing, facing discomfort and pushing through it as a means of achieving growth can teach you how to apply a helpful technique to other actions you may face in life.
Are you ready to dip into the beliefs with which you disturb yourself? Are you prepared not to allow your mind to bury you in layer upon layer of messy beliefs? I may be able to help.
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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