Updated: Sep 21
In the 1987 film The Princess Bride, a character named Vizzini continuously used the word “inconceivable,” until called out by his traveling companion, Inigo Montoya, for the solecism. This is akin to how I often hear people use the word “democracy.”
Whereas Vizzini’s mistake was treated as a mild annoyance, demandingness associated with a supposed “threat to our democracy” is another matter altogether, due to consequences of this belief. Herein, I’ll outline how I would address this issue in a clinical setting, using a fictitious client named Wilhelmina Annawitahwodi.
When attending my first graduate program, graduating with a Master of Arts in Counseling in 2011, I was told that counselors were not to practice eclecticism—tailoring different psychotherapeutic approaches to client needs. Rather, we were instructed to pick one psychotherapeutic modality upon which to focus.
I chose Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), created by Albert Ellis, and which functions on the Epictetusnotion, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” There were a number of reasons I chose this approach, which include therapy:
· simple enough to understand without over-complexity found in other modalities
· using a humorous approach
· favoring a Stoic view to life
· valuing existentialism
· using a no nonsense style
· that was pragmatic through its practice of self-acceptance when faced with imperfection
· from a theorist who also saw value in using profanity
· that can be practiced in a relaxed environment
· aimed at addressing the present—in which life is experienced
· that allows one to become one’s own therapist
A decade after studying REBT in school, I completed advanced practicum training in the principles and practice of REBT with the Albert Ellis Institute. There were noted changes in the modality from those I’d studied, which may be addressed in a future blog entry.
For now, I’d like to address the sociopolitical phenomena of self-disturbance associated with the phrase, “Our democracy,” of which I will interchangeably refer to as “our damned democracy” (ODD). Before we dive in, consider the words of Ellis, “There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.”
Logic & Reason
In order to better understand how people disturb themselves with the odd term of ODD; it may be of some use to understand the difference between logic and reason. My rational for this is simple.
REBT uses rational thinking, which involves both logic and reasoning. Rather than actively participating in emotional disturbance associated with ODD, I want to illustrate how one may view the matter through the lens of REBT.
For the sake of the current blog entry, I propose that logic is based on math and attempts to explore a statement of truth based on a set of facts or assumptions. Reason is subject to opinion and serves as method of forming beliefs on the basis of existing beliefs.
REBT uses a formula to address problems, called the ABC Model. This model is constructed as follows:
(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)
Here’s an example of how illogical reasoning works:
· I should be perfect.
· I often make mistakes. How awful!
· This proves I’m imperfect and therefore worthless.
I assist clients by identifying rigid and extreme belief systems (also called cognitions)—similar to the example above—that often lead to emotional consequences (i.e., shame, guilt, sorrow, agitation, etc.) and behavioral reactions (e.g., punching a wall when upset).
Here are some examples of rigid beliefs:
· I must always defend democracy.
· Others must respect my views.
· Society must not cause me discomfort with opposing my views.
It isn’t uncommon to derive extreme cognitions from rigid expectations. Here are a few examples of these unhelpful combinations:
· I must be on the right side of history, because it would be awful if I weren’t.
· Others must respect my views, and it will devastate me if they don’t.
· Society must not cause me discomfort, and it’s terrible when I’m uncomfortable.
With a basic understanding about REBT, and clarification about what logic and reason are, we now may move forward to examining a trend serving as the main topic of this blog entry. Let us explore how some people in the United States (U.S.) disturb themselves with rigid and extreme narratives related to “our democracy.”
Disputing “Our Democracy”
Before we go further, I invite you to conduct a brief experiment. Using your preferred internet browser, search a news tab for the following phrase (to include quotation marks): “our democracy”. Now, I encourage you to ask the following questions:
· Who did you observe using this phrase?
· What did you notice?
· When were most results dated, within the past decade or so?
· Where did your investigation take you (e.g., corporate media sites)?
· Why do you think there are so many sources available that are also tied to emotional appeals?
· How did you feel (emotion and body sensation) reading some of the sources?
· To what extent are you willing to outsource your reaction (e.g., emotional response) to such articles?
Suppose Wilhelmina reports the following symptoms when thinking about how “our democracy is under attack”:
· Tightness in her chest
· A rapid heartbeat
· Legs weakening
· Sweaty palms
· Pounding in her head
· Racing thoughts
· Thinking she’s in danger
· Rapidly contemplating what may be done to ease her discomfort
· Feeling angry
· Feeling frightened
· She begins doomscrolling to confirm her bias
· She vigorously shakes her legs while seated until she can sit no longer
· Wilhelmina stands up and begins pacing
· She throws her phone across the room
· When a family member enters the room, Wilhelmina begins yelling at the person
When conducting your brief internet experiment, did you experience any symptoms Wilhelmina also endured? These physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements are all consequences of Wilhelmina’s belief system—as outlined in the ABC Model.
Clients often come to me, because the response they have to their beliefs—self-disturbance—has significant impact on their lives. While Wilhelmina’s symptoms reflect anger (rage, hostility, aggression, or violence), I observe similar impact on clients concerning depression, anxiety, and a host of other conditions.
I will now demonstrate how I’d address Wilhelmina’s presenting issue in a session. For a more in-depth breakdown of how I use REBT, I invite you to read a separate blog post entitled Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).
Let’s set up Wilhelmina’s ODD information using an A-B-C format.
(A)ction – Wilhelmina listens to a July 4, 2022 speech by President Biden, in which he declares, “You all heard what happened today. But each day, we’re reminded there’s nothing guaranteed about our democracy, nothing guaranteed about our way of life. We have to fight for it, defend it, and earn it by voting to refine, evolve, and extend the calling of America to move forward boldly and unafraid.” The declaration followed a mass shooting.
When practicing REBT, I find it helpful to explore the critical activating event (critical A)—the crucial aspect of the situation a client considers most relevant. Of this, Wilhelmina states, “I heard our president say we need to fight for our democracy.”
(B)elief – When hearing President Biden’s speech, Wilhelmina thought, “We “must commit to fight back against assaults on our democracy,” and, “If I sit back and do nothing, I’ll be part of the problem, and I couldn’t stand that!” The should, must, or ought self-disturbing narrative is inherent in her initial statement.
We tend to believe the things we tell ourselves. When Wilhelmina applies an extreme follow-up statement to her initial rigid narrative, she’s now effectively disturbed herself into the following consequence.
(C)onsequence – The previously discussed physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements all occur. It’s important to understand that items in the consequence category are NOT the result of the critical A.
I emphasize to Wilhelmina that it’s not what President Biden said—or even that a mass shooting occurred—that disturbs her, though how she react to it that matters. Therefore, the irrational belief in the B-C connection better explains this interplay.
Having outlined what occurred, Wilhelmina is now able to move forward with disputation. We aren’t disputing the critical A, because that is something that actually occurred.
With REBT, we cannot change the past, nor can we control other people, things, or events. For more information about how little control we have in this life, I invite you to read a blog post I wrote entitled Circle of Concern.
Likewise, we aren’t disputing the consequence of Wilhelmina’s beliefs. The physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements all very much occurred, so why try to dismiss or invalidate what historically took place?
Rather, my aim when working with clients is to demonstrate how the uncomfortable, unhealthy, or unhelpful reaction was self-caused. By understanding how we contribute to our own suffering, we may alleviate future misery.
Goal – While not a core function of the ABC Model, between (C) and (D), I like to insert a goal for the session. It’s crucial that my clients participate in the negotiation of this goal, as I don’t simply assign what I think is best for them.
Suppose Wilhelmina says the goal for her session is to experience less physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral disturbance related to ODD. I’d then ask what that would look like (how she imagines the outcome) and we’d work towards that goal.
(D)isputation – There are a number of different methods I use during this portion of the ABC Model, which include:
While disputing beliefs occupies 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. Still, it may be useful to highlight at least two of the above-listed disputes.
An empirical dispute, also referred to as a scientific dispute, occurs when “asking the client if there is evidence to support their beliefs.” This is where logic and reason come in handy.
I won’t delve too deep into logical arguments, as it’s said that “The logical dispute doesn’t work for a lot of people.” After all, using the following “mad lib argument” may simply confuse some people:
All X are Y.
m is an X.
Therefore, m is a Y.
As such, for the purpose of this demonstration, I will stick to rational (reasoned) arguments. Additionally, I talk more in my sessions than some psychotherapists, so the following style isn’t indicative of how all REBT therapists behave.
Practical Application –
Me: Wilhelmina, to clarify, are you suggesting that you must commit to fight back against assaults on democracy and if you do nothing you’ll somehow be part of the problem—something that you believe you couldn’t stand?
Wilhelmina: Yes, that’s exactly it. Our democracy is at stake!
Me: Oh my, that sounds pressing. Maybe I’m behind on current events. What’s going on?
Wilhelmina: Well, the January 6th committee hearings, [alleged] white supremacists marching in Boston, the overturning of Roe, the [alleged] mass shooter in Chicago purchased a gun legally…how do you not know these things!? Our democracy is literally under assault.
Me: I can see how upset you are. Neither of us can dispute the actions you’ve outlined here, so with your permission, let’s focus on the belief—what you’re telling yourself—about these events. Would that be ok?
Me: Is it the case that, as you say, “our democracy” is in jeopardy when the U.S. is a constitutional republic and not a democracy?
Wilhelmina: What are you talking about?
Me: Despite what some people say, the U.S. government maintains, “While often categorized as a democracy, the United States is more accurately defined as a constitutional federal republic.” There was once a time when young children were reminded of this by citing the pledge of allegiance, in which it is declared, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands […],” not, “The democracy for which it stands.” Understanding that the U.S. system is not the democracy you demand of it, what now may be said of your self-disturbing belief?
Wilhelmina: Well…I still think it’s a democracy, because we vote.
Me: It is true that our nation is a representative democracy housed in a constitutional framework. Still, I wonder whether or not you accept that a direct democracy—which it seems as though you’re advocating—is what you actually want. Maybe I’m wrong, and I’m open to hearing if I am.
Wilhelmina: I just want a system in which each person’s vote counts, our voices are heard, and we’ll be on the right side of history.
Me: I hear that. You’ve used some key talking points. Allow me to address each. Let’s say there are approximately just over 330 million people in the U.S. Of those, approximately 66.8% voted in the 2020 presidential election. That’s about 22,044,000 people who voted. Does that seem accurate so far?
Me: Ok. So of that number—and for the sake of this discussion, let’s presume there was no widespread shenanigans resulting in voter fraud—the majority of the people in 2020 voted for President Biden, making him the most popular president ever voted for. Personally, I don’t have evidence to the contrary, so I’ll grant that premise. Votes were cast and people’s voices were heard. Would you say that a vote for President Biden resulted in a nomination for being on the “right side of history”?
Wilhelmina: Yeah. I voted for him.
Me: Great! The system in which you want to live is precisely what you have. What’s the issue?
Wilhelmina: Ugh, they aren’t. I just get so…so frustrated by people.
Me: Remember, it isn’t that conservatives, Republicans, people on the Right, or whatever exist that frustrates you. There is no A-C connection. What frustrates you?
Wilhelmina: My beliefs.
Me: Correct. Let’s focus on the belief you say is disturbing you most. You tell yourself that you must commit to fight back against assaults on democracy and if you do nothing you’ll somehow be part of the problem—something that you believe you can’t stand. We’ve dispelled the idea of direct democracy. We’ve also confirmed that your voice was heard when you voted for and received the results you wanted from the 2020 election. We can therefore conclude that you’ve done your part towards the electoral process and your actions towards doing so aren’t problematic. Would you agree, disagree, or something else?
Wilhelmina: I agree. I guess what bothers me—well, what I tell myself that bothers me is there are people like those who participated in the January 6th insurrection, white supremacists openly marching in our streets, rights being overturned, mass shootings, and whatnot. That’s that shit I can’t stand!
It is at this point in the session that I would likely switch techniques. The empirical dispute was appropriate to dispel the notion that Wilhelmina somehow wasn’t doing enough to effect change.
Controlling outcomes of elections is out of her grasp. Forcing others to participate in the electoral process is also beyond Wilhelmina’s reach.
The rigidity of her irrational ODD belief has been softened by a careful examination of its nature. The stuck point is now the extreme belief related to catastrophizing, awfulizing, etc. To address this, I move to the elegant solution.
Describing the elegant solution in understandable terms, one source states, “A practitioner of REBT might go even further to suggest what Ellis terms an elegant solution: what matters isn’t whether your dad loves you—maybe he does, maybe he does not—your irrational thought is that you need to be loved by your dad (you want to be loved by him, but you do not need his love).”
Rather than demanding that something should, must, or ought to be, we may simply tell ourselves that we would prefer the world to operate as we wish it would. Per one source, “Some might even say that adopting a preferential philosophy, having given up on a demand-based one, is the silver bullet of REBT.”
When we express a preference versus a demand, we remain open to accepting that things may not be, may never have been, nor may ever be as we would like. This is arguably more helpful than inflexibly demanding that our desires be met.
Additionally, in REBT, we explore the concepts of unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional other-acceptance, and unconditional life-acceptance—all of which function well with a preference instead of a demand. It is important to know that when using the elegant solution, we understand what acceptance in REBT means:
1. An acknowledgement that an adversity exists;
2. A realization that unfortunately all the conditions are in place for the adversity to exist;
3. An evaluation that the adversity is bad, but not awful, and that you can tolerate it; and
4. A determination to change the adversity if it can be changed, and to deal with it as constructively as possible if it can’t be changed.
In the following demonstration, I build upon the empirical dispute. REBT psychotherapy is a dynamic process, and I want to enhance and reinforce lessons learned throughout the disputation process.
Practical Application –
Me: If I understand you, Wilhelmina, it sounds like you’re saying that your belief about people is what leads to consequences. In other words, telling yourself that people like those who participated in the events of January 6th, people you consider to be white supremacists openly protesting, unenumerated rights being remanded to the states, mass shootings, and other matters should not, must not, or ought not to happen—and if they do, you can’t stand that shit. Have I accurately captured your sentiment?
Me: *Vizzini voice* Inconceivable! The words we tell ourselves matter. The words we misuse also matter. When you tell yourself that you “can’t stand” something, your mind interprets the message literally. You may not like that people who are different than you exist. You may wish that disorder, racism, lack of access, murder, and other facts of life didn’t occur. Yet, you “can’t stand” this? I have doubts.
Wilhelmina: Ok, I don’t mean that I literally can’t tolerate those things. What I’m saying is that I hate that they exist.
Me: I hear that. There are many things, from roaches to murder and everything in between, that I don’t care for. Listen to what you said though. It isn’t that you can’t stand or tolerate the things you detest. Rather, it sounds to me as though you would simply prefer these things didn’t exist. What do you think?
Wilhelmina: Yeah, that sounds about right. I wish the ugliness of the world wasn’t real. I’d prefer those things not to exist.
At this point in the session, I wouldn’t belabor the disputation process. Wilhelmina has moved from enforcement of a rigid and extreme position to that of a flexible and helpful function. This is the effective new belief.
(E)ffective new belief – I would cite what I thought sounded like the healthier alternative, asking Wilhelmina if she concurred, objected, or had any modifications to the proposal. Suppose Wilhelmina agreed to the following:
“While I wish the ugliness of the world wasn’t real, and I’d prefer those things not to exist, reality is that these unpleasant things occur in life. I can tolerate the things with which I disagree.”
Wilhelmina’s admission fulfills the concepts of unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional other-acceptance, and unconditional life-acceptance. With this in place, I would then invite Wilhelmina to substitute her unhelpful narrative with the effective new belief.
(A) – Wilhelmina heard President Biden say U.S. citizens need to fight for “our democracy.”
(B) – Rather than telling herself the self-disturbing ODD narrative, “We must commit to fight back against assaults on our democracy,” and, “If I sit back and do nothing, I’ll be part of the problem, and I couldn’t stand that,” Wilhelmina incorporates a more helpful belief.
She now says to herself, “While I wish the ugliness of the world wasn’t real, and I’d prefer those things not to exist, reality is that these unpleasant things occur in life. I can tolerate the things with which I disagree.”
(C) – Rather than the physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral consequences of Wilhelmina’s rigid and extreme belief system, she now experiences a new set of elements. Suppose she defines these as follows:
· Relaxed posture
· A moderate heartbeat
· A light or weightless sensation throughout her body
· Fewer distracting thoughts
· No longer thinking she’s in danger
· No longer searching for a way to check out
· Feeling what she describes as relief—the absence of anger
· No longer feeling frightened
· While somewhat annoyed with disorder, racism, lack of access, murder, and other facts of life, Wilhelmina prefers annoyance to anger
· Wilhelmina makes the healthy decision to no longer doomscroll
· She pays to have her phone repaired, realizing the cost of breaking it wasn’t worth the behavioral tantrum
· Wilhelmina also apologizes to her family member, making amends
· She then approaches sensationalized, emotively-charged media in a healthier manner
Goal – When reminded of her goal—to experience less physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral disturbance—Wilhelmina confirms that the target was met. The ABC Model—and more importantly, Wilhelmina’s effort—was a success.
The ABC Model may be used in and out of sessions. It’s a learnable technique that requires personal effort to employ. While this may seem like a nonsensical statement, it is anything but that.
I often hear pushback in the form of something like, “Rationally, it makes sense, but I don’t feel like it makes sense.” I don’t promote an easy approach to resolving problems. REBT requires effort.
If this form of therapy is understood, though somehow seems uncomfortable, it’s likely time to practice the tool. With clients, I negotiate homework so that REBT skills may be reinforced.
Perhaps most new practices throughout your life required some effort and discomfort (i.e., learning to ride a bike, studying for a major exam, learning how to effectively communicate with others, etc.). How often were you able to accomplish meaningful tasks when initially learning how to perform them?
REBT is a skillset one can use frequently. With more practice, perhaps you’ll experience less discomfort with this method. I’m reminded of how Ellis was also able to practice what he promoted.
When a board of trustees dispute occurred at his institute, resulting in removal from his position, Ellis was quoted as having said, “I think it’s unfair, but they have the right as fallible, screwed-up humans to be unfair; that’s the human condition.”
It would’ve been easy for Ellis to literally light his institute on fire and burn it to the ground rather than allowing others to assume power from the fruits of his efforts. Instead, Ellis demonstrated how practice of his technique during a trying time in his life could lead to less self-disturbance.
As a matter of full self-disclosure, I’ve been informed that some people consider REBT as nothing more than substituting one delusion for another. “Deric,” the proverbial they say, “Isn’t an effective new belief nothing more than choosing one lie over another?”
I can appreciate the critical thought and skepticism of some people. At least they aren’t functioning along the lines of those who never question “our democracy” and other such platitudes.
My reply to the delusion replacement question is simple. If you choose to deceive yourself with an irrational belief, the result of which doesn’t serve your interests, what is wrong with opting for a rational belief that better relates to your goals?
Another criticism I’ve heard—and which a more drawn-out disputation period with the fictitious Wilhelmina would likely have revealed—is that relating to moral or ethical propriety. “Deric,” the proverbial they would challenge, “Aren’t you advocating for people not to change the world and make this a better place for all of us?”
Again, my answer is simple. Aside from a cursory glance at my official website revealing that I purposely don’t participate in activism, I work with clients regarding how they may change themselves, not the world around them.
As well, per one source, “Nothing in REBT tells us that murder, racism or genocide should be countenanced. REBT does tend, however, to affirm the intrinsic value of human beings, even those whose behavior may be reprehensible.” I do not choose to disturb myself with all the possibilities of how terrible, horrible, or awful this world can be.
I am here for a limited time on this earth and I choose to direct my efforts towards working with individual adults. There is little evidence that Mahatma Gandhi ever uttered the memetic quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” or other variations of this phrase.
Still, as one person states, “This quote helps us to pay attention to the inner self work we need to do before we attempt to change the world.” I’m here to help people with self-work, not changing the world.
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
Inigo Montoya (played by Mandy Patinkin) and Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) in The Princess Bride (20th Century Fox, 1987), fair use
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