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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Selflessly Disturbed


On occasion, I encounter people who disregard Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) due to the erroneous perception of this psychotherapeutic model equating to selfishness—the quality of lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.


In specific, I’ve been informed that some individuals misperceive the practice of unconditional acceptance as an apathetic, inconsiderate, and selfish method of advancing one’s own interests and goals above the concerns of others. Allow me to steel man this perspective:


Practitioners of REBT acknowledge human fallibility and therefore advocate unconditional self-acceptance (USA) which posits that one can accept oneself without unhelpful conditions while still striving to improve one’s own disposition. In the same way, unconditional other-acceptance (UOA) acknowledges the inherent faults of others while advocating tolerance and acceptance of their beliefs and behavior. Moreover, unconditional life-acceptance (ULA) merely admits that life itself is riddled with imperfection, so without needlessly upsetting oneself about this fact a person can simply accept what is without unproductively demanding that things should, must, or ought to be any other way.


Nevertheless, USA, UOA, and ULA neglect to focus on the collective challenges of life and instead fixate on improving an individual’s life experience. This lack of consideration for others, concerned chiefly with one’s own personal well-being, isn’t morally good for society. After all, if everyone merely looked out for themselves rather than directing their efforts to uplifting others in a selfless manner, society would decay into chaos through the expression of wanton disregard for others with whom we share a world. Therefore, REBT promotes selfishness and isn’t worth practicing when other mental, emotional, and behavioral psychotherapeutic modalities which favor the prosperity of all people are readily available.


I wholeheartedly agree with the steel man position within a steel man position that is the first paragraph. Practicing REBT, I encourage use of USA, UOA, and ULA as a means to help people get better than how they were prior to working with me in therapy.


However, it’s the second paragraph with which I take issue, because it advocates selflessness—the quality of being concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s own. Although I’m aware that many people perceive selflessness as being superior to self-focus, I disagree.


Self-focus isn’t the same quality as selfishness. To understand this difference, it’s worth noting that I use psychoeducation to teach clients about the spheres of control, influence, and concern.


The sphere of control encapsulates the individual. You can control only specific elements of your own life. As you read this post, your conscious mind isn’t in full control of your nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, lymphatic, respiratory, digestive, urinary, and other major systems.


You aren’t even in full control of your thoughts. Nevertheless, you do have the ability to dispute your irrational beliefs so that you can disturb yourself less than you would without challenge of the nonsense you assume about yourself, others, and life in general.


The sphere of influence contains matters within direct and indirect proximity to you, and regarding which you have the capacity to effect in some way. You may be able to influence friends and loved ones to attend a party you’ve arranged, though you can’t necessarily force them to attend.


Even if you were to wield a weapon and use violence upon others for attendance at your event, you can’t control their minds. You can’t even control all of your bodily systems, so how in the world could you fully take charge of others?


The sphere of concern relates to wars, acts of nature, the past and future, and other elements of life over which you have no control or meaningful influence. Some people even suggest that there’s a sphere of no concern that contains unknown-unknowns (e.g., extraterrestrial life).


Because you arguably have so little control over yourself, limited influence over others, and no control over the spheres of concern or no concern, REBT advocacy for self-focus is a rational approach to life. As such, I invite people to center their attention and resources on that which can benefit from the application of effort.


This isn’t the same as advocacy for selfishness, whereupon I’d encourage people to lack consideration for others. Although there is some overlap with objectivism, developed by Ayn Rand, REBT doesn’t promote selfishness.


Albert Ellis, who developed REBT, addressed the major differences between objectivism and REBT in a 1960 interview. Summarizing his points, Ellis stated:


·  “[W]e live in a highly probabilistic world, where nothing ever is, nor need be, absolutely certain. And rational therapy tries to get people to accept this kind of world and to be able to live in it.”


REBT aligns with the David Hume is-ought problem, which proposes that one cannot derive an ought from an is—you cannot demand what ought to be when faced with the reality of what simply is. Rejection of this paradigm leads to needless self-disturbance.


·  “[O]bjectivists seem to believe strongly in blaming human beings for their mistakes and errors and punishing them – if necessary, by death – for their wrongdoings. In rational psychotherapy, we accept mistakes and wrongdoings as unfortunate facts of life but never blame anyone for anything.”


Is it selfish to advocate unconditional acceptance, reasoning that unfortunate events are what they are and to maintain that we don’t have to punish ourselves with unhelpful beliefs about these occurrences? Is it perhaps selfish to forego blaming others for matters with which we disagree?


·  “In rational therapy we teach that you do not hurt others by refusing to put their interests above your own; rather, they hurt themselves by taking your “selfishness” too seriously and by falsely believing – again, at point B [belief] – that you should sacrifice yourself for them.”


REBT uses the ABC model to demonstrate how our beliefs about events are what lead to unpleasant emotional, bodily sensation, and behavioral consequences. Regarding this paradigm, rational self-focus may be considered selfish, though this assumption and not self-focus itself is what causes disturbance.


·  “If, over and above this, the individual wants to devote himself to some person, thing, or idea outside himself, that is fine; and, in fact, will normally lead to maximum self-efficiency and happiness. But he doesn’t have to be devoted to others.”


Ellis advocated reduction of self-disturbance. If I choose self-interest and you choose selfless sacrifice, neither of us is objectively bad, wrong, evil, or otherwise for our choices.


REBT isn’t a selfish psychotherapeutic intervention. Still, some people maintain that in order to lead a life worth living individuals must be concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with their own interests and goals. Therefore, they abandon the sphere of control.


Although there is nothing inherently wrong with a selfless worldview of this kind, I’ve observed many people needlessly disturb themselves over the fact that not everyone else shares a similar value. From my perspective, selflessly disturbed people aren’t the model of health I wish to emulate.


I’ve witnessed people express such concern with the spheres of influence and concern to where the physiological and psychological health of these individuals deteriorates. Because of their unhealthy beliefs, they make themselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally unwell.


Dear reader, if you choose to focus on the problems of the world by doomscrolling, engaging in social media spats, or focusing on your contention with people like me who opt for self-focus versus selfless disturbance, you’re free to do so. Besides, I’m not here to stop you from living your worst life.


However, for those people who want to improve upon the one sphere over which you actually have some control (yourself), I’m here to help. You don’t have to light yourself on fire to keep others warm, or endorse unhealthy accusations of shame levied at you by those who’ve burnt themselves to a crisp through their selfless actions.


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—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, 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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