The Elegant Solution
Updated: Sep 21, 2022
One Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) technique discussed less frequently within my blog relates to the elegant solution.
Unlike the ABC Model, with which a person disputes rigid and extreme attitudes or irrational beliefs, the elegant solution affords you the opportunity to consider what happens if the unhelpful or unhealthy belief is true.
Suppose I saw a client named Philbert and he told me that when thinking about how unattractive he considers himself, Philbert becomes sorrowful and his body feels heavier than usual. With this discomfort, Philbert chooses to isolate himself from public view.
Philbert tells me that an action (A) leads to a consequence (C), forming an A-C connection. He ventures into a public place (A) and Philbert feels sad, lethargic, and quickly scurries off to his vehicle so that he may resolve the discomfort.
Rather than endorsing the A-C connection, REBT uses the Epictetian notion, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Therefore, I could assist Philbert in understanding the B-C connection.
Philbert goes into a grocery store (A) and thinks, “I shouldn’t look as fugly as I do, and because I’m not more attractive, I don’t think I can stand to be in this store any longer” (B). As a result of this unhelpful belief, Philbert disturbs himself into a sorrowful mood, feels sluggish, and flees to his car (C).
This is an A-B-C connection that could use disputation (D) to lead towards a new effective belief (EB). For more information about how I assist clients with disputing unhelpful and unhealthy beliefs, I invite you to review the following blog posts:
· AntiFACTser: A Pandemic of the UnFACTsinated
· Wild Out
The Elegant Solution
Disputing can occupy more time in my sessions than perhaps any other phase of REBT practice. Depending on a person’s presenting issue—especially when confounding irrational beliefs emerge—disputes can become quite elaborate.
Thankfully, the elegant solution isn’t as complex as the abc conjecture or the Basel problem. Nevertheless, it sometimes seems as though tangled multiple self-reinforcing irrational beliefs can create problems we can’t quickly resolve.
The elegant solution is a fairly straightforward technique I use with clients, especially when time doesn’t permit a lengthy inference chain or other manner of REBT dispute. As well, if a client is unwaveringly wed to an irrational belief, this technique can help when assessing low frustration tolerance (LFT).
What do you think of when imagining what the elegant solution is? Do you think of ineffective thought-stopping, useless positive affirmations, or “toxic positivity” associated with positive thinking?
There’s no shame if you do. How couldn’t you consider such flawed techniques when a near perpetual barrage of psychobabble self-help narratives are often espoused by those for whom you care, social media influencers, and through generational rhetoric that likely didn’t work for those who promote these methods?
I suppose if I tried hard enough I could come up with something as eloquent as how one coach framed the issue by stating, “Manifesting is a load of shit.” The elegant solution doesn’t fall into the category of woo-woo practices, pseudo-sagely advice, or a positivity for positivity’s sake belief system.
As one REBT source highlights, “Elegance is not necessarily dressed in promise and optimism, but rather realism.” A separate source suggests:
There are four basic core irrational beliefs to find and dispute if you want to find the elegant solution:
• Demands – I have to always deliver interesting presentations
• Low Frustration Tolerance – I can’t stand disappointing people
• Awfulizing – It is awful if people think I’m inadequate
• Global Evaluations of Worth – I’m a failure if I perform poorly 51% of the time
Philbert goes into a grocery store (A) and thinks, “I ought to look better than I do, and because I don’t, I can’t stand to be seen by others” (B), as this unhelpful belief leads to sadness, heaviness, and a dash to the parking lot (C). Use of the elegant solution with Philbert would look something like this.
Retrospectively discussing the event in his therapy session, I ask Philbert to consider that he may be as physically unappealing as he thinks he is. Would Philbert be able to tolerate himself if this were true?
An Elegant Dispute
The elegant solution dispute with Philbert may unfold as follows:
Me: Philbert, it would be pointless for me to dispute the action, because that’s an event that very much took place. You went to the grocery store. As well, it seems like disputing your emotion, body sensation, and behavior would be a waste of your time, because those were real experiences.
I could offer any number of disputing techniques for your belief that led to the consequence, and I suspect those would be effective at getting to the crux of the matter—the B-C connection. Still, it occurs to me that very little I have to say about your physical appearance may matter.
You may have been told throughout your life that you’re conventionally unattractive. Perhaps even your closest confidants, though likely expressed with soft sentiment, have confirmed what you believe about yourself.
I suppose the elegant solution, which is said to entail “accepting our fate as humans who can withstand distress,” is a reasonable approach to your issue. Let’s say that what you tell yourself is true—that you’re physically repulsive.
Can you tolerate this perceived social crime without experiencing the awarded punishment of self-isolation?
Philbert: Wait a minute. I thought, in therapy, you’re supposed to talk me out of the way I think. Aren’t you supposed to help me think positive thoughts and manifest a better existence—to help me live my best life?
Me: I could tell you all manner of things. Like my late stepmom said, “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining,” so I’m not going to deceive you with the sort of pseudo-therapy you may find on social media, like TikTok. I noticed you didn’t answer my question, Philbert.
Philbert: Oh, damn. What was it again?
Me: Let’s say that what you tell yourself is true—that you’re physically repulsive. Can you tolerate this perceived social crime without experiencing the awarded punishment of self-isolation?
Philbert: I mean I’ve gotten by all these years. I’m 30. I suppose I literally could tolerate it. I don’t like it though.
Me: Wait. If you can tolerate being ugly—being charitable to your claim—what has you darting to the parking lot when people look at you in the store?
Philbert: Well, I don’t like being looked at.
Me: I’m looking at you.
Philbert: It’s different with you. I pay you. In a way, you have to look at me.
Me: You want people to look at you to the point whereby you’d pay them to do so?
Philbert: You know what I mean.
Me: I could easily turn off your screen on my end. As well, I’m paid to help you get better, not feel better. No section within the informed consent you signed states I have to look at you.
Likewise, when you enter a store, nothing says that others have to look at you. Moreover, nothing says you must protect the sensibilities of others, unless I’m wrong.
Philbert: No, you’re right.
Me: I’m going to tell you something that other people may not admit. Philbert, I’ve seen some babies that aren’t as cute to me as perhaps their parents think the kids are. I mean it; there are some babies and even children I’ve seen who make me question an old nursery rhyme.
“When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all”—and that lil’ one is hittin’ every branch of the ugly tree on the way down. And do you know what? It doesn’t matter what I think. That baby’s parents love the kid, not necessarily the appearance.
Tell me, how long have you been ugly, Philbert?
Philbert: All my life?
Me: You asking me or telling me? Remember, it doesn’t matter what I think about a person’s appearance. So, how long ya’ been ugly?
Philbert: As far as I can remember. I mean I didn’t hit all the branches on the way down, as you say, so I guess I was a cute enough kid. Probably around the time I was aware of how others saw me, maybe middle school, is when I realized I wasn’t as well-regarded as others in the looks department.
Me: Ahh, yes. The imaginary audience is said to be an inability to “distinguish between what other people are actually thinking, and what he or she is preoccupied with” during adolescence. It’s a fairly common phenomenon.
We become aware of how we think others perceive us—largely preoccupied with our imagination, not what others actually believe. Apparently, you’ve been fugly for a while. How’ve you managed to carry on?
Philbert: I’ve developed a coping mechanism. I try to remain as invisible as possible.
Me: I can see you.
Philbert: You know what I mean. I’ve ducked and dodged people as much as possible. I plan outings for times when there will be the least amount of people out and about. For times when there’s no way to avoid others, I try to get in and get out.
Like, with the grocery store, I’ll plan my list to be as efficient as I can with my time. Sometimes, I make it through my planned outings. Sometimes, I get the fuck outta’ there before I finish.
Me: You’re pretty resilient. For about half your life, you’ve carefully formed strategies for time maximization and efficiency. Are there ever times when ugly people are unable to make it to the car and are stuck in a public place for longer than expected? Has that happened with you?
Philbert: I’m not sure I’m comfortable with you putting me in the category with all ugly people.
Me: No? I thought that’s what we were going with.
Philbert: It’s ok to call myself ugly. I’m not sure I like when others say it to me.
Me: What would you prefer?
Philbert: I see what you’re doing here.
Me: And I see that you dodged my question. What do you do if ever you’re unable to exit the store quick enough and you’re using the self-disturbing narrative about how ugly you think you are?
Philbert: I guess I just deal with it.
Me: Like, tolerate it?
Me: So you can stand being seen by others?
Philbert: I can.
Me: It may be helpful to reflect upon the ABC Model for a moment. You enter a grocery store (A) and think, “I ought to look better than I do, though in reality I’ve looked unappealing for at least half my life, so I think I can tolerate being seen by others” (B).
What do you imagine your emotion, body sensation, or behavior would be with the new belief?
Philbert: I don’t like telling myself, “I ought to look better than I do.” It’s true that I’ve looked undesirable for a long time—longer than I like to admit. Still, you know, I really have been able to bear it.
I never really thought about myself being resilient, good with time, or efficient, as you put it. I also didn’t consider that even though I don’t like being seen by others, I can stand it when people see me. They probably have their own issues to deal with, so they likely aren’t paying me any mind in the first place.
Admitting that now, I feel relief. I’m not happy or whatever. I’m just calm. I don’t feel as though my body is heavier than usual either. I guess if I were in a public place, like the store, I wouldn’t want to run. I could sit with thinking I’m ugly and knowing I can tolerate it.
Me: This seems like a helpful, if not healthy, new effective belief. Rather than demanding that you ought to look this way or that, you accept yourself without rigid conditions. You may prefer that things were different, though you tolerate simply what is—not what you demand ought to be.
At this point in session, I would negotiate homework with Philbert. Homework is a component of REBT to help enhance therapy outcomes. There’s only so much time in each session I can devote towards assisting clients, as the difficult work occurs outside of appointments.
Homework is not assigned. Rather, I negotiate homework with clients so that they have a buy-in to the process. Otherwise, if homework is prescribed in a should, must, or ought-type fashion, I demonstrate through my behavior that prescribing to the world is an effective strategy.
I would invite Philbert to consider a shame attacking exercise. Using this technique, Philbert would go into a public place, such as the grocery store, wearing an article of clothing he considers to be unappealing.
Any of you who wear a particular brand of clogs that were popularized in the 2000s, made of a resin-like material, may or may not know about what I’m talking. Philbert would be encouraged to sit with the discomfort associated with his beliefs, journal about the experience using the ABC Model, and discuss the event at our next session.
Whereby searching for the truthfulness or usefulness of a belief is often helpful when disputing rigid and extreme attitudes, I hope to have demonstrated how the elegant solution may also be used to achieve a client’s goal. Taking on its face Philbert’s supposition, we assessed his LFT.
As it turns out, Philbert was not only more resilient than he’d realized, he was also task-oriented and efficient. These strengths, along with the ability to tolerate more than Philbert gave himself credit for and willingness to practice unconditional acceptance, may serve him well.
What do you think of the elegant solution? Is it simple enough? Too complex? Reasonable? A Croc of shit?
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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