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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

To Don a HAT

USMC hats

When going thorough United States Marine Corps (USMC) recruit training I became familiar with terms of which I was previously unaware. For instance, a “cover” was a hat.

To “don” an item was to put on something such as an article of clothing (e.g., I donned my cover). Also, the cover worn by a drill instructor (DI) was referred to as a “Smokey,” in homage to the hat worn by Smokey Bear.

Among the DIs was a hierarchal structure. A “drill hat” was responsible for specific training while a “kill hat” was tasked with discipline and existed to maximize misery, or so I thought when caught up in tornadoes.

For those who have never witnessed a DI tornado, this video captures it fairly well. As a recruit, the mere sight of a hat within one’s vicinity is what I image it would be like when swimming in the ocean and suddenly seeing the first or frontal dorsal fin of a shark.

Not knowing then what I do now, I better comprehend what caused that fear and panic. It wasn’t the Smokey that led to an emotive consequence; it was what I told myself about the behavior of those who wore a Smokey.

REBT and psychology

Using Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I understand Stoic philosopher Epictetusnotion, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” After all, it would be irrational to suggest that a DI’s cover could evoke fright on its own and without conditioning.

A rational perspective would entail use of the ABC Model practiced with REBT. The (A)ction represented observing a Smokey-wearing DI engaging me and the (B)elief I used then led to a (C)onsequence in the form of fear and panic. As an example:

(A)ction – One afternoon in boot camp, DIs were disruptively storming through the squad bay while leaving in their path a destructive trail of overturned footlockers and mattresses. As a kill hat engaged me and I was unable to answer his demands fast enough, the whirlwind of chaos consumed me with two other DIs joining in the erratic behavior.

(B)elief – I thought, “They shouldn’t focus on me and if this continues I don’t think I can stand it, because this is awful!”

(C)onsequence – I felt afraid, my heartrate accelerated, my breathing became shallow, sweat poured from my head, and I experienced significant panic to a degree whereby I couldn’t tie my own boots when being ordered to do so. I lost fine motor functioning.

A collection of similar DI experiences led to the psychology technique of classical conditioning during my training. When a Smokey (neutral stimulus) is paired with discipline (unconditioned stimulus) the result in my case was fear (unconditioned response or reflex).

After some time, all it took was the sight of the Smokey to produce fear, thus transitioning the Smokey to a conditioned stimulus and emotion to a conditioned response. This is known as a Pavlovian form of conditioning:

DIs refer to this effect as “cover identification.” The (B)eliefs I had about the (A)ction led to (C)onsequences and reinforcement of this process fortified the (B)eliefs with which I disturbed myself.

No longer interacting with DIs, the sight of a Smokey has no effect on me. The conditioned stimulus no longer produces a conditioned response, as this results in an effect referred to as extinction.


For now, I will concentrate on the self-disturbing belief, “They shouldn’t focus on me and if this continues I don’t think I can stand it, because this is awful!” Irrational beliefs often take on some form of should, must, or ought-type of prescriptive framework.

I equate these rigid demands to those issued by DIs in the form of orders. “You should stop moving when told to do so,” “You must render a salute to an officer,” and, “You ought to know better than to speak when a DI is speaking,” are a few examples.

In and of themselves, these commands may be helpful. After all, I volunteered to submit to the authority of USMC leaders so obeying their demands could serve my goal related to striving for success within the Corps.

Therefore, the disturbing belief that led to the uncomfortable consequence of fear and panic required an extreme component. Telling myself, “I don’t think I can stand it, because this is awful!” was what led to the irrationally emotive response that left me unable to tie my boots.

There are two REBT elements of my statement worth examining herein. The first relates to low frustration tolerance (LFT). When I thought, “I don’t think I can stand it,” my mind drafted a narrative it believed—that I actually couldn’t tolerate stress.

Simply stated, frustration tolerance is one’s ability to cope with distress. LFT is an impoverished amount of this ability. According to one source, “We exhibit low frustration tolerance when we avoid our problems instead of facing them.”

Because of my inability to flee the kill hat who engaged me, my mental I-can’t-stand-it message activated the emotion of fear and the response of panic. Imagine if I told myself while sitting in a room engulfed with fire, “I can’t stand it,” that may be an appropriate narrative.

I could die from smoke inhalation or from being burned alive. It makes little difference to the mind whether or not one’s life is in actual or perceived danger.

If I believed I was under duress, my emotions, body, and behavior would react accordingly. Left unchallenged, irrational LFT beliefs that aren’t appropriate to the setting may result in unhelpful or unhealthy consequences.

The second REBT element relates to awfulizing. Per one source this occurs “as a secondary irrational belief that is derived from the primary irrational belief, known as demandingness.”

Secondary to the rigid prescription, “They shouldn’t focus on me,” and when paired with the LFT narrative “if this continues I don’t think I can stand it,” my mind convinced itself that the message was true “because this is awful!”

Awfulizing often comes in the form of telling oneself that an experience is horrible, awful, or terrible (HAT). To convince oneself that a situation is unbearable is one thing, though to place a value on it in the form of a HAT narrative plays a key role in the aggravation of a consequence.

For example, imagine you’re in that room I mentioned earlier and flames haven’t quite engulfed your surroundings. You smell smoke, the room temperature increases, and you hear a crackling noise outside the door.

Telling yourself the situation is dangerous, unsafe, or alarming would serve as a rational conclusion. Now put on a HAT narrative and what is the outcome?

Sure, cause for concern may influence you emotions and behavior in order to flee for safety. However, telling yourself that it’s awful may lead to the understanding that an injustice has somehow manifested—that perhaps this shouldn’t be happening to you.

Fires occur around the world every day. There is no universal decree that validates a notion that you in particular must be spared such an event.

No doubt, you may prefer never to endure the experience. You may hope you’ll be flame free for all your days. You may wish that such a thing would only be read about in a blog post drafted by a psychotherapist who truly has no business communicating his thoughts in written form.

Yet, when we use irrational beliefs with values-based judgments in the form of HAT we only exasperate the unhelpful belief that leads to an unhealthy consequence. Putting on the unnecessary burden of HAT statements may not be wise.


Many years have passed since I was in boot camp. I can’t recall the last time I was physically present to witness a kill hat in action.

All the same, prior to understanding the principles of REBT, I experienced many events that evoked a similar response to the occurrence of a DI tornado. Only, the entire process occurred within the construct of my mind’s irrational beliefs.

Now aware of how to cope in a helpful and healthy manner, I’ve drastically reduced use of enhancing horrible, awful, and terrible statements. Would you like help so that you may stop disturbing yourself, as well?

You no longer need to don a HAT, and perhaps you never needed to in the first place.

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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