Updated: Sep 21, 2022
**Fire hip hop music contained in each linked “Let It Go” reference**
One of the Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) concepts which took longer for me to accept, ironic as it may be, was that related to acceptance. Add the element of “unconditional” to the term and I outright rejected the proposal.
For whatever reason—or for no verifiable cause at all—I maintained that unconditional-anything was absurd. Holding that position, I was committing the cognitive distortion of labeling—overgeneralizing without considering other alternatives.
Pushing through resistance and getting out of my own way, I began to examine the possibility of accepting without conditions. What does this look like from an REBT perspective? According to one source, unconditional acceptance relates to:
1. Unconditional Self-Acceptance [USA] – I have flaws – I have my bad points and my good points, but that does not make me any less worthy than another person.
2. Unconditional Other-Acceptance [UOA] – Sometimes people won’t treat me fairly – there is no reason why they have to treat me fairly. Though some may not treat me fairly, they are no less worthy than any other person.
3. Unconditional Life-Acceptance [ULA] – Life is not always going to go the way I want. There’s no reason why it must go the way I want. I might experience some unpleasant things in life, but life itself is never awful and it is usually always bearable.
In order to objectively contemplate this concept, I needed to set aside rigid should, must, and ought demanding statements. For example, I couldn’t tell myself, “In order to accept myself, I must be perfect.”
That’s a condition I’ve never achieved, do not currently maintain, nor ever will accomplish. Still, I thought, “Isn’t it a cop-out to simply accept myself, others, and life without standards?”
I admit, it took years for my skepticism to subside, largely due to the fact that I dismissed USA as the “easy way out”—let alone, acceptance of others or life. The notion seemed impractical.
Was it though? Long ago, I began to consider what “Unconditional” could look like so that when upset, I could “Let It Go.” Herein, I’ll share what I learned.
From time to time, when presenting this matter to clients, I receive pushback similar to how I once thought. Thankfully, having mentally grappled with the concept on my own, I have improved understanding about how to approach the subject.
I think it’s important to identify the elephant in the room. USA, mentioned herein, has nothing to do with patriotism, nationalism, jingoism, or anything associated with the United States of America. Moving on.
From many sources in society (e.g., various forms of media), I hear quite a bit about the supposed importance of self-esteem. To elucidate this point, I invite you to briefly conduct an internet search using the term: social media self-esteem.
There are quite a few results that claim correlative or causative effects between social media and low self-esteem. REBT practitioners do not focus on self-esteem.
Although thinking positively about oneself may be a goal for many, doing so is said to serve “as a popular feel-good solution with deep, fatal flaws.” Albert Ellis, who created REBT, maintained that “a ‘strong’ ego or ‘real’ self-esteem really requires you to be above-average or outstanding.”
Who among flawed individuals can continually live up to that standard? While I don’t doubt the significance of one’s self-interpretation, my goal as an REBT therapist is to help clients get better, not feel better.
Using the example of social media, if a person develops a poor self-image when looking and photos or videos of other people, I don’t tend to demonize the social media platform as bad, evil, wrong, or otherwise.
As REBT functions on the Epictetus notion, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters,” I don’t focus on the action, event, source, or perceived cause of an issue. Rather, I evaluate what a person thought about what happened.
In the example of social media, I’ll use the fictitious character Philbert Amgitsecuder to clarify my point. Suppose Philbert spends hours per week on his favorite social media platform and determines that his body type is unacceptable in comparison to others.
What is the most distressing element of Philbert’s experience?
A. The social media platform
B. The amount of time Philbert spends on social media
C. Philbert’s exposure to idealized standards of beauty, attraction, and fitness
D. What Philbert told himself about what he saw
E. A & B, sometimes D, and mostly L through S
From an REBT perspective, the answer is D. Good thing for Philbert, D also represents disputation in the ABC Model used in this psychotherapeutic modality. Here’s how the model is set up:
(A)ction – The (A)ction that occurred
(B)elief – What you told yourself about the (A)ction that resulted in a (C)onsequence
(C)onsequence – What you felt (emotion or bodily sensation) about what happened and what you did (resulting behavior)
(D)isputation – How you challenge what you told yourself (Belief) about the (A)ction
(E)ffective new belief – What (E)ffective new belief you can tell yourself about the unhelpful or unhealthy (B)elief
People tend to think that an action (A) leads to a consequence (C). Philbert looking at social media and seeing others who are perceived as being more attractive (A) is said to lead to low self-esteem, characterized by sorrow (C). However, REBT maintains that rather than an A-C connection, we disturb ourselves with beliefs (B)—this creates a B-C connection.
For more information about how I approach disputation, I encourage you to read my blog post entitled Disturbing Democracy. For now, I will focus on the issue of self-esteem—and how it isn’t a matter with which I’m concerned.
When working with Philbert, I would invite him to consider what REBT practitioners teach. Per one such source, “Self-esteem, which is always conditional, involves accepting or esteeming yourself on the condition that you do well. Fallible humans will inevitably error and misbehave.”
The condition of Philbert needing to look as fit as others do is another form of should narrative. Philbert may say, “I should look yoked, and because I don’t, fuck my life!”
Philbert’s should statement serves as an irrational belief while his extreme devaluation of life operates as low frustration tolerance [LFT]—that which is grossly exaggerated. How might this go wrong?
Philbert has outsourced his self-worth to the outcome of other people’s efforts or opinions. His value is predicated on the condition that he appear to be jacked af. As such, Philbert’s self-esteem is impoverished.
As one source expresses about USA, “I can rate my traits and my behavior, but it is impossible to rate something as complex as my ‘self.’ My self consists of innumerable traits, not just this one. I strive for achievement only to enhance the enjoyment of my existence, not to prove my worth.”
Suppose Philbert understands that he can accept himself as a fallible human being, because no one is perfect. Philbert can work at becoming swole by hitting the “glorious house of gainz,” while also accepting that if he isn’t “juicy af,” he still has worth.
This is the key difference between self-esteem (feeling better) and self-acceptance (getting better). When we truly accept ourselves and a catastrophizing, awfulizing narrative presents itself, we can simply “Let It Go.”
Perhaps Philbert achieves USA, though someone online tells him to “get that weak shit outta here” when Philbert posts a photo of his muscular development. Forgetting the B-C connection, Philbert disturbs himself to anger over the comment.
Philbert’s irrational belief is, “People online ought to keep their shitty opinions to themselves,” and he adds the spice of LFT by further stating, “I can’t stand when people act like that!” Here, Philbert accepts his appearance though doesn’t accept that others maintain differing views.
Using an REBT lens, one source states, “When we have unconditional other-acceptance we avoid feeling self-defeating emotions when our family, friends, and associates display their human fallibility and misbehave or disappoint us.” This notion very much applies to strangers on the internet, as well.
Can you think of a time when you encountered unpleasant online content? At the time, did you think there was an A-C connection—that someone expressing sentiment with which you disagreed somehow resulted in your anger, frustration, or disappointment?
When working with Philbert, during the disputation phase of our session, I would explore whether or not this was the first time he experienced criticism. Likely not, I would ask how he dealt with it previously.
As well, I could ask Philbert what advice he may give to a friend who encountered a similar problem. This is known as the friend dispute to irrational beliefs.
Philbert tells me he’d inform his gym partner, “Bro, fuck the haters, they don’t matter.” While Philbert’s Stoic approach is commendable, it also reinforces the irrational conclusion that people with differing opinions are hateful.
I’d invite Philbert to contemplate what one source puts forth in regard to UOA, “The people who treat me unfairly are no more worthy and no less worthy than any other human being.” At that, I would invite Philbert to see if his friendly advice changed in any way.
Philbert then announces, “I’d tell my buddy, ‘Hey, man, I wish people didn’t air their opinions like dirty laundry on a clothesline, but they do, so let’s not stand downwind of it. Instead, let’s just focus on getting ripped!”
Admittedly, as one of my REBT counterparts expressed of UOA, “Personally, I believe this concept requires more effort than USA.” It’s not always easy, though it is doable. Still, rather than continuing to disturb ourselves, we can simply “Let It Go.”
Let’s say that Philbert grasps the concepts of USA and UOA, accepting them both. Still, he self-disturbs when life in general doesn’t go as he commands it should, demonstrating demandingness.
This isn’t uncommon, as I’ve encountered people expressing LFT regarding roaches, mosquitos, aphids, political parties, ideologies, climate change, death, and other factors that are far beyond their control. For more information about how little control we have in this life, I invite you to read my blog post entitled Circle of Concern.
Suppose Philbert’s swolemate, Wilhelmina Annawitahwodi—a 24-year-old specimen of physical fitness—suddenly dies of myocarditis after receiving mRNA COVID-19 vaccination. This isn’t a matter of self- or other-acceptance, as life itself is the matter at hand.
Philbert irrationally tells himself, “Wilhelmina died too soon,” which translates to, “She shouldn’t have died at such a young age.” I could assist Philbert with disputing this claim using an empirical challenge, because there is no evidence stating each of us has a guaranteed date of expiration.
It’s worth noting that Philbert may not readily accept this counter to his emotively-influenced assumption. I could try the Socratic method or didactic dispute, though he may accept the rational conclusion while expressing difficulty with the emotional impact he continues to experience.
One of the most frequently occurring challenges I hear when practicing REBT is something like, “This makes sense rationally, but it doesn’t feel right.” To this, I ask how “right” feels.
It may be foreign to choose a path of reduced suffering. It may “feel” out of place not to wrap oneself in unhealthy/unhelpful negative emotion—especially for those who are overly familiar with depressive symptoms.
Let me be clear when it comes to death. I do not think that mourning the loss of a loved one is bad, wrong, etc. Where I express concern for my clients is when unpleasant emotions become so impactful that they creates impairment—causing extreme limitation to one’s ability to function.
Ultimately, I think use of ULA proves more appropriate than adding to one’s own suffering. I understand how people tend not to consider that they disturb themselves. This was a difficult lesson for me to learn, as well.
According to one of my REBT counterparts, “Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy is unique, in that it encourages people to have healthy negative emotions which enable them to think about the range of possibilities that exist in an unbiased way.” This can lead to a reduction of suffering.
When identifying healthy/helpful versus unhealthy/unhelpful emotions, I subjectively find the following framing useful:
Healthy/Helpful Emotions (primary, secondary, and tertiary) –
Unhealthy/Unhelpful Emotions (primary, secondary, and tertiary) –
Some people argue that “normal’ grief reactions set patients up for being pathologized,” while others add that “dying and mourning have been constructed as scandalous in Western culture.” I tend to agree.
The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders now includes as a diagnostic condition “Prolonged Grief Disorder,” defined as “intense yearning or longing for the deceased (often with intense sorrow and emotional pain), and preoccupation with thoughts or memories of the deceased (in children and adolescents, this preoccupation may focus on the circumstances of the death).”
In Philbert’s case, let’s say he’s felt rage, guilt, depression, and resentment associated with Wilhelmina’s death a year after her passing. When he first comes to see me, Philbert also experiences prolonged periods of decreased motivation, lack of energy, loss of pleasure, poor appetite, and suicidal thoughts.
Working towards ULA, a goal may be for Phibert to eventually consider, “I fully accept my life, my ongoing existence, whether or not I get what I want,” which also encompasses acceptance of Wilhelmina’s death.
As another of my REBT counterparts suggests, “Although the situation(s) one is dealt may be bad, terrible, or even horrific, constant negative thinking such as, ‘It shouldn’t have happened to me!’ will only lead to more pain and suffering.”
It isn’t uncommon for compound irrational beliefs to exist in relations to death. Ellis once stated, “There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.”
Here are some should, must, and ought statements, along with other variations, I’ve heard expressed about death (See if you can identify the rigid and extreme elements):
· No parent should ever have to bury a child, and I don’t think I could stand to lose my baby.
· My partner can’t die before me, because if s/he did, I’d lose my will to live.
· Safety measures must keep me safe from death at all times.
· Life as I know it would stop if I ever lost you, so you ought not to die before me.
· I should live a full life, at least until 100-years-old.
· No one must ever put my life in danger, because I have an absolute right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Philbert tells me, “Wilhelmina died too soon. She shouldn’t have died at such a young age. I don’t think my life will ever be the same again, so I’ll never experience joy.” This is precisely the sort of suffering ULA addresses.
I would work with Philbert to assess the practicality of his rigid and extreme statements, dispute them, and achieve ULA. A modified example of Techniques for Disputing Irrational Beliefs would be to explore the following:
a) No law of the universe exists that says someone I care for must not die (although I would find it nice if that didn’t happen!).
b) If my loved one does die, I can survive the pain and find happiness eventually.
c) If anyone I care for ever dies, which is very likely, I can still find enjoyment in life.
d) If someone I deeply care for passes away, that would be most unfortunate; and my life, and the lives of others I care for, will go on.
e) No evidence exists for any absolutistic must. Consequently, no proof exists that I must always have anything, including the notion of being spared from death of loved ones.
f) Many people exist in the world who lose loved ones and who still lead happy lives.
g) I’ve lost loved ones before, and survived their loss, so I most probably will feel happy again.
h) Though I miss people I know who have died, I don’t think they would want me to suffer.
i) While I wish for no one I love to ever die; realistically, we all will die. This is something I can accept, disturb myself over, or pretend doesn’t happen until it actually does. I choose the former.
Philbert may then understand that, as one source states, “Unconditional life acceptance is accepting the fact that life doesn’t always work out the way we’d like it to, and that there is no reason why life must go the way we want it to.”
It isn’t that Philbert is letting go of Wilhelmina when choosing to suffer less; rather, ULA allows him to mourn in a more healthy/helpful manner. Therefore, when an irrational belief arises—one that may disrupt the B-C connection—Philbert may simply “Let It Go.”
My former rejection of unconditional acceptance was steeped in stubbornness and trauma. Understand that when I say “trauma,” I’m not speaking of the sensationalized “therapy-speak,” “post-truth era” psychobabble “social-media psychotherapy” or the “trend of trauma-ifying common behaviors.”
Not everything unpleasant is akin to trauma. Or, as one source states, “The word trauma has been subject to something we call concept creep. It’s when the original concept, let’s say, a different—much more watered down concept—has crept on to it and diluted the meaning of a word quite important, like trauma, like racism, like bigotry, like misogyny, like all the words that we…that we have, you know, out in the public sphere at the minute. And, umm, trauma is a very specific thing.”
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) incurred in my childhood, symptoms of which were aggravated in adulthood, and allowed me the privilege to disturb myself with compound irrational beliefs for years. The result was unhappiness, misplaced rage and aggression, bodily discomfort, and all manner of fuckery concerning my behavior.
It wasn’t until adolescence, when I was told how I shouldn’t have been abused, that I developed a victimhood narrative. This form of learned helplessness only served to fuel my highly emotive, irrational belief system about myself, others, and life.
I anticipate pushback to what I’m expressing. In my personal life, I’ve engaged in numerous discussions with people who choose to embrace infantilization in the form of tying one’s trauma to an identity and babying a traumatized person.
As well, I’m well aware of how many within the field of mental, emotional, behavioral, and social health—collectively, mental health—approach this matter. Some people choose a victim, survivor, or thriver identity in association with experienced trauma, and I support their ability to do so.
I’m also familiar with those who refuse to use the term PTSD, opting rather to call it “post-traumatic stress,” purportedly in the interest of “breaking the stigma” associated with the condition. I get it.
Nonetheless, in order to be a victim, survivor, or thriver, one needs to associate the thing to which the title is connected, thus remaining ensnared in attachment to trauma. Also, removing “disorder” from a collective of symptoms serves as little more than shift in terms, like referring to a cup as a “vessel.”
When thinking of trauma and the aversion of some people within the mental health field to call a spade a spade, I’m reminded of an interview during which Ellis stated, “I, for one, do not believe in rational thinking as an absolute good or certain solution to all possible problems. I fully admit that a rational approach to life is a value judgment rather than a scientific ‘fact,’ and that those who wish to be irrational are fully entitled to their value judgments.”
Personally, I once struggled with self-defeating narratives, grappled with the consequences of my irrational beliefs, and suffered the misery of my own creation. Keep in mind the Epictetian principle of the event or action not causing the disturbance, though it is how one reacts that matters.
Had I understood the concepts of USA, UOA, and ULA, I suspect the couple decades I spent wildin’ would’ve ended much sooner. Rather than walking around with the “Wild Out” chorus playing in my mind, I could’ve recited the chorus of “Accepted,” which states, “It’s ridiculous, people so quick to nitpick, and you have no choice but to accept it.”
Disturbing oneself into thinking an option other than unconditional acceptance will suffice may need reexamination. As such, I’m not a victim, survivor, thriver, PTS-inspired or infantilized helpless person who needs rescuing.
When a should, must, or ought statement related to past trauma arises, it’s simply time to “Let It Go.”
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—and you would like to know more about unconditional acceptance—I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, and hip hop head from the old school, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues 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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